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.

Sharon was from the outset a maverick, in perpetual dispute with his superiors, a swashbuckling officer who allowed his own men unparalleled licence. He had learned his first lesson, as Benziman points out, during the disastrous Latrun campaign in the War of Independence, when the brigade he led was forced to retreat, leaving the wounded to their fate in the burning fields. Sharon subsequently rose to prominence as head of the notorious ‘101’ unit which carried out reprisals for every border crossing – whether by fedayeen or Arab civilians. On several occasions, according to Benziman, he gave orders for attacks on civilians. He encouraged individual acts of revenge for Israeli civilian deaths resulting from foolhardy excursions into enemy territory, and several times provoked Jordanian and Egyptian forces to encounters which quickly escalated into international incidents. At this time, the Israeli inner cabinet, which had adopted the reprisal raid as its main defence strategy, was carefully planning each raid, including estimates of both Israel’s probable losses and those of the enemy. As head, first of the 101 unit, and later of the paratroop brigade to which the unit was attached, Sharon consistently exceeded his instructions. During the Kibye raid of 1953, Ben Gurion covered for him because of his own involvement in the planning process. But after the Gaza raid of 1955, Moshe Sharett, the then Foreign Minister, noted in his diary that, when denied action, the paratrooper force was likely to become a threat to civil government.

Nevertheless, both the Army and the political leadership encouraged Sharon’s initiative, just as they did the absorption of other talented officers into the General Staff. Ben Gurion had always been aware of the danger of soldiers forming politically-separate units. It was for this reason that he outlawed the right-wing underground Etzel and Lehi movements and confiscated their arms, while also disbanding the crack Palmach commando force, identified with the Labour movement, after the War of Independence. Yet he, like other political leaders, recognised that in Israel’s early years the Army had become the career of the young Israeli élite – among them, Yigael Allon, Yigael Yadin and Moshe Dayan. These men, and others, were to play an important part in Israeli politics from the Sixties onwards. During Dayan’s term as Chief of Staff, he established the principle of early retirement from the standing army, thus ensuring that the military command remained flexible and open to new ideas, and that men with leadership potential, in their prime, were continually released into civilian life – not only politics but the universities and the national industries and business. The unfortunate aspect of this was that all the political parties were henceforth to compete for the services of ex-generals. While most of these were once identified with Labour, ex-generals in politics are evenly divided today between both ends of the political spectrum – with Raphael Eitan (Raful) on the extreme right and Matti Peled on the extreme left. While Sharon originally belonged to the Labour youth movement, as the son of co-operative farmers, the danger that he might prove an electoral asset to other parties was swiftly recognised by Labour leaders.

When Sharon’s retirement from the Army was planned by his opponents on the General Staff in 1968, it was Pinhas Sapir, Labour’s kingmaker, who intervened and ensured that Sharon was kept out of trouble in the Army, where he was given the Southern Command. Henceforth it was clear that Sharon would exploit his potential influence in political circles to further his career in the Army, just as he exploited his prestige as a soldier to further his political ambitions.

It was at the time of the Sinai campaign that the negative side of Sharon’s military talents became apparent to the General Staff. Sharon was ordered south with his paratroop brigade to hold one entrance of the Mitla Pass in the Sinai desert. What Sharon did not know was that this was a diversionary tactic, intended to set the stage for the intervention of Britain and France. Denied a more active part in the battle, and in defiance of explicit orders from Dayan (then Chief of Staff), Sharon sent his men into the Mitla Pass under the pretence of rescuing a reconnaissance patrol. Ambushed by the Egyptians, the Israelis suffered heavy losses, though they eventually gained control of the pass. Sharon remained safely in the rear, organising the evacuation.

He regained his reputation at the time of the Six Day War, when he served as a major-general on the General Staff. His boldness and confidence contrasted strongly with the behaviour not only of political leaders like Levi Eshkol but of Army bureaucrats like Yitzhak Rabin, then Chief of Staff. As commander of one of three divisions deployed along the Egyptian border, he did well at the battle of Abu Aguilah, where, with a combined force of paratroopers, armour and infantry, he gained control of the central axis of Sinai, thus setting the stage for the penetration of the south and for Israel’s conquest of the Suez Canal.

This conquest was to reveal an incompatibility between Israel’s political and military interests. The construction of the Bar Lev line – a Maginot line along the canal – was static and defensive, in accordance with Labour’s political and strategic aims. But it was opposed by many members of the General Staff, including Sharon, and Israel’s leading tactician in tank warfare, Tal, who wanted a more mobile system of defence. From the military point of view, their approach was correct, but the Government feared that, should the Egyptians attack an undefended east bank of the canal, Israel would have no political excuse for a counter-attack. This policy might have been justified in the long run, had Israel taken the initiative in negotiations – as Dayan at one juncture proposed. But Golda Meir’s intransigence led straight to the debacle of the 1973 war, and the bolstering of Sharon’s prestige.

Sharon’s famous crossing of the canal in 1973, accompanied by a public-relations campaign run by hand-picked reporters, established him, both in Israel and beyond, though erroneously – an error repeated in Milton Viorst’s book – as the man who had saved Israel’s military reputation almost single-handed. It also marked a high point in Israel’s internal war of the generals, during which Sharon challenged and insulted virtually the whole of the top echelon of the Israeli Army. His open disloyalty, and the political use he made of strategic disagreements with his colleagues, led to his removal – temporarily, as it turned out – from the Army, and put an end to his chances of becoming Chief of Staff. They were to prove less of a disadvantage in his subsequent political career.

Sharon had no fixed allegiances. Blaming Labour politics for his lack of advancement, he was taken up by the Liberals, who were notably short of generals. But his combative personality, as well as the absence of any real ideological commitment, meant that his first steps in politics were unsuccessful. When he headed his own party, Shlomzion, during the 1977 elections – the time of Israel’s swing to the right – he won only two of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Finally, after flirtations with various groups from all parts of the Knesset, he passed to Begin’s right-wing Herut Party, which promised him a seat in the Cabinet and the prospect of becoming Minister of Defence – in which capacity he would be in a position senior to the current Chief of Staff.

Sharon handled the Likud’s campaign at the elections of 1981 – a campaign unprecedented for the brutality and extremism of its style. He kept Begin under pressure to appoint him Defence Minister, a post which finally enabled him to act out his megalomaniac fantasy: a grand design for the Middle East, in which he would, so he thought, destroy the PLO, win Christian allies for Israel in Lebanon, draw the Syrians into a confrontation with superior Israeli forces, and turn Hussein out of Jordan to make way for a Palestinian state. It is notable that Sharon is virtually the only Israeli leader with a clear ‘solution’ to the Palestinian problem. Today he argues that Israeli Arabs should be ordered to serve in the Army. If they refuse, they might be offered the ‘alternative’ of residence in Jordan.

The disasters of the Lebanon War have been laid, by Sharon’s opponents, entirely at his door. However, the contingency plan for the destruction of PLO bases in the south had been prepared long before by the General Staff; and the Labour opposition (along with the Likud) was drawn by Sharon’s bluster into the mistake of thinking that the Palestinian political movement could be destroyed by military action, even as it was tricked by the Likud leadership into believing that the war of 1982 would be limited, as in the contingency plan, to the 40-kilometre strip bordering on Israel’s northern frontier. While Sharon’s rivals in the Likud insist that Begin himself was further deceived by Sharon over his provocation of the Syrians on the Beirut-Damascus road, Sharon has lately argued that all his moves were authorised by Begin – and Begin remains silent, though his son protests that he was the victim of Sharon. The true facts have not yet emerged. Nevertheless, as Benziman skilfully shows, Sharon’s past record involved the systematic extension of planned actions, followed by equally systematic prevarication with his colleagues. Sharon had always presented his superiors with the alternative of escalation or defeat. In the case of the Lebanon war, he offered them both.

Political analysts continue to argue that the ‘citizen army’ ethos is sufficient guarantee of stability against any unscrupulous general turned politician. The constitutional safeguards are weak: a hundred days must elapse between government employees (including Army officers) leaving public service and standing for election – but this does not apply to the appointment of cabinet ministers. A Knesset member with a rank above that of colonel cannot hold an active commission in the Army – a device which held Sharon up only very briefly during his passage from the Army to politics. Beneath such technical safeguards lies the deeper question of whether Israel’s history has not justified the belief that political problems can be solved, or put on hold, by military action, and the difficulty of weaning the leadership of the country from this belief. Sharon constitutes a political, not a military, threat to sane policies: he might still be ‘democratically’ elected to leadership by Herut’s unpredictable central committee. The real key to a constructive policy on the Palestinian issue is not, as Milton Viorst contends, a diminution of Israel’s dependence on America – important though that is – but a satisfactory resolution of what to many Israelis appear to be the conflicting claims of ‘national security’ and political moderation.