Biography offers compelling look at life of Israeli soldier-statesman Ariel Sharon

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

David Landau, a former editor of the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, admits that he is no fan of Ariel Sharon, but in his comprehensive and exhaustive biography “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon”, Landau has written an extremely important and well-researched biography of a man many consider to be Israel’s greatest military leader and political statesman.

Sharon played a major role in the life of Israel from its beginning in 1948 until the onset of the 21st century.  There are relatively few who would claim to be neutral about this distinguished but controversial soldier-statesman.  His supporters fervently believe that as a general, cabinet member, and eventually as prime minister, he accomplished much to ensure Israel’s survival.  His detractors argue that Sharon was a Machiavellian figure who approached both politics and warfare in a ruthless manner.

Landau discusses in great detail Sharon’s military career as he joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after the creation of the State of Israel, rising to the rank of major general.  Sharon went on to play major roles in the 1956 Suez War, the Six- Day War of 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  

As defense minister in 1973, Sharon oversaw the contentious and bloody invasion of Lebanon and bore “personal responsibility” for the massacres of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese militia. 

For the next 30 years, while serving in numerous government positions, Sharon called for the spread of settlements into Gaza, the Golan Heights and parts of the Sinai Peninsula.  Yet, when he became Prime Minister, Sharon radically changed his policies and promoted unilateral disengagement from 21 settlements in Gaza and four on the West Bank.  In a surprise move, he also promised that he would no longer establish new settlements, claiming that his disengagement policy would bring peace to Israel by forcing the country’s enemies to make concessions.  

Many Israelis agreed with Sharon’s reversal of policy, thinking it was both inevitable and in Israel’s best interests.  Sharon’s Likud Party, which he helped found decades earlier, strongly opposed this reversal, causing him to leave the Likud and found his own centrist party, the Kadima Party.  While many feel that Sharon’s change of policy was brought about mainly for humane purposes, Landau maintains that it was mostly to improve his political standing.

In January 2006, Sharon suffered a stroke from which he never recovered.  He remained in a  nearly vegetative state until his death in 2014.  In the book’s final chapter, Landau details the onset of Sharon’s medical condition, the medical treatment he received, and the final stroke, which was to place Sharon in an eight –year coma prior to his death.  Landau claims that there were medical errors in his treatment, which Landau suggests “prematurely robbed Israel of perhaps the greatest political strategist it ever had.”  It is one of the most interesting chapters in Landau’s book.  

Landau has written a detailed, objective, and penetrating, account of Sharon’s life, but questions his subject’s motivations throughout the entire book.   Landau also offers an explanation as to how and why Sharon changed from a strong hawk to a peace-seeking moderate. Landau’s research includes both primary and secondary sources as well as extensive personal interviews.  Unfortunately he was never able to interview Sharon for the book.  He did interview his son Omri, who Landau admits was helpful but “constantly suspicious and usually reticent.”  Finally, Landau is able to give the reader a combination of his journalistic firsthand reporting with some of the analysis and independent insight of a historian.  

The book is not without its flaws.  Although the writing style is solid, at times Landau is extremely wordy.  Landau also backs away from digging deeply into Sharon’s personal life.  A great deal of the book is devoted to Sharon’s military and political careers.  He does not hesitate to discuss the flawed character of Sharon, the statesman, but we only get a quick glance of the inner man.  His first wife, Gail, died young in a mysterious car crash and their son, Gur, was killed at age 11 by a gunshot wound which came about while playing with an old weapon; he died in his father’s arms. 

Sharon’s second wife, Lily, Gail’s younger sister, was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 and died the following year.  The reader will never know if any of these tragedies in Sharon’s life caused him to move from the far right to the political center.  

We do learn, however, much about Sharon’s extraordinary eating habits, which contributed to his large girth and even of his habit of napping during cabinet meetings.  Some colleagues recall that he would awaken only when food was brought in.  This is but one example of how Landau has a penchant to ramble at times, which adds to the inclusion of exhausting details in the book.  

Despite these short comings, this book should be the definitive biography of Ariel Sharon.  Because the author could not personally interview him, we may never understand the reasons for his shifts in policy.  But Landau steadfastly concludes that Sharon’s most noteworthy legacy was his bold decision to withdraw from Gaza and allow Israel to rid itself of ruling over millions of Palestinians.