Israel’s Caesar

Naomi Shepherd

  • Sharon: An Israeli Caesar by Uzi Benziman
    Robson, 276 pp, £12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 86051 434 X
  • Sands of Sorrow: Israel’s Journey from Independence by Milton Viorst
    Tauris, 328 pp, £16.50, September 1987, ISBN 1 85043 064 0

Ariel Sharon is both hero and bogeyman: brilliant military tactician and rogue general, master both of the pre-emptive strike and of the cover-up, populist leader and – in the eyes of liberal Israelis – perennial threat to Israel’s democracy. Uzi Benziman’s portrait is a commendable first attempt to evaluate the Sharon phenomenon. It is a journalist’s book – lively and readable, though sloppily translated and edited. The English edition, moreover, lacks the political glossary and the maps which are essential in a book which deals with the Middle East conflict. It has been subtitled ‘An Israeli Caesar’, and the nearest contemporary parallel would be Douglas MacArthur, the audacious general whose political ambitions had to be curbed by the American President – Truman. The proximity of Israel’s military leadership to the political hinterland, and a well-informed and critical press, have ensured that few of Sharon’s moves have been kept from the public for long. Why, then, despite his proven disregard for authority in the Army, and his belief that national security outweighs democratic procedures, has Sharon been allowed so loose a rein?

Today, despite the overwhelming failure of the Lebanon War, which took place during Sharon’s term of office as Minister of Defence, and the condemnation of his conduct at the time of the Phalangist massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, he remains a member of the coalition cabinet, and a potential candidate for the premiership, should Yitzhak Shamir stand down in 1988. According to some analysts, Labour has remained in the coalition with the right-wing Likud – an arrangement which paralyses any political initiative on the Palestinian question – solely in order to block Sharon’s advancement. Though consistently denied the job he most coveted – the role of Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army – Sharon was eventually given that of Minister of Defence. The man who made the appointment, Menahem Begin, had earlier warned, only half-jokingly, that were Sharon awarded the other position his first move would be to ring the government buildings with tanks. Control of the Army was withheld from Sharon the professional soldier, while his political ambitions were rewarded.

Despite the inevitable pre-eminence of the Army in Israeli life, it has no militarist tradition and no military caste; and the military is held not to intervene in politics. This is chiefly because Israel has only a small standing army, with a nucleus of new conscripts, and relies essentially on its reserve forces (most of the male population) in time of war. Since many ex-generals serve in the reserves, professional soldiers may often find themselves commanded by civilians. Despite the recent move to the right in Israel politics, moreover, the Army today enjoys nothing like the monolithic role it played in strategic planning during the formative years of the state. Since the Yom Kippur war, in particular, it has been exposed to constant criticism in the press and by judicial commissions of enquiry.

During the early years, when Ariel Sharon emerged as an outstanding professional soldier, politicians relied heavily on the military expertise of a handful of officers. At that time Israel depended for its survival on the daring and initiative of those in charge of a multilingual, ill-trained and barely cohesive army. The politicians, meanwhile, aware of the fragile international consensus supporting Israel’s existence, were fearful of every negative UN vote, and by no means certain of American backing.

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