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What Would Ariel Sharon Do?

Biographies of father by sons are an uncertain genre.  Closeness necessarily entails distortion, positive or negative.  But at a time when the vast majority of Israeli and world leaders seem strikingly small, it is worth considering the portrait of Ariel Sharon provided by his youngest son, Gilad, in Sharon: The Life of a Leader.  How do current Israeli leaders compare, and what lessons might be drawn from Sharon's life?

Relevant Links
Who's Right, Who Isn't?  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. In 1973 Sharon helped create the Likud party. In 2005 he unilaterally pulled out of Gaza. There are “things you see from here,” he said, “that you don’t see from there.”
Ladies in Waiting  Elliot Jager, Jewish Ideas Daily. Sharon founded Kadima in 2005 as a centrist, pragmatic party. Its current leadership has pulled it to the left—and, electorally, has not fared well.
At a Single Stroke  Ethan Bronner, New York Times. After Sharon’s stroke, his sons fought with his doctors about whether he should be allowed to die. Six years later, he remains alive.

No Israeli leader has loomed larger, inspired more affection and enmity, or been intimately involved in more triumphs and failures than Sharon.  No Israeli is more symbolic of those successes and disasters.  But the value of biography lies partly in correcting or refining such impressions.  The hulking image of the later, political Sharon, fixed in our mind's eye, suggests a Rabelaisian figure of appetites and impulse.  His son's portrait describes precisely the opposite: a man of family devotion and meticulous planning.

Sharon's career had three major stages: soldier, builder, and politician.  Born in the agricultural village of Kfar Malal, just south of modern Kfar Saba, Sharon spent his childhood on Israel's frontier.  He was shaped by the reality of constant Arab threats and attacks and by his strong-willed parents—cultured contrarians, ostracized by the village for refusing to buckle under to shifting socialist and party dogmas.

Sharon joined the Haganah in 1945 and rose quickly.  The Battle of Latrun, where he was severely injured, taught him the unhappy necessity, sometimes, to cede ground and leave the wounded behind.  During the 1956 war Sharon, as leader of the Unit 101 commando detachment and the Paratroop Brigade, used unconventional tactics to defeat cross-border terrorism and secure the Mitla Pass.  In 1967 and 1973 he commanded armored breakthroughs that changed the course of the war.  He led from the front, displayed personal bravery and daring and, given the supremely political nature of Israel's military, suffered fools quietly.

Sharon's careers as builder and politician were intertwined.  He was a founder of the Likud party in 1973 and the Kadima party in 2005.  At various times he served as Minister of Agriculture, Defense, Housing, Industry and Trade, National Infrastructure, and Foreign Affairs; in 2001 he became Prime Minister.  Before "settlements" became a controversial word, he directed the founding of settlements in the Negev, Galilee, West Bank, and Gaza.  Then, in 2005, over Likud objections, he ordered Gaza settlements dismantled.  He was Prime Minister until his 2006 stroke, a contingency not contemplated by Sharon or his country, which brought the hapless Ehud Olmert to power.

A leader's military career can be an uncertain guide to his politics, but in Sharon's case there are hints.  His strategy was based on deterrence—convincing the enemy that the consequences of its attack would be swift, inevitable, harsh and unpredictable.  Tactically, this approach demanded intimate knowledge of landscape and adversaries, the ability to secure at least one flank from attack, meticulous planning, continuous offense, and willingness to discard a plan when it no longer worked.  Sharon applied these principles in low-level counter-insurgency operations, armored warfare, politics, and international affairs.

Sharon's approach aimed not merely to respond or adapt but to change the conditions, to shape the strategic environment.  But, as his son perhaps inadvertently shows, he was never given full room to maneuver.  Others' fears, incompetence, jealousies and hesitations, political micromanagement of military operations, superpower constraints on Israeli sovereignty—all constrained Sharon.  So did his own larger-than-life presence.  Israel's history might have unfolded differently had Sharon been given his way at various turning points; but real history is made of a thousand compromises, large and small.

Inevitably, the son engages in some is score-settling.  Ben-Gurion is spared, but not the rest of the Labor Party class, which dominated Israeli politics and the military until the emergence of Likud.  The smug self-assurance of Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan's indecisiveness, Chaim Bar-Lev's incompetence and venality, Menahem Begin's prissiness—these and many other politicians' flaws are on display.  Such depictions must be measured against other accounts, but one truth that comes through is the viciousness of Israeli public life: blind adherence to ideologies, factionalism and old boy networks, leaks and waging of Cabinet debates in the newspapers.  These features remain substantially the same today.

But Gilad treats his father's political career in far less detail than his military one.   At one level this is justified.  While both politics and military command are mostly boring, the former is rarely a matter of life and death; with the latter, life and death are precisely the goals.  But Gilad does not fully explore the extremes of affection and enmity that his father inspired. "Personality" and "charisma" are nebulous words, but they distinguish leadership from narcissism or treading water.  They also harbor contradictions.  Sharon was a pragmatic secular Zionist who saw the land through a practical, military prism rather than an ideological or religious one; yet he was the patron of the Gush settlement movement and a friend to the ultra-Orthodox.  Gilad falls short in explaining these and other matters. 

Do any of today's Israeli leaders have insight, will, and personality comparable to Sharon's?  Or is Sharon even a standard against which they should be measured?  The fact is that most current Israeli leaders, military and political, are small men and women.  So are most leaders everywhere.  Yet the fate of Western countries ultimately hinges on leadership, the willingness to take hold of events and shape them to a strategic vision while bringing the people along.  This quality is currently lacking in Israel and utterly absent in America and the West.

There is no telling what Sharon would do in the world of the "Arab Spring," the Palestinian "Unilateral Declaration of Independence," or the quickening Iranian nuclear project; he would certainly confound friend and foe with unanticipated moves.  And how would he have brought the Israeli people around to a new vision that could encompass both their unprecedented challenges and their almost-limitless potential?  Perhaps it is here that leadership such as Sharon's is missed the most.

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