Shaper of modern Israel: Sharon the warrior

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 16-Aug-04 | Author: James Bennet| Source: The New York Times

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (R) sits next to his deputy Ehud Olmert during their weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, August 15, 2004.
At the point where the twisting road from Jerusalem leaves the hills and straightens out on Israel's coastal plain, you turn south at Latrun junction for the drive to Ariel Sharon's ranch. On a rise to your left, set in olive groves, is the red-roofed Trappist monastery of Latrun.

Sharon nearly died here. As a 20-year-old platoon leader, he joined in an ill-planned assault to take the hill and open the road to Jerusalem during the Arab-Israel war of 1948. He was shot in the stomach and thigh. His radio was destroyed, and he did not hear the order to withdraw. It was only when he saw Arab soldiers on the hills behind him that he realized he and his remaining men had been left behind, alone.

It was not so long ago that Sharon and his memories were the stuff of history and hysterical opposition to everything that seemed hopeful - to the Oslo peace process, to the negotiations that brought Palestinians to the verge of statehood and Israelis to the verge of the safe, welcomed society they dreamed of.

When the Palestinian uprising brought his view of reality back into fashion, Sharon was ready. It was his chance to further, if not finish, the job he began after Latrun: defining Israel's boundaries and its very identity.

It may be that nations need illusions to make peace. It may be, indeed, that illusions are among the most precious things we have. But Sharon does not believe a Jewish state can afford them. Today, his story has become Israel's story, and today's Israel - with its won't-be-fooled-again attitude about any warm peace with Arabs - is Sharon's Israel.

Now 76, Sharon can plausibly lay claim to having shaped his state's geographic and moral terrain and international image - for better or for worse - more than any other Israeli leader since David Ben-Gurion.

There is no single American figure to compare him with. He is Andrew Jackson, George Patton, Robert Moses.

In the 1950s, Sharon trained and led the commandos who established Israel's reputation for ruthless reprisals; in 1967, he won one of the most sensational battles of the Six-Day War; and in 1973, he envisioned and led the crossing of the Suez Canal that helped end Israel's war with Egypt and Syria. He created, in 1973, the rightist Likud Party that he now leads, which broke Labor's grip on Israel's governments; he led Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which formed and scarred a generation; he masterminded Israel's settlement movement, systematically planting enclaves of Jews among the Palestinians of the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Now, as prime minister, he is building a barrier against West Bank Palestinians that is the single biggest change in the land since the Six-Day War. And he is trying to tear down some of the Israeli settlements he built in Gaza and the West Bank - something no Israeli prime minister has ever done. He is not doing this because he sees a path to imminent peace. Capitalizing on a White House that has chosen to view the world much as he does, he is trying to gird Israel for a conflict - not merely with the Palestinians - whose end he cannot foresee.

I asked him if he thought Israel's war of independence had ever ended. Sharon noted that, unlike the situation in 1948, Israel now has peace agreements with two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. "But these are agreements between leaders," he said. "There is no peace between nations or peoples. And the main problem is that the Arabs are not ready yet - I don't know if it will be in the future, I don't know - but they are not ready to recognize the birthright of the Jewish people to have an independent Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people." His voice rose as he delivered that last thought.

"On this issue," he said, "I don't see yet any change whatsoever."

As much or more than his predecessors, Sharon shucked the traditions of the Jewish Diaspora to develop a new Jewish warrior culture. In place of fear and the ghettos of Europe, he worked to substitute military power and an almost mythic territorial ambition.

In place of religion and the prayerful dream of Jerusalem, he posited ethnic pride and possession of the land.

Sharon is not a religious man. Outside of his own experiences, his points of reference tend to be biblical, but their applications are territorial and tribal rather than spiritual.

When I asked what it meant to him to live as a Jew, he spoke not about God but about history and place names: Jerusalem, Hebron, Mount Tabor - names from the Bible still used for the same places today.

"It's an unbelievable story," he said. "Because I think all of those old nations that were then, disappeared. Don't exist anymore. The Jews exist."

Sharon's ranch is said to be the largest in Israel, but the house itself is a simple, homey affair. To be in Sharon's home is to be reminded - not unintentionally - that this most polarizing of world figures, this cartoon of Jewish strength or Jewish cruelty, is, after all, a person, a work of depth and complexity, satisfactions and sorrows, maybe more than his share.

Sharon's first wife, Gali, died in a car crash in 1962. Five years later, just after the Six-Day War, their 10-year-old son, Gur, was accidentally killed. He was playing with an antique shotgun that a friend had brought Sharon from the newly occupied West Bank. No one knew it was loaded. Sharon heard the shot and found the boy, who died in his arms.

By then, Sharon had married his first wife's sister, Lily, and had two more sons. Lily Sharon died of cancer in March 2000, before Sharon was elected prime minister.

Now Sharon was preparing to meet the next day with his old ally Shimon Peres, the inevitable, indefatigable Labor Party leader, for talks about forming a new coalition government. His rightist coalition was cracking under the strain of his disengagement plan.

Far-right ministers who hoped Sharon was bluffing or who thought they could restrain him were realizing he would not be stopped, and they were starting to bolt.

Sharon was looking to form at least a temporary coalition government anchored by Likud, Labor and Shinui, the centrist, antireligious party led by the 72-year-old Tommy Lapid. It would be a government of old lions - Peres turned 81 on Sunday - members of the generation that founded the state making a last attempt to secure it.

But Sharon does not expect that coalition to last.

A bloc of Likud, a party that officially opposes any Palestinian state, is in growing revolt. His aides say he expects to have to go to elections in the next year, before he can embark on his plan and begin uprooting the Israeli settlements in Gaza.

Even if he fails in his plan or falls from office, Sharon has already taken a sledgehammer to a cornerstone rationale of the settlement movement. The father of the settlements has declared that remaining in Gaza weakens Israel.

Now he is contemplating nothing less than an Israeli political realignment, one that would give political expression to the chastening of both the left and the right: It would accept the possibility of some limited form of Palestinian state but also the improbability of any peace with the Palestinians.

Sharon admired, but never shared, the religious, totalizing zeal of the settlers he dispatched to the West Bank and Gaza. He seized on these zealots because he saw that the pioneering, secular Zionist tradition that had brought his own parents to settle the land of Israel was fading. Now he is quite willing to disappoint some of these religious settlers to hold onto the land he really cares about.

The why of it - the reason Sharon is taking these personal and political chances - is a mystery only to those who have not bothered to listen to him. He is quite clear about his reasons.

Sharon says he does not believe any partner for peace exists. But he feared that if Israel was not moving on its own by pulling back from Gaza, the world would impose its own solution.

Sharon also understood, but did not mention to me, the political reality: Israelis might not believe they could negotiate a peace, but they also did not want their children to continue dying to protect a few settlers in Gaza.

Last, and crucially, Sharon glimpsed an opportunity: to perpetuate Israel's hold on the parts of the West Bank that mean the most to him.

As he told the newspaper Haaretz in early April, he saw a chance to "do the things I want and to get an American commitment." Sharon did not want to negotiate concessions from the Palestinians. He wanted concessions from the Americans, in the form of a reversal of decades of policy in the Middle East.

In exchange for Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan and evidence of some movement in the Middle East, President George W. Bush promised that in any eventual peace deal Israel would be able to keep its large West Bank settlement blocks, like Ariel and its satellites. He also said that the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war, and their descendants, would never be able to live in what is now Israel.

Sharon does want a peace agreement. But he wants the agreement that he wants - a so-called long-term interim agreement. It is a kind of standstill arrangement. He wants the two sides to go to separate corners, cool off over many years and only then begin talking about the big issues, like Jerusalem.

No credible Palestinian leader could agree to such a deferral of the Palestinian national dream. But Sharon may have picked his historical moment well enough, and maneuvered his allies and enemies skillfully enough, to impose it.