Ariel Sharon was a figure of controversy throughout his long career in war, politics and diplomacy, but no one can deny that he looms large in the making of the Jewish state.
Sharon was hailed as “Arik, King of Israel” when he returned from battle in the Six-Day War, a kind of latter-day David. But some of his critics still recall his role in the events leading up to the mass killings of Palestinians by Christian-Lebanese Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila, while others are second-guessing his courageous decision to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. Today, because of the strokes he suffered in 2005, Sharon is no longer an active participant in debate or decision-making in Israel, but people all over the world still ask: “What would Arik do?”
“Over the course of nearly sixty years my father has been on the front line of all major national events in Israel,” his youngest son, Gilad Sharon, writes in “Sharon: The Life of a Leader” (HarperCollins, $29.95), a biography that is, at once, intimate and magisterial. “His fingerprints can be found all across the length and width of this country — in the form of over one hundred blooming settlements in the Galilee, the Golan Heights, Samaria, Judea, the Negev and the Arava.”
As part of a national book tour, Gilad Sharon will be in Los Angeles on Nov. 4 to participate in a public conversation with Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal, part of the annual Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University. (For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.)
“Sharon” has been released simultaneously in Hebrew and in an English translation by Mitch Ginsburg. As we should expect from a biography written by its subject’s son, “Sharon” is sentimental rather than critical; indeed, Gilad opens the book with a touching account of the death of his father’s firstborn son, Gur, in a gun accident, an event that cast a long shadow over the life of his father and their family. “Even an early age, I had the feeling that I was supporting my father,” Gilad writes, “despite the objective fact that he was big and strong and I was small and young.”
Yet often this intimate relationship plays to the book’s advantage. When Gilad describes his father’s celebrated experiences in combat — the beginning of the Sharon legend — he is able to offer a wholly surprising insight: “During the Yom Kippur War,” he writes, “soldiers would cling to his shirt, needing to touch him amid the madness.” To be sure, Gilad offers a detailed account of his father’s high-profile experiences as prime minister of Israel, but he always includes a telling detail that an impartial biographer might never know: “ ‘If you’re invited to dinner with the queen, you’d better know your table manners,’ our parents would say.”
In a telephone interview, Gilad Sharon spoke from the family farm in Israel in advance of his visit to Los Angeles.
Jonathan Kirsch: I think the whole world will be interested in the very last pages of your book, where you describe how your father is today. Am I correct in my understanding that he is not in a coma?
Gilad Sharon: “Minimal consciousness” is the medical term for his condition. Unfortunately, I cannot talk to him the way I am talking to you right now. When he is asleep, he is asleep, and when he is awake, he opens his eyes. He moves fingers when I ask him to.
JK: If I asked you to single out the one thing your father will be remembered for — and the one thing for which he ought to be remembered — would they be the same thing? Is he misunderstood in any way?
GS: If you ask me why my father was controversial in the early years, I’d say he was so dominant that no one could stay indifferent toward him. His abilities, his achievements, the victories he led the [Israeli Defense Forces] to achieve — all of these put almost everyone else in the shade. As prime minister, however, he enjoyed love and support across political boundaries and all over the world. That’s what counts. Fighting terror is something he did since the end of the 1940s, but for me, the human side of him, which is less known, is the most important part the book. A warm and loving family man with a great sense of humor — these are the qualities that I most care about.
JK: You write that you prepared a position paper for your father on the question of “unilateral action,” which ultimately led to his decision to withdraw from Gaza. What was the extent of your role in that decision?
GS: It was clear that we had to destroy terror, or terror would destroy us. It was clear that the Palestinian Authority would do nothing. For instance, building the fence to prevent terrorists from coming from Judea and Samaria was also a unilateral step. No one ever put it as a policy. Coming up with an idea is a nice thing, but the ability to listen to people and to decide and then to execute, this is real leadership. I don’t see anyone else in those days, or even today, who would have been able to do it.
JK: Given the troubled state of affairs in Gaza, what is the verdict of history on the decision to withdraw from there?
GS: Some people used to say the results from Gaza brought rockets on Israel. That’s false. The first rocket was fired on April 16, 2001, more than four years before the withdrawal.
There were more rockets and mortars fired during the year before withdrawal than the two years after. There was, and is, a consensus that if we have a peace treaty with the Palestinians, we will not be in Gaza. The only question remaining was: Should we wait for the Palestinians or should we get out of Gaza now? When my father realized that there was not going to be a peace treaty with the Palestinians, and that we cannot count on them even if there were a treaty, he decided not to wait.
JK: Your father, it seems to me, had the stature that was required to lead Israel into a very tough decision. Do you think that the current prime minister — or any prospective prime minister — comes anywhere close to your father in terms of stature?
GS: In a moment of honesty, the current prime minister would admit that he still has a long way to go. That’s not a secret. And that’s what I think, too.
JK: Do you think that the Palestinians will be successful in achieving statehood without a peace treaty with Israel?
GS: The Palestinians declared statehood in 1988, and many countries recognize it. I don’t think that the Palestinian state is the big obstacle. The question is borders. Israel has lived without fixed borders, too, but we cannot accept the 1967 borders from which we were attacked with no provocation in the past. If the Palestinians had accepted the U.N. partition in 1947, they would now have a state as old as Israel is right now.
JK: There is one question that I guarantee you will hear on your book tour: What would your father make of President Barack Obama? Would he regard President Obama as a friend of Israel?
GS: The answer is, yes. The friendship between Israel and the United States is deep and is based on shared values of peace and justice. We are engaged in a mutual fight against fundamentalist Islamic terror. After the 9/11 attacks, the feeling of mutual destiny became even stronger. It goes well beyond the personal. Prime ministers and presidents come and go, but the ties remain. Of course, it is much better to have relationships like the one my father had with President Bush. They reached a high level of mutual understanding, and it helps a lot when you have someone whom you know and trust.
For more information about American Jewish University’s Festival of Jewish Books, please visit ajula.edu/cjb.