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Corridors of Power

Unsafe at any speed

By Uzi Benziman

Ha'aretz, 02/04/2001

1. Laurels and a mark of Cain

It is not only because of his advanced age that Ariel Sharon's biography is inextricably intertwined with the country's history. It is also because of what he did - for good and for bad.

From the time he was a 25-year-old soldier, Sharon has exercised an influence on Israel's relations with its neighbors and has thereby shaped the country's image in the eyes of the Arab leaders. It began at Kibya, in October 1953, when a retaliatory raid launched under his command, and which was supposed to cause only limited damage, ended with 69 Arabs dead - half of them women and children - and with a gross lie that the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was compelled to make from the Knesset rostrum in order to justify the calamitous consequences in the eyes of the international community.

It continued with a raid on an Egyptian army camp in Gaza, in February 1955, in which 38 Egyptian soldiers were killed and 44 wounded (eight soldiers of the Israeli raiding force were also killed). In the wake of that operation, the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, concluded that there was no possibility of reaching a peace agreement with Israel, and he translated his conclusion into practice: He turned to the Eastern Bloc and signed a major arms deal with Czechoslovakia.

Things reached a peak in the Lebanon War, when the entire world was witness to Sharon's pretension of changing the regime in Beirut and transferring hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Lebanon to Jordan in order to turn Jordan into the Palestinian state. Along the way, Sharon collected quite a few laurels as a brilliant field commander and leader in battle, and many soldiers were ready to follow him blindly.

At the same time, he was branded with the mark of Cain for exceeding orders, misleading his superiors, creating intrigues against senior officers who were his comrades-in-arms, and because his exploits had to be investigated by quasi-judicial bodies within the army and outside it.

The same pattern continued when he entered public life at the end of 1973. Along with highly significant political moves (establishing the Likud, for example), and governmental initiatives on which he left a clear personal imprint (establishing the settlements in the territories, for example), he has left a trail of censorious reports of commissions of inquiry and of the State Comptroller, as well as of trenchant opinions from his colleagues in the country's leadership.

As he gallops ahead toward the Prime Minister's Office, in the race he looks sure to win, Sharon has the reputation of being a person who, on the one hand, is blessed with captivating charisma, an ability to strike fear into people, a talent for charming his listeners, sober-eyed wiliness and the capability to get things done.

On the other hand, his moral approach and his attitude toward telling the truth are defective, his conception of foreign policy is appallingly simplistic, his approach to life and to problem-solving relies on the use of power, he suffers from paranoia, he trusts no one, and his experience has taught him that Israel, of all countries, is the land of endless opportunities, where even someone who has behaved like an Israeli Caesar continues to be considered a legitimate leader and can even be elected prime minister.

2. Contempt for state institutions

Sharon's formative experience was Operation Bin Nun in the War of Independence, when he was the commander of First Platoon, which was the spearhead of a force from the Alexandroni Brigade whose mission was to capture the police station at Latrun, west of Jerusalem. The young platoon commander (he was 20 in 1948) led his men with determination and daring, but they fell victim to poor planning by the senior command level and to lax performance by some of the force's officers.

Sharon found himself wounded in the midst of burning fields, his platoon scattered and abandoned, and having no choice but to order his men to run for their lives after the other brigade forces retreated shamefacedly. It was a terrible moment in which he experienced a feeling of helplessness and had to abandon wounded comrades. At the same time, he knew that the battle could have had a different outcome and that the failure was due to a breakdown at the senior command level.

The result was that in the years that followed, he developed a critical attitude toward the flaccid spirit of battle displayed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and toward the defeatist response of the government to provocations perpetrated by Israel's Arab neighbors. Gradually, his criticism assumed a form of contempt for the political and the senior military echelons (in part), and of operational daring that sought an outlet in reprisal raids he initiated which were frequently vetoed or reduced in scope by his superiors. Sharon would sit in the command office at Staph army base in Jerusalem and hold conversations with his superiors. The fighters of Unit 101 (the elite commando force he set up in 1953, which consisted of no more than 50 people and operated for five months) would gather around and listen to their commanding officer regale his commanding officers with impudence bordering on insubordination, and after he slammed down the receiver, he would let loose with a flood of imprecations against the IDF's high command and the government.

To Sharon, those at the top levels of the army and the government were a collection of nonentities who had no idea how to deal properly with Arab aggression. He believed that he knew the way to teach the Arabs a lesson they would never forget, and he was frustrated by the shackles that encumbered him. Often, he succeeded in making operations he commanded far broader in scope than what was originally planned by his superiors, and the outcome (even if it got him into trouble with clarification committees and commissions of inquiry) taught him that the General Staff and the government could be manipulated and made to face up to faits accomplis.

Sharon thus developed a feeling of contemptuous dismissal toward the state's institutions, and this was reflected later in his political career as well. After being elected to the Knesset on the Likud list in December 1973 (immediately after the Yom Kippur War), he turned out to be an MK who had no patience for the accepted pace of activity in the corridors of civilian government. He was a grumbling politician who quarreled with the leadership of the Liberal Party, of which he was a member, until Elimelech Rimalt, one of the party's chiefs, declared that "we will not be able to sit at the same table" with Sharon any longer.

Half a year after entering the Knesset, Sharon resigned from it when a way to return to the IDF opened up. However, his hope of being appointed chief of staff was soon dashed and he served as a corps commander in the reserves. In 1975, the new prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, named Sharon as his adviser. Sharon held the post for eight months before quitting, when he reached the conclusion that he was unable to wield sufficient influence on the shaping of security policy.

During his tenure as adviser, he submitted to Rabin a far-reaching plan to change the regime in Israel containing the following recommendations: direct elections for prime minister, management of the country by means of a small cabinet whose members would be selected personally by the prime minister, proclamation of a state of emergency, accelerated preparations to meet the possible outbreak of war, implementation of a comprehensive settlement policy.

These ideas were an accurate reflection of Sharon's impatience at the slow pace, obligated by compromises and party agreements, at which the state was run under a coalition regime. When he established the Shlomzion Party, a splinter group which he headed in the 1977 elections, he declared that if elected prime minister, he would begin by changing the political system. When it became obvious, ahead of the elections, that Shlomzion was not going to be a major player on the political scene, he made desperate efforts to join up with the Likud, but was rebuffed by its Liberal Party bloc, under Simcha Ehrlich.

As part of his efforts, Sharon published a proposal for the introduction of a new regime in Israel, containing the following points: establishment of an emergency government with a cabinet of no more than a dozen ministers, cuts in the state budget, mobilization of the Jewish people on an emergency footing to assist Israel in times of distress, and a ban on strikes.

No one has expressed Sharon's attitude toward the civilian government than Sharon himself. In his autobiography, he writes, "I saw the weaknesses of the governments in 1956, in 1967, in 1973 and in 1982. It is the same dynamic: weakness, loss of self-confidence, flawed determination."

3. Army buddies speak out

Following the election in 1977 of the first non-Labor government in Israel's history, led by Menachem Begin, Sharon was made a member of the government - Shlomzion merged with Begin's Herut Party - and was given the agriculture portfolio. It soon became obvious that, as a member of the country's leadership, Sharon was the same person his buddies in the army's high command had come to know.

Already in 1956, after the fiasco in the Mitleh Pass in Sinai, when 38 paratroopers were killed and 110 wounded (the Egyptians lost about 200 men), Sharon's comrades-in-arms berated him over his performance. In a review that he himself initiated, they leveled harsh accusations at him over his behavior as commander of the brigade, over his personal loyalties and, in particular, over his performance in the battle at the Mitleh (one complaint was that he had remained in the rear during the fighting instead of leading his troops into action).

The following years saw this pattern repeated. Following a lengthy freeze, he was finally promoted, becoming, in 1964, the chief of staff of Northern Command and afterward, receiving the rank of major general. His rise through the ranks did not placate him. He was an irascible member of the General Staff, and alongside his efficiency and originality, which his colleagues esteemed, he was considered an egotist who was incapable of conducting proper relations with his colleagues.

Despite the glory he acquired in the Six-Day War, thanks to his successful performance, he soon found himself, after the dust had settled, at loggerheads with the majority of the members of the General Staff. Seemingly, the dispute focused on the Bar-Lev Line (the network of outposts along the Suez Canal built as part of the conception of the chief of staff, Haim Bar-Lev), but it also involved personal grudges and competition over status.

The quarrels were sometimes reported in the press and soured the atmosphere within the high command. Things reached an unprecedented pass: At a meeting of the General Staff toward the end of 1969, Major General David Elazar (then head of Northern Command) got up and asserted that he was fed up with Sharon's criticism of the chief of staff and of others on the General Staff. Other generals, taking their cue from Elazar, then blasted Sharon for his uncollegial attitude, for his manipulative use of the press to further his own ends, for the acrimonious atmosphere he created in General Staff discussions, and for his habit of making offensive personal accusations.

It was impossible to work with him, the generals said, because he was a subverter, acted dishonestly, had a violent temperament, and constantly made threats. Sharon sat for a while listening to this tirade, but when more and more of those present asked for the floor, he stood up and asked whether the meeting of the General Staff had been transformed into "This Is Your Life" - and stalked out of the room. Only the commander of the Air Force, Major General Mordechai Hod, came out in Sharon's defense (after Sharon had left), stating emotionally that he could not accept a situation in which a General Staff meeting turned into an arena for launching attacks on one of its members.

The defense minister, Moshe Dayan, who presided over the meeting, announced that the discussion would continue without Sharon. The generals then went back to considering how to improve Israel's responses in the War of Attrition that was then raging along the Suez Canal. The chief of staff, who remained silent during the meeting, afterward canceled Sharon's appointment as head of the Training Branch and named Yitzhak Hofi to the post instead.

Sharon did not give up. He went to the prime minister, Golda Meir, to complain that Bar-Lev's decision had been totally arbitrary, but she declined to intervene. Sharon then intimated to Menachem Begin that he intended to leave the IDF and join his party. That possibility bothered Pinhas Sapir, the kingmaker in the Labor Alignment, and he persuaded Bar-Lev to keep Sharon in the army. Bar-Lev met with Sharon, the two ironed out their differences, and Sharon was soon afterward appointed head of Southern Command.

4. Dialogue of street gangs

Provocations against his colleagues and defiance of his superiors were the pattern of behavior Sharon showed in political life, too. From the first Begin government in 1977 until the Netanyahu government, which collapsed in 1999, Sharon was cantankerous and unrestrained in his criticism. In retrospect, he proved that he is incapable of teamwork, cannot take substantive criticism, is uninhibited in his decisions to realize his plans, and reacts wildly and like a paranoid when he feels hurt.

Sharon's behavior in the first Begin government was totally unbridled. The first target of his attacks was Ezer Weizman, the defense minister, whom he wanted to force out in order to succeed him. Throughout the entire period of negotiations with Egypt on the peace treaty, Sharon accused Weizman of jeopardizing Israel's security interests and bitterly assailed him in cabinet meetings. Nor did Sharon spare Begin in his assaults.

After Weizman's resignation as defense minister (following the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt), Sharon accused Begin of forsaking the state's security by taking the defense portfolio himself, instead of entrusting it to Sharon. He said of other ministers that they were victims of human failings, and were being exploited by Egyptian Intelligence that sought to induce them to sign a peace treaty at any price. (During a previous period, he said that the foreign minister, Abba Eban, was an American spy.)

He frequently clashed with ministers from the Likud and the Democratic Movement for Change, engaging in truly vicious exchanges. Cabinet ministers accused him of sabotaging the peace negotiations or of intemperate language, while he retorted that they were "spilling his blood" and slandering him.

The press at the time was filled with violent quotes from cabinet meetings, which lent the public discourse the character of a collision between street gangs. ("The agriculture minister is malicious, the father of the spillers of blood, and a victim of paranoia," minister Gideon Patt said of Sharon; "Mr. Deputy, I will strip you naked on the cabinet table," Sharon lashed out at the deputy prime minister, Yigael Yadin.)

The possibility that Begin would appoint Moshe Arens defense minister drove Sharon to new heights of vituperative language. At a cabinet meeting on June 1, 1980, he said that the appointment of a defense minister was not the political equivalent of payment of a prostitute. Begin was outraged. In the exchange that ensued, Sharon said that security was above the constitution, driving Yigael Yadin to exclaim, "Never!" (On another occasion, Sharon described his hierarchy of loyalties as follows: to his soldiers, to the state - sometimes vice versa - and only afterward, to orders and directives.)

In another meeting, he observed that there are some ministers whose knowledge of security is more authoritative than that of others, and therefore they should be taken into account even if they were the minority in a vote. On August 10, 1980, Yadin moved that the cabinet reject vehemently the statements made by the agriculture minister about the prime minister, and demand that he apologize. Sharon spared himself the shame by apologizing.

Two years later, the cabinet took another decision concerning Sharon, far more serious, which was also the result of his attitude toward the ministers: On August 12, 1982, the cabinet decided to strip Sharon of his authority to activate the air force without the authorization of the prime minister.

That decision came after the cabinet discovered that Sharon had ordered the air force to bomb Beirut relentlessly. By issuing that order, Sharon, the ministers maintained, had bypassed the resolutions and intentions of the government. Begin added a further guideline to the resolution: The prime minister's authorization would also be necessary before the navy or the artillery corps was sent into action.

Sharon also proved a nuisance to Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, the "rotating" prime ministers of the national unity government in the 1980s, and to Benjamin Netanyahu. Shamir stated that there was no limit to Sharon's unexpected actions; Peres said it was impossible to countenance his attacks on other cabinet ministers, and Netanyahu accused him of trying to undermine him and succeed him.

5. 'Strike hard at the Arabs'

From his childhood Sharon learned that the Arabs must be seen as an enemy, and was educated to defend himself against them. The residents of Sharon's native village, Kfar Malal, near Kfar Sava, were occasionally attacked by their Arab neighbors, and like almost every lad in the pre-state Yishuv, Sharon followed a track that led to the Gadna (Youth Corps) and the Haganah (the underground defense force that was the precursor of the IDF).

The perception of the Arabs as a target which had to be approached on the basis of the rule, "Strike first at those who would kill you," thus was part of Sharon's upbringing from the time he could think for himself, from the time he developed an instinct for self-preservation, and from the time his parents imbued him with a love of the state and readiness to sacrifice himself to ensure its independence. Like every soldier and officer in battle, Sharon saw the Arabs as targets to be annihilated.

In contrast to some fighters, though, his conception of the definition of "enemy" was sweeping in scope. For example, ahead of the raid carried out by Unit 101 on the El Bourj refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1953, one of the soldiers, Shmuel Falah, said he was opposed to the operational plan because it was intended to kill civilians in the camp. Sharon did not respond to this but offered Falah the secondary role of blowing up the home of an Egyptian commander who lived near the refugee camp. The raid was carried out as planned and the outcome, accordingly, was that 15 residents of the camp were killed, including women and children.

When the unit met for a debriefing, some of the men voiced critical comments in the spirit of Falah's objection: "Is this the enemy? A few hundred wretched refugees, including women and children?" Sharon had no regrets: "The women are the whores of the Arab infiltrators who attack civilians in our country. If we don't operate against the refugee camp, it will become a nest of murderers."

It is with this simplistic worldview that Sharon has proceeded until the present juncture of his career. Not only did many of the military operations that he commanded end in heavy losses to the enemy - sometimes without distinction between soldiers and civilians - but as a cabinet minister, too, he was consistent in rejecting moves toward peace because he continued to view the Arabs as enemies, or at least as hostile forces whose signature could not be trusted.

That was his approach in the negotiations with Egypt and with Jordan, and it explains his current attitude toward the Palestinians. Every so often, he would also give expression to the idea of transferring Israel's Arab population, which is apparently part of his conception of the Arab world as a permanent threat to Israel's existence. In his autobiography, he gives expression to his racist perception of Arabs as such: "The Arabs are good fighters but squares ... They have to be dealt a powerful blow to eradicate their desire to fight"; "Sadat and his people were in their own eyes more than just Arabs."

This is the conceptual world Sharon is poised to bring next week to the Prime Minister's Bureau

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