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How Sharon won Israel's trust

In a curious metamorphosis, the brutal warrior became the one leader most Israelis would follow with their eyes closed.

January 06, 2006|David Grossman | Israeli novelist DAVID GROSSMAN is the author of "Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). This article was translated by Haim Watzman.

ARIEL SHARON is fighting for his life. He's a man of potent primal urges, of violence, of combat, cunning and brilliant, a sharp manipulator, brave and corrupt. He has swung like a mighty pendulum between construction and destruction, and blatantly ignored limits, whether international boundaries or the boundaries of the law. Clearly, he has seen himself as a man destined to make history, not one who yields to circumstances.

Time after time, he instigated large-scale political and military maneuvers meant to change the world utterly, to make it fit his own vision. And he always did so with determination, sometimes with brutality, without regard for what means he used to achieve his ends.

Even his sworn opponents are concerned today, as Sharon lies in a hospital bed. They hope, of course, that he will recover from his illness. But they also are worried about the huge vacuum that has suddenly opened in the Israeli leadership.

Because Sharon, in an amazingly short time, has metamorphosed from being one of the men most hated and feared by most Israelis into a respected leader, accepted and even much loved by his people. He has become a kind of big, powerful father figure whom Israelis are willing to follow, with their eyes closed, to wherever he may lead them. Their faith in him is so great that they do not even demand that he tell them which direction he plans to go, or what his foreign policy will be, or what state of affairs he intends to create for them.

Not a man, not even the government ministers closest to him, knew Wednesday night -- less than 90 days before the upcoming elections -- whether Sharon intended, after his reelection, to commence peace negotiations with the Palestinians or to conduct another large, unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank. Suspending their right to know, Israelis have preferred to put their future in Sharon's hands, to put aside their personal judgment and their right to information and to criticize their country's policies.

With the huge swell of support that the public has given Sharon's new political party, the Israeli majority has said to Sharon: "We trust you to do the right thing, and we don't even want to know the details."

Here are a few events and statements about Sharon that have been etched in the Israeli consciousness. They offer one possible portrayal (just one, because his personality is complex enough to allow several).

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's mythological first prime minister, said in the 1950s of the young, bold and brilliant officer: "If he could overcome his bad habit of not telling the truth, he could be an exemplary military leader." Menachem Begin, prime minister in the 1980s, said: "Sharon is liable to surround the prime minister's office with tanks."

In the 1950s, when he wielded no little influence on the Israeli army's way of thinking and carrying out its missions, he was an officer in the elite Unit 101. Then he was known for his violent, brutal and extreme treatment of Arabs, both combatants and innocent civilians. His commanders, such as Moshe Dayan, warned him about his disdain for human life, including the lives of his own soldiers. Time after time, his advancement in the military hierarchy was blocked because of reservations and severe criticism of his behavior by his superior officers.

IN 1972, as general of the southern command, he conducted a campaign to expel Palestinians from Gaza in order to make room for Israeli settlements. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were cruelly, violently displaced. Their homes were destroyed and their wells filled in. That was the beginning of Sharon's career as the architect and contractor of Israel's settlement enterprise.

It is difficult to imagine how the hundreds of flourishing Israeli settlements in the occupied territories could have been built without his determination, his questionable methods and his ideological fervor. As a politician, he built more and more, making sure to locate them so that they would sever Arab population centers one from the other, and serve as obstacles to any accommodation with the Palestinians.

After the 1973 war (in which he commanded the division that crossed the Suez Canal), Sharon entered politics. As a member of the Knesset and as a cabinet minister, he opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, virulently opposed the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, even opposed the peace treaty with Jordan. In 1982, when he served as minister of defense, he took advantage of the confidence of his prime minister, Begin, and entangled Israel in the Lebanon war. Thousands died on both sides, and the Israel Defense Forces spent the next 18 years deep in the Lebanese mire.

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