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The one and only Sharon

By David Pryce-Jones

Ariel Sharon was the man other Israelis always relied on to do the heavy work, which they knew might well turn into dirty work. A minority admired him without reserve for his daring and ability. The majority were usually critical and dismissive. They were sophisticated, were they not, cool, go-getters, part of the Ph.D. crowd homing in on the American campus, people with universal values superior to crude nationalism, and in their view Israelis and Palestinians had only to sit down together and the brotherhood of man would spring up of its own accord.

Sharon the soldier: Every inch the commander in the field

Sharon knew otherwise in his bones. Born in British-mandated Palestine, he grew up at a distance from Hitler and Stalin, but every Jew of his generation felt the fear of genocide. Subsequent generations took it for granted that nothing of the kind would ever happen again. That, surely, was the justification for the state of Israel.But the Arabs persisted in picking up and repeating the old European litany of massacre and extermination. Throughout Sharon’s life, these Arabs kept on trying to put their threats into practice. Sometimes they invaded in massive strength, sometimes they infiltrated as fedayeen (guerrillas), pioneers of air piracy, and suicide bombers, deliberately out to murder women and children. In this total form of warfare no holds are barred, and what might be called the Queensberry rules governing human conduct are alien to everything in the whole political and cultural system. It was Sharon’s insight that the Arabs could only be met on their own terms, and that meant answering force with superior force, dispensing with Queensberry rules when necessary.

So he smashed up fedayeen bases and then Arab armies to the point where they could no longer wage war, on occasion disobeying orders to stop. So he drove Yasser Arafat and the PLO out of Beirut into exile in Tunis. So he put down the first intifada by bulldozing passages to enable patrols to pass right through refugee camps in Gaza. So he encouraged Israelis to settle on the West Bank and in Gaza. Hamas is another of the organisations whose policy is to finish Israel off once and for all, and so he approved of the killing of its leaders and activists before they themselves could kill more.

Other generals, for instance Moshe Dayan or Yitzhak Rabin, were more famous, perhaps more appealing. But rumour and report had it that at moments of crisis in the course of campaigns, both of them had lost their nerve, cracked, babbled of defeat. Sharon had no nerves to lose, he believed in his ability, he was The Cat That Walked By Itself, to borrow from Kipling. A blunt man, he had a way of staring hard and hostilely at anyone who asked him to explain why he was acting outside the Queensberry rules like the Arabs. He was easy to criticise, but when the going got rough, even the cool and sophisticated majority were relieved in their hearts that Sharon was there to do what had to be done. Their view of the world collided with his; they couldn’t love him, indeed they demonstrated loudly against him, but they needed him to save them and allow them to continue in their own sweet way. Their resentment of this awkward bind went hand in hand with their need for his authority.

As a correspondent, I caught up with him during the Six Day War of 1967. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian president, had mobilised his and other Arab armies, and he had Soviet support. The Arab masses were eagerly anticipating the massacring of the Jews, so often promised. Burnt-out and twisted piles of Soviet tanks and transporters and trucks sign-posted Sharon’s path through the centre of the Sinai desert.

In the Yom Kippur War six years later, I was again a war correspondent - in the Sinai, this time at the Suez Canal, within range of the Egyptian Third Army. I watched Israeli engineers throwing a pontoon bridge over the canal. Tanks then appeared in swirls of sand, to roar across the shuddering planks of the bridge. And there sitting half out of an open turret, in defiance of possible Egyptian snipers, was Sharon, every inch the commander in the field, with a white scarf and bare-headed, debonair as though at a sporting event. Twenty-four hours later, Sharon’s forces had encircled the Egyptian Third Army and were in a position to occupy Cairo. The manoeuvre is taught in staff colleges.

In the aftermath, Sharon hoped to be promoted to chief of staff, was disappointed, and entered politics. In that arena, he formed a splinter party and negotiated his way into ministerial positions in government. More than controversial, he became thoroughly unpopular, except with the relative few who saw things the way he did. He did not start the policy of building Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights, on the West Bank, or in the Gaza Strip, but he rammed it ahead as energetically as he could, becoming uncrowned king of the settlers and their movement.

At the time of the invasion of Lebanon, Sharon was minister of defence. The purpose was to prevent further PLO attacks on Israel, but a tangled civil and sectarian war was also in progress. Syria had already invaded Lebanon, and was to stay until 2005. Iran had set up the Hezbollah terror organisation there, and there were militias variously sponsored by Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and the PLO. What nobody had foreseen was that the Christian Phalangists would seek revenge for their losses at the hands of the PLO by murdering Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. American forces had similarly not expected Sunnis to take revenge for their losses by murdering Shi’ites in Iraq today.

The storm that broke over him was as fierce as it was uncomprehending. He was held "morally responsible" for Sabra and Shatilla. In the media everywhere, he became one of the world’s major hate figures, commonly labeled a war criminal, a butcher, another Hitler, no less. He must have cared but didn’t show it. Realistically and tragically, the invasion of Lebanon was outside Queensberry rules because the Arab political system is strong enough to exclude all other possible responses.

Is Sharon Israel’s De Gaulle?

When the Oslo Accords broke down, and Yasser Arafat returned from Camp David in order to start another round of unrestrained violence, the Israeli electorate turned to Sharon. The cool and liberal sophisticates had been proved wrong, and he was right after all. The intifada also had to be dealt with outside Queensberry rules, and he was the only man to do it. And so he did: He broke terror.After which, something quite unpredictable happened. To judge by the past, Sharon had never seen anything positive on the Palestinian side, and he might have been expected to increase settlements and raise the stakes higher still, in order to deter those who cherished this repetitive habit of attacking Israel. In an amazing evolution, he was now accepting that they would live alongside Israel in a state of their own - to be sure, on the far side of a security barrier. The Palestinians, then, were to receive from him the state they had not been able to put in place for themselves. With high drama, he pulled out of Gaza the very settlers whom he had encouraged to live there; he alienated the minority faithful to him; and appealed to the cool majority that had so loved to hate him to join him in a new party, to be called Kadima.

The French in their day had done something similar in Algeria. Acting with a brutality far outside Queensberry rules, they had militarily defeated the Algerian nationalist movement. General de Gaulle was elected to protect the settlers. Solemnly he declared to the French people that he understood them - the French, the settlers, everybody. In fact, in his own mind he had already decided that history was against him, that France could not protect its settlers in the long run, and that they had to withdraw from Algeria. Independent Algeria might be a horror, but at least it would be one of the Algerians’ own making.

Now that Sharon has departed the scene, it will probably never be known how he would have handled evacuation from the West Bank, a perilous measure in the best of times. Now, Hamas has outperformed the PLO’s Fatah in legislative elections. The birth of the Palestinian state is difficult enough, but Hamas’ success could abort it. Whether in the hands of the PLO or Hamas, an independent Palestine looks set to become another lawless horror, but at least Israel will not be responsible for it. Sharon would also have been the man to deal with the menace of Iran, the latest in the long line of regimes to exult in the prospective genocide of Israelis, and Jews.The moral of the story, though, is clear. People and nations must do what they have to in order to confront and survive aggression. The test of civilisation is victory, for this means everything implied by the concept of Queensberry rules, that is to say the immediate return to natural justice, law and order, and in best cases democracy. It takes a great man, a de Gaulle or a Sharon, to understand that and act on it.

David Pryce-Jones is a British journalist and author. Among his many books is the widely cited text on the Middle East, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. © National Review (www.nationalreview.com), reprinted by permission, all Rights Reserved.

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