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Israeli leader's life is a contradictory chronicle

Ariel Sharon A Life Gadi Bloom and Nir Hefez Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg Random House: 492 pp., $29.95

October 20, 2006|Marjorie Miller | Times Staff Writer

LIKE David Ben Gurion and Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ariel Sharon is one of the Big Men of the Middle East. For better and for worse, Sharon cast his formidable shadow over five decades of turbulent history, over almost every chapter of the epic of modern Israel. He fought in the country's war for independence in 1948 and in its Six Day War in 1967. In 1973, he led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal into Egypt in a decisive battle of the Yom Kippur War, earning the nickname "Arik, King of Israel." As defense minister in the 1980s, Sharon was reviled by many for taking the country into a war in Lebanon that led to Christian massacres of Palestinians and 20 years of occupation by Israeli troops. Early in his political life, he sent Jews to settle the West Bank and Gaza Strip lands that Israel captured from Jordan and Egypt in 1967, and at the end, months before he was immobilized by a stroke, he pulled many of them out again -- drawing and redrawing the map of Israel.

Personally, Sharon was the embodiment of the Zionist ideal. He was the offspring of pioneer immigrants, born in the rugged land that would become the state of Israel. He was the antithesis of diaspora intellectuals, a Jewish farmer who worked with his hands. He was a Jewish soldier -- a general -- and a Jewish prime minister of the Jewish state.

And Sharon was the quintessential Israeli sabra, a name taken from the native fruit that is rough on the outside and sweetly soft within. Sharon was gruff, competitive, determined to win almost at all costs. He had a checkered history with the truth. At the same time, he was a loving family man, dedicated to his circle of close friends whom he entertained with large meals at his home. He had a sense of humor and a weakness for falafel.

With such a story to tell, it is no wonder that "Ariel Sharon: A Life," by Israeli journalists Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom, runs almost 500 pages. The authors had a lot of ground to cover with this larger-than-life character who was at once public and inscrutable. Despite its heft, or perhaps because of it, I was eager to tuck into this biography. I have had a long fascination with Sharon, who took me on one of his map-studded tours of settlements when I was a journalist based in Israel in the 1990s and he was on the margins of power. Then, as now, I thought that Sharon was one of the most fascinating politicians of our time.

The book is interesting because Sharon is interesting, and it is a good summary of his life for the general reader. But it is a disappointment on several counts. Hefez and Bloom "pored over thousands of documents and interviewed hundreds of people," and the result is a detailed and reasonably balanced Israeli portrait. (There is no mistaking this for anything but an Israeli view of an Israeli leader. Palestinians and other Arabs will have to write their own versions of the Sharon story, for they do not appear in this one.) But the writing is uninspired, pedestrian at times, and the authors largely recount what is already known about Sharon and the history he helped shape. They do not reveal much about his thinking, or penetrate the mask that they call his poker face.

Here is their biggest sin: In their introduction, the authors say they did not speak with Sharon or his two sons, Gilad and Omri, "preferring to write from an unbiased perspective." I found this to be an absurd statement that made me distrust the authors before I had even started the body of the book. What journalist or biographer doesn't want to interview his subject? Did they think Sharon's power of personality so great that they could not resist his charms? Were they afraid his sons, embroiled in corruption scandals, would try to buy their loyalty? I suspect it is neither of those. As a journalist, I find the only reasonable explanation to be that they did not get access to Sharon, and did not want to admit it.

I wanted to hear more of Sharon's voice, as I wanted to hear more of the authors' voices -- they are clearly smart and seasoned reporters, but they are reluctant to make judgments. (They say he was unrivaled in military tactics, but was he as reckless and brutal as his detractors say, or as brave and heroic as his supporters believe?) Nor do they draw many conclusions, even about the questions they lay out at the start of the book: Will Sharon be remembered as the Israeli leader who took the bold step of uprooting Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, moving to finalize Israel's permanent borders and laying the groundwork for peace with the Palestinians? Or, will he be remembered as the man responsible for the Lebanon war, the demise of the settlement movement and the establishment of a Palestinian entity that serves as a hothouse for terrorism, an eternal enemy? They say analysts grapple with the question of how Sharon made the dramatic decision to disengage from Gaza and dismantle 25 settlements -- but do little more than present the arguments.

And yet, even these significant problems are not fatal flaws, simply because the subject of the book is Sharon. The authors chronicle a life that has been a study in contradictions and extremes. Sharon was surprisingly agile given his enormous girth. He inspired devotion and rage. He caused instability and death, restored calm and security. He climbed higher and fell further than most mortals -- and more often. And Sharon possessed a seemingly insatiable appetite for power, for food, for a place in history. What a life.

Marjorie Miller is foreign editor of The Times and was the paper's Jerusalem bureau chief from 1995 to 1998.

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