Monday, January 13, 2014

The General. By Ari Shavit.

General Ariel Sharon standing in the Suez Canal, October 31, 1973.

The General. By Ari Shavit. The New Yorker, January 23, 2006.

An Israeli journalist’s six years of conversation with Ariel Sharon.

Ariel Sharon in His Own Words. By Rick Richman. Commentary, January 12, 2014.


Surprisingly, this secular, Israel-born soldier defined himself not as an Israeli but as a Jew. Israel’s raison d’ĂȘtre, he said, is to be the place where the Jews will finally be cured of their mortal illness, their “eternal wandering.” But he had doubts about whether they would, in fact, be cured. He felt a profound uncertainty about the Jews’ ability to maintain sovereignty, and to hold on to the land and to preserve it. He spoke about the Arabs with great envy—they, he said, knew much better how to keep their honor and their land. “If there is something that I respect about the Arabs, it’s the fact that they never change their position,” he said. “The Palestinian leadership did not give up any of its demands, not one inch.”
Sharon took me on a tour of his ranch in a four-by-four, pointing out his orchard, his sheep, his bulls. He said that his primary concern was with the Jewish future: “What will become of the Jews in thirty years’ time, and what will become of them in three hundred years’ time?” He complained that young Israelis didn’t know their Bible. They weren’t familiar with their history. They didn’t feel a right to this land the way he did. “One generation after another is drifting away from anything Jewish,” he said.
Sharon portrayed himself as someone who lived inside Biblical history in a very intimate and palpable way. Whenever he was in Hebron, he said, the thought that for seven years David ruled the city aroused tremendous excitement in him. When he travelled in the Judaean desert, he narrowed his eyes, so as to see not the electricity lines and the modern highways but, instead, Abigail, the wife of Nabal the Carmelite, decked in her necklaces and bracelets, and riding on her donkey—a scene from the First Book of Samuel. And on the road that descends from Beit Aryeh and crosses Shiloh Creek, not far from Beit El, he always stopped to recall another episode from Samuel, in which a runner is sent from the battle of Aphek to Shiloh, forty kilometres away, bearing the bitter news of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant. He always experienced these ancient scenes anew.
At the time of our interview, Prime Minister Ehud Barak had revived peace talks, and there was a general notion that the conflict with the Palestinians might soon end. So, with considerable effort, I tried to bring Sharon back to the political present. I asked him whether the establishment of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank had been a mistake. No, he said. There wasn’t a single shipping container or generator that had been positioned in the territories without a reason. Every settlement was placed in such a way as to consolidate Israeli control of essential regions like the Jordan Valley and the hills overlooking the coastal plain.
Sharon’s charm took me by surprise. Unlike most of Israel’s leaders, who tend to be arrogant and remote, he had empathy and a sense of humor that could even be self-deprecating. He had none of Barak’s haughtiness or Benjamin Netanyahu’s emotional unease. But I was equally surprised by his pessimism. Despite Israel’s military might, he saw the country as a small and fragile state surrounded by hostile countries that would go on wanting to destroy it. As a result, he believed not in peace agreements based on mutual trust but only in non-belligerence agreements based on deterrence. In this Realpolitik, he saw himself as a follower of Henry Kissinger. But, unlike Kissinger, who argued for substantial territorial compromise, Sharon thought that Israel could not risk the little strategic depth it had. Without buffer zones, he argued, Israel would not be able to stand up to new threats when Arab missiles endangered its air superiority.
Sharon was perceptive but not conceptually brilliant; he had charm, but he did not radiate greatness. Sitting in a deep armchair in the living room, as his wife, Lily, offered him muffins on a silver tray, he resembled neither Samson nor Nero. There was something of the overgrown child about him. Grinning, he admitted that he had never had the patience for books on military strategy. What interested him much more was the person, the individual fighter, and what made him attack or lose his balance.
His thinking was not analytical but intuitive, leading him from story to story, from recollection to recollection. He was neither quick nor articulate. His formulations were heavy, like clods of winter earth. Occasionally, Sharon read literature and history, but in a deep sense he was anti-intellectual. Some people who have known Sharon well say that he is a limited, even primitive person. Ideas made him suspicious. What he admired was deeds, facts. Although he was the head of the Likud Party, he saw himself as an heir to the Labor Party. For him, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, the great Likud forebears, were men of words, of hollow talk. David Ben-Gurion and Yigal Allon, who were leaders of the Labor movement, were men of action, and it was perfectly clear that he felt closer to them. Allon, he said, was the most brilliant commander in the 1948 war: “His concept of national security is the one we should follow.”
Throughout our meeting, Sharon, whose appetite is legendary, plied me with food and drink, and by the time I headed home I was undoubtedly several kilos heavier. As I thought about our conversation, I came to the conclusion that one explanation for Sharon’s power is that he is organic. Without romanticizing him, I found his insistence on land neither rhetorical nor superficial. He had a kind of instinctive intelligence, like a Bedouin tracker or a Cherokee scout. In this, he was an un-Jewish Jew: lacking self-awareness and intellectualism, devoid of complexes, yet the embodiment of the radical Zionist potential. Neither a statesman nor a theoretician, he knew how to strike people at their weak spots and how to win battles by reading a map. He called his autobiography “Warrior.” I thought of him as the samurai of Zionism.
. . . .

Sharon said these things for our interview. Informally, he was even tougher. He made it clear that he did not believe in peace agreements. He said that the 1948 War of Independence had not ended, and that we must be prepared for a struggle that would last for generations. He argued that the unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon carried out by Ehud Barak in May, 2000, had led Yasir Arafat to believe that Israel had softened and that he could acquire more at no cost. Only two years before Sharon erected the separation wall, he scorned the idea. “How are you going to separate?” he had said. “Are you going to put up a wall in Jerusalem? Can you maintain a barrier at all inside a city? And you have to have security zones. You can’t make a separation along the Green Line”—that is, the pre-1967 borders. “So what are you going to do? Separate the Arabs from their lands?”
Sharon wore jeans, a light-blue shirt, and Birkenstock sandals for the meeting, and, affable as always, he insisted that I eat a large breakfast with him: salad and cheese, sardines and olives. During the meal, he said he would prefer that we not talk about politics. “I know more about wheat and olive trees than I do about politics,” he said, laughing. And, indeed, he gave me a long lecture about the olive tree: its longevity, the depth of its roots. He told me that in Israel there are olive trees that are two thousand years old and were harvested by the Jews during the Second Temple period, from 538 B.C. to 70 A.D. He described their precise location.
When we went back to the cozy living room and he sank into his favorite armchair, he showed me the book he was reading: it was about the Arab Revolt of 1936-39. He said that what interested him was the way the rebellion had ultimately collapsed, causing a disintegration of Palestinian society. He clearly saw a certain similarity between the revolt of the nineteen-thirties and the intifada that began in 2000. In time, it became evident that the strategic plan that Sharon was considering involved bringing the Palestinians to a point of political chaos and then luring them into a partial agreement on Israel’s terms—one that would not require evacuation of major settlements in the West Bank and a return to the pre-1967 borders.
“It is impossible at this time to bring about the end of the conflict,” he said. “Therefore we must be cautious. Very cautious. Give the Palestinians only the minimum necessary.”
. . . .

When the talk of food and children faded, I asked Sharon whether the conflict would have an end.
“The conflict isn’t between us and the Palestinians,” he said. “The conflict is between us and the Arab world. And the problem at the heart of the conflict is that the Arab world does not recognize the Jews’ inherent right to have a Jewish state in the land where the Jewish people began. This is the main problem. This also applies to Egypt, with which we have a cold peace. It also applies to Jordan, with which we have a very close strategic relationship, but this is a relationship between governments, not between peoples. The problem is not 1967. The problem is the profound nonrecognition by the Arab world of Israel’s birthright. This problem will not be solved by an agreement. It will not be solved by a speech. Anyone who promises that it’s possible to end the conflict within a year or two years or three is mistaken. Anyone who promises peace now is blind to the way things are. Even after the disengagement, we will not be able to rest on our laurels. We will not be able to sit under our fig tree and our vine.
“It may be that we will never have peace,” he went on. “And it may be that it will take a great many years to have peace. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk. It’s better to talk than not to talk. It’s important to conduct negotiations. Maybe it’s possible to solve one thing or another. But it has to be understood that the conflict may never be resolved. If it is ever resolved, it will be in a very long process.”
Sharon said that he was certain Israel would live in a state of danger for a long time, and that all he recommended was that Israel not “make any moves in which it takes risks that are too great.”
He continued, “What bothers me about the peaceniks is their hatred of the settlers and their excessive faith in the Arabs. They apparently never got the phone calls I got from my mother when I was conducting talks in Egypt in 1980. My mother, who was eighty at the time, would call me in Cairo and tell me what she had harvested in the field that day and what she was going to harvest the next day. And she would always end with the same sentence: ‘Arik, don’t believe them.’ She had been in this country for many years, but she had a heavy Russian accent. And I remember her very clearly, saying to me, in her heavy Russian accent, ‘Arik, don’t believe them.’”
And so, I asked, to this day you don’t believe them?
“No, I don’t believe them,” he said. “And there is a reason for this. The Arabs don’t recognize the Jewish people’s birthright to an independent Jewish state.”
He tried to explain what he derived from this pessimistic assumption. He said that time was the essential factor, which was why he was trying to establish the principle that the Palestinians would have to reform before Israel made further concessions. “The greatest danger is in signing some document and believing that as a result we will have peace. This is not going to happen. . . . Instead, we have to build a process that will enable us to ascertain that indeed a change is taking place in the Arab world. It is necessary to teach all the teachers that Israel is a legitimate entity. And it is necessary to replace all the Palestinian textbooks. And this is beyond the elementary demand for the cessation of terror and the cessation of incitement and the implementation of reforms in the security organizations and the implementation of governmental reforms. It is necessary not to omit a single one of these steps. Under no circumstance should there be concessions. A situation must not develop in which Israel retreats and is chased by terror. Once you accept that, it will never end. Terror will keep chasing us.”
Sharon, it seemed, did not believe in the possibility of a final agreement, or what the negotiators call a “permanent-status agreement.” “What is a permanent-status agreement?” he asked testily. “It is completely unrealistic.”
Throughout Israel, commentators speculated about whether the Gaza withdrawal was merely Sharon’s way of buying time while the Palestinians struggled to bring some order to the miserable enclave that Israel had left behind, and tried to solve their internal political battles. Or was Sharon preparing for another, even more dramatic unilateral move: perhaps an Israeli withdrawal to the separation fence throughout the West Bank?
“There isn’t any possibility of doing this,” he said. “This would be a mistake. . . . There is only one unilateral move. There will not be another unilateral move.”
I asked if he would agree to evacuate twenty or thirty settlements in the West Bank in the near future.
“That isn’t going to happen,” he said. “That isn’t on the agenda. We will discuss that after there are changes among the Palestinians.” He was referring to the requirements imposed on the Palestinians by the U.S.-proposed road map, including an end to terrorism. In any case, Sharon made it clear that the Etzion Bloc, Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, and other large, well-established settlements in the West Bank would never be handed over to the Palestinians. Nor could the Jordan Valley be totally evacuated. “There will be security zones,” he said. “In essential territories that are east of the separation fence, there will be security zones.”
In 2000, at Camp David, Barak and Arafat debated, unsuccessfully, a compromise on control of the Temple Mount, the site of the Western Wall and the Al Aqsa mosque. Sharon was not prepared for such negotiations. “This is the place that is most sacred to the Jewish people,” he said. “It is untenable that it not be under Israeli responsibility.”
I asked him about Hebron, where there is a tiny but fervent Jewish settlement in what is essentially an Arab city.
“Can you conceive that one day Jews will not live in Hebron?” Sharon retorted. “Ben-Gurion called Hebron Jerusalem’s elder sister. If we were a normal nation, when a visitor arrived here we would take him not to Yad Vashem but, rather, to Hebron. We’d take him to the place where our roots are. No other people has a monument like the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and Sarah are buried. And Isaac and Rebecca. And Jacob and Leah. There isn’t anything like it. No other people has anything like it. Therefore, under any agreement Jews will live in Hebron.
“We put too much stress on the security issue,” he went on. “That was a mistake. My mistake, too. The element of the cradle of the Jewish people is critical for us to be able to live here. Indeed, there is a constant questioning of our right. Therefore we have to stress the matter of our right. We have to talk about the continuum of Jewish life that has been here. Even in order to live in Tel Aviv, we need a root in Hebron.”