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The Life of Ariel Sharon

Written by David LandauAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Landau

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On Sale: January 10, 2014
Pages: 656 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35109-6
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A commander in the Israeli Army from its inception in 1948, and a politician whose tenure bridged numerous governments, as both a general and a politician Ariel Sharon championed the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But in his later years, as prime minister, he took a dramatic turn, and became the driving force behind Israel’s unilateral disengagement. In this first truly comprehensive biography, David Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, paints a vivid picture of the most dramatic and imposing Israeli political and military leader of the last forty years—and takes a penetrating look at how Sharon transformed his country like no one else.

Excerpt

Preface · Land of Hope
 
My grandfather was a Hebrew teacher in Rehovot at the beginning of the last century.” Ariel Sharon, corpulent, white-haired, looked up over his reading glasses at the half-full Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Members were listening politely or quietly reading. “I have a deep love for the Hebrew language,” he read on in his incongruously high-pitched voice. “For the miracle of its revival, for the historical wellsprings from which it draws its words and phrases.”
 
There was no tension in the chamber that afternoon in January 2005. No catcalls, no heckling. A parliamentary moment without politics. Sharon could have asked one of his two deputy prime ministers to represent the government at the largely ceremonial debate marking Hebrew Language Day. But he wanted to speak himself. He had a point to make.
 
Mordechai Scheinerman, Sharon’s grandfather, came to Palestine in 1910 and settled with his wife and children in the still-tiny Jewish village of Rehovot, southeast of the barely existent Jewish town of Tel Aviv. That made him sort of aristocracy. Not quite a Mayflower man of the First Aliya (1882–1902), but still an early Zionist pioneer of pre–World War I days. Palestine was a derelict corner of the crumbling Ottoman Empire then. The dream of the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl (d. 1904), that it would one day become a Jewish state, seemed just that: a dream.
 
In his native town, Brest Litovsk in White Russia, Mordechai was an early convert to Zionism. He became a Hebrew teacher. That was a career choice reflecting real commitment. Hebrew, the ancient language of the Bible and the rabbis, was struggling to reincarnate itself as a modern vernacular. The Zionists promoted it as the language of the new-old Jewish nationalism. But the Zionists themselves were a struggling minority within the Jewish people. Millions of Jews, fleeing czarist oppression, set sail for the New World rather than for sandy, sweaty Palestine.
 
Mordechai Scheinerman endured the heat and mosquitoes of Rehovot for two years, then packed up, as did so many of the early pioneers, and headed back to Brest Litovsk. When war broke out, the family fled east, ending up in Tbilisi, Georgia. His faith in Zionism never wavered, though, and he instilled it in his son Samuil. Samuil Scheinerman taught Hebrew too, but, chastened by his father’s experience, he studied agronomy at the local university as a practical prepa- ration for his own eventual aliya.* (* Literally, “ascent”; the Hebrew term for immigration to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.)
 
This came more quickly than planned. Walking toward the Tbilisi Zionist club, where he held his Hebrew classes, one night in 1921, he found the area swarming with security police of the newly formed communist government. He veered away, hastened to the home of his girlfriend, Vera Schneeroff, and offered her two peremptory proposals: marriage and aliya. She was a fourth-year medical student, the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family, also from Belarus, and, by her own admission, not much of a Zionist. But she accepted Samuil’s plan. They were married forthwith and fled to the Black Sea port of Baku, from where, some months later, they embarked for Palestine.
 
Samuil had completed his studies in Tbilisi; Vera nursed the hope that she would graduate someday too, perhaps at the University of Beirut since there were no universities or medical schools in Palestine. On a bleak February day in 1922 they arrived in Jaffa. Vera, to her consternation, was lifted bodily from boat to shore by a gigantic Arab stevedore. The experience confirmed her general impression of Pales- tine as a backward and uncouth place.
 
By then, the Zionist dream had advanced a little closer to reality, at least on paper. The wartime British government issued its Balfour Declaration in November 1917, favoring “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” In 1920, the San Remo Conference of principal Allied powers granted a mandate over Palestine to Great Britain, specifically enjoining it to “put into effect” the Balfour Declaration.† (†The San Remo resolution, like the Balfour Declaration itself, contained the following caveat: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Pales- tine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”) But beyond emotional rhetoric, the response among Diaspora Jewish communities was disappointing from the Zionist standpoint. The Zionist movement campaigned hard to persuade young Jewish people to make aliya. It achieved only modest success.
 
His son’s aliya, and his own subsequent return to Eretz Yisrael— Mordechai Scheinerman lived out his last years in Tel Aviv—restored the old Hebrew teacher’s right to a place of honor in the annals of the Zionist enterprise. A century later, his grandson pointedly read the family narrative into the record of the Zionist state’s parliament. His Zionist credentials, Sharon was signaling, were unimpeachable.
 
The point was not superfluous. The momentary calm in the Knesset was deceptive. Parliament and the country were seething with disaffection. It was spearheaded by the Jewish settlers in the occupied* (* Occupied, that is, since the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Israeli army took over the West Bank, previously held by Jordan.) Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, who defined them- selves as today’s true Zionists. It was directed against Sharon, who for long years had been their champion but whom they now portrayed as a traitor. To many, the atmosphere was reminiscent of 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was decried by the national-religious Right as a traitor and eventually felled by an assassin’s bullets.
 
Rabin died for signing a peace accord with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). That agreement held out the prospect of a Palestinian state eventually arising alongside Israel, thus bringing the century-old conflict over Palestine to an equitable end. But Arafat, once Rabin had gone, proved incapable of leading his people to peace. A decade later, the two-state solution was foundering in a welter of bloodshed and failed diplomacy.
 
Ariel Sharon, the hard-line ex-general who had been elected prime minister in 2001 to crush the Palestinians’ intifada, now proposed to dismantle Jewish settlements and withdraw Israeli troops from parts of the occupied territories. To the settlers and their supporters—his erstwhile political constituency—that was heresy, a denial both of Judaism and of Zionism. To the peace camp at home and to governments and public opinion around the world, Sharon’s dramatic turn- about was a hugely hopeful change. It meant the beginning, at last, of a repartition of Palestine between the two nations vying for it. Sharon found himself suddenly praised where he had previously been loathed and feared.
 
He looked back to his text. “Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who revived the Hebrew language, said: ‘There are two things without which the Jews will not be a nation—their land and their language.’ ” The subtext was clear. He, the old warrior turned statesman, the true-blue Zionist, could be depended on to protect and defend both of those pillars of Jewish nationhood. The imminent withdrawal from parts of Palestine would strengthen, not weaken, the future of the Jewish state.
 
Half a year later, in August 2005, the withdrawal took place. Israel evacuated its settlers and its army from the Gaza Strip and from a small area of the northern West Bank. Sharon called it “disengagement.” The settlers called it “uprooting” and “expulsion,” terms taken from the most macabre chapters in Jewish history.
 
But the settlers’ threats of violent resistance, of massive civil strife, and of rebellion in the army melted away in the face of Sharon’s iron will. He deployed forty thousand soldiers and policemen around the doomed settlements and won the day without a battle. Not a shot was fired. Resistance was almost all passive. In one settlement a few young militants hurled paint balls from a rooftop. It was all over in hardly more than a week, and the country resumed its interrupted summer vacation.
 
The anticlimactic absence of trauma raised Sharon’s stock even higher both at home and abroad. Israel’s misguided colonization of the Palestinian territories, which Sharon himself had done more than any man to put in place, was neither immutable nor irrevocable, as many had feared. Sharon had shown it could be undone with relative ease, if only there was the political will to undo it. The Palestinians could still have their state. Israel could still save itself from the morally and politically crippling sickness of occupation. It could recover its identity and its cohesion as a Jewish and democratic state.
 
That destiny had been receding over the long years of occupation and settlement building. Yet the majority of people in both nations still supported the two-state solution, as poll after poll attested. The majority of Israelis supported Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza and believed it would lead to disengagement from the West Bank, too.
 
That bright moment of hope that Ariel Sharon created in the summer of 2005 still shines, though the powerful forces in both nations who oppose the two-state solution have conspired to obscure it. Sharon’s collapse in January 2006 into a stroke-induced coma has forced Israeli history into the subjunctive mode: Had he survived in power, would he have been able to complete the decolonization process that he boldly began?
 
What he began, during the dramatic years of his prime ministership (2001–2006), contradicting a lifetime of military extremism and political obduracy, entitles him, like his grandfather, to a place of honor in Israel’s annals.
 
What might have been—what could still be, despite the intervening years of setbacks and disappointment—makes him the worthy subject of this effort to understand his life and times. When he was elected prime minister, many proud and patriotic Israelis talked seriously of leaving the country. His accession to power was the stuff of night- mares. The future seemed to hold only war and bloodshed. When he collapsed, less than five years later, we wept. Not just for him; for ourselves.
 
In the Knesset that January, he read on monotonously, now deploring the pervasive infiltration of foreign words and phrases into Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s pristine Hebrew. “I don’t understand, for instance, how that anomalous alloy ‘Yallah, bye’ has supplanted our own beautiful ‘Shalom’ for saying farewell.”
 
His secretary, Marit Danon, who served five previous prime minis- ters, recalled years later her double surprise when, days after he took over in 2001, he sent out for a falafel for his lunch from a popular Jerusalem street stand. She duly served up the plebeian fare and was leaving the room when Sharon invited her to share the meal. “Marit,” he asked, “does not your soul yearn for the falafel?” On another occasion, hungry as always but never willing to admit it, he lifted the phone to tell her, “Uri [his aide] is assailed by famine.”1
 
For “famine,” Sharon used the word kafan, a rare term unknown to many Hebrew speakers. Danon would have a two-volume Hebrew dictionary always at hand on her trolley when she took dictation from the prime minister.2 “Almost daily I was on the phone to the Hebrew Language Academy,” she recalled, “asking for the correct pointing of a particular word in a speech, because of his obsession to get every word perfectly right.”* The language, like the land, was his responsibility.
David Landau

About David Landau

David Landau - Arik

Photo © Alex Levac

David Landau, OBE, immigrated to Israel from the United Kingdom as a young man. His career in journalism began in 1970 at The Jerusalem Post, and he joined Haaretz in 1993 as news editor. He founded Haaretz’s English edition and was its editor from 1997 to 2004, and was editor in chief of Haaretz’s Hebrew edition until 2008. He is the longtime Israel correspondent for The Economist. Landau collaborated with Israel’s president Shimon Peres on Peres’s memoir, Battling for Peace, and he published, with President Peres, Ben-Gurion: A Political Life. He is also the author of Piety and Power, an account of the increasingly significant role the ultra-orthodox (haredi) play in Israel, the United States, and Europe. Landau graduated with a degree in law from University College London and studied in leading yeshivas in Israel. He is married with children and grandchildren and lives in Jerusalem.
Praise

Praise

“Comprehensive and readable. . . . [Arik] chronicles Sharon’s epic military and political battles, serving as a kind of national history.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[An] expertly written biography . . . that unpicks many of the controversies around Sharon’s record, and promises to become the definitive account of his career. . . . This is no panegyric. . . . [Landau] is an elegant writer and a superb journalist, making this book an engrossing read.” —Financial Times

“Landau captures the combativeness and contradictions of one of the major figures in Israel’s history. Sharon played a role in nearly every stage of the nation’s development since its independence.” —The Washington Post

“Landau does an excellent job in presenting a fair portrait of a man who strove to do what he thought was best for his people, to the alternating consternation of both the Left and the Right.” —The Daily Beast

“A big biography worthy of its subject, an outsized figure in the history of Israel. Sharon led a long, controversial public life. . . . Landau’s book covers all of it and then some.” —The Oregonian

“Landau is an elegant writer. . . . The heart of this exceptional biography is the transformation of Sharon from a loose cannon—as menacing to his allies as to his enemies—into a respected statesman, the hope of a nation.” —Haaretz

“Nuanced, insightful. . . . It will be regarded, in the years to come, as the definitive work on the eleventh prime minister’s life.” —The Times of Israel

“Important and extremely readable. . . . Those wanting to draw their own conclusions [about Sharon] will find a great deal to work with in David Landau’s Arik. . . . Sharon’s radical change from virulent hawk to moderate peace seeker is one of the more interesting political changes in recent times. Landau skillfully and engagingly chronicles the how and why of that change and other fascinating details of a life well lived.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“[Landau] is perfectly placed to write the biography of one of Israel’s seminal, and at times most controversial, leaders. . . . What the reader comes away from Arik with is that Sharon was not easily pigeonholed into one political camp. . . . [He] took the ideas of others and made them into reality.” —The Jerusalem Post

“[Landau] has done a superb job here in attempting to chisel away the myths that surround Sharon and to isolate his essence without theatrics or ideological fanfare. . . . A complex and compelling portrait of Sharon that forces the reader to reevaluate his or her preconceived notions.” —Jewish Journal

“Landau’s background as a journalist gives the biography a raw immediacy. . . . [Arik] paints a comprehensive picture of Ariel Sharon, a man easy to hate, but harder to understand. Mr. Landau does what good biographers should do, explain the life of his subject, but questioning his subject’s motivations every step of the way.” —New York Journal of Books

Compelling. . . . Landau’s is the most objective and nuanced book assessing the life [of Ariel Sharon].” —The Jewish Week

“With great research and noticeable interest, Landau depicts Ariel Sharon as a man who is more complex than any one of his multitude of titles and the subsequent criticism he endured as a public servant.” —Publishers Weekly

“Splendid reporting, comprehensive research and probing analysis inform this unblinking view of a complicated man and a sanguinary geography. . . . A thorough, extremely candid description and assessment.” —Kirkus (starred)

“[A] colorful, insightful, and deftly written biography. . . . Landau brings considerable analytic gifts to bear in explaining the contradictions and vicissitudes of the complex man who evolved from brilliantly unorthodox but unruly solider, radiating controversy, recalcitrance and naked aggression, to become Israel’s sober and grandfatherly 11th prime minister.” —The Jerusalem Report


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