Ariel Sharon, the Heart of a Lonely Soldier


Ariel Sharon, the Heart of a Lonely Soldier


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Ariel Sharon

by Jeanette Friedman, lifestyles, 1993

For 48 years, Ariel “Arik” Sharon has fought for peace, often alone, and he will not stop.

I’m willing to bet that since September, Ariel Sharon hasn’t let go of his maps. He’s been toting them around in an old paper bag for years. Insiders at the Israeli Embassy say he carries them around to the most unusual places, including the Pentagon, in case of a “map emergency.” And if ever there was a “map emergency.” the signing of the accords between Israel and the Palestinians is it. Over at Likud, and other places in Israel and America, alarm bells are ringing. And Sharon is walking around with his maps, trying once and for all to prove his point.

When we met, Sharon was in New York to push his pet project — Ateret Cohanim — in the Old City of Jerusalem. There, he and others have bought homes in the old Jewish quarter, which is now a predominantly Arab neighborhood. The philosophy is simple: don’t kill them, don’t oppress them, buy them out and keep the deeds. We first connected when he made his pitch to a well-heeled crowd at Fran and Simon Laufer’s home in New York City.

We met at his hotel room on a cool, clear day. The view from his sitting room overlooked all of Central Park, Long Island Sound and the Ramapo Mountains. In the distance, you could see the Hudson River snaking toward Bear Mountain.

Revered and reviled, Ariel Sharon has suffered for love of country, personally, professionally and politically. His life and the history — and the land — of Israel arc intertwined. each having a lasting effect on the other. No matter what side of the fence you are on — Labor or Likud, Peace Now or a member of a religious party. Ariel “Arik” Sharon’s dedication and love for Israel is unquestioned.

He is also consistent. The philosophy and views he expressed in our interview echoed what he had written years before in his 1988 book, Warrior. His point of view didn’t change after the letter of mutual recognition was signed by the Israelis and Palestinians in Washington, D.C. early in September. Our conversation anticipated events, and a close reading of his maps, together with material in his books, shows that Sharon wants a negotiated peace. He even planned for it.

But the recognition of Yasir Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as chief negotiator for the Palestinians has left him livid. And it’s not the first time. Sharon’s plans often have gone awry and not always by his own hand. Usually it was a commanding officer, miles from the field of battle, who called shots that needlessly cost Jewish lives, leaving Sharon frustrated, furious and the scapegoat. Often politicians, like Golda Meir or Yitzhak Rabin, would thwart his every move.

Fed up with the lack of organized opposition to the Labor party, where he was deeply rooted and with whom he had disagreed too many times, he helped create the Likud in 1973. His uneasy alliance with Menachem Begin began when Moshe Dayan and other political military types tried to throw him out of the army. When the headlines screamed about a possible Begin/Sharon political alliance, the Labor government’s military allies sent “Arik” on a world tour until after the elections in 1973. Four years later, Likud’s victory in the polls unseated Labor for the first time in 29 years, and as Sharon says, “marked the emergence of Israel as a bona fide two-party state.”

A legendary soldier — he spent 28 years in the military and another 20 years as a politician — Sharon has been left for dead on the battlefield of war and also on the more personally vicious battlefield of politics. He is his own man, and walks his own paths.

And Sharon has walked the entire territory occupied by Israel after the Six Day War many times. As a matter of principle, he believes you should be 100 percent familiar with your terrain—in case you need to defend it. Right after the war in 1967. he put Israeli military schools in old Jordanian army posts and began developing the basics of a settlement plan for Yitzhak Rabin.

Four months after the Likud victory in 1977, he presented that plan to the new cabinet. History had convinced him that “basic intelligence dictates that we act purely on the basis of our own needs. That did not mean that some kind of political accommodation [with the Palestinians] was completely out of the question, but it did mean that first and last we would look to our security.”

Sharon advocates building a line of urban, industrial settlements on the ridges overlooking the coastal plain and the plain of the Jordan River, in addition to a line of settlements along the Jordan from Beit Shean to the Dead Sea. What Sharon and his people looked for as they climbed through the hills, day after day, was high, important terrain and vital road junctions. They were making their maps and built the settlements, the “facts on the ground” of Israel’s security in the “territories.” And wherever settlements were built, water and electricity were offered to nearby Arab villages.

Sharon, a realist, has known since he was a child that Israel needs to make peace with the Arabs. He doesn’t claim to know all the answers, but he does know that any national solution for peace needs to be grounded in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. And Sharon, more than anyone, is aware of the dangers inherent in peace.

"I see danger,” Arik Sharon tells me. “Danger. I brought myself to the United States on a mission. One danger is the pressure upon Israel to withdraw from the Golan, which would be a disastrous thing, and another is the pressure to withdraw from Judea and Samaria. Still another is pressure to accept all those solutions that would bring us back to the pre-’67 borders.

“But there is an even greater danger. Do you know that except for two small countries in Central America, no one, including the great, friendly democracy of the United States, has ever recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel? So Jerusalem is at stake now. And I am here to mobilize the necessary means to strengthen the Jewish community living in the Old City, which is the heart of the Jews, the heart of the state and the heart of the problem.”

As of early September, Arik’s problem went deeper than that. After Rabin recognized Yasir Arafat, Arik went on Israeli TV and told the media that Arafat should not have been the designated representative of the P.L.O. “Yasir Arafat belongs in a glass cage in a courtroom in Jerusalem, where he should be tried as a war criminal,” he announced.

As protesters in Jerusalem crowded around a vehicle approaching the prime minister’s office, screaming for Rabin’s blood, the mood changed abruptly when the door opened, and Arik’s paunchy figure was spotted. The adoring crowd surged forward. “Arik, Arik, our father,” they yelled.

I wasn’t at all surprised. At the very start of our interview months earlier, I had asked him if Yasir Arafat could be considered a moderate when stacked against the likes of Hamas, the organization responsible for the current wave of terrorism and violence in the territories and Gaza.

“I think you make a major mistake if you think Arafat is a moderate,” he said. “Between 65-75 percent of all the terrorist activities taking place now are by Fatah, which is the P.L.O. directly under the command of Arafat, in the West Bank, in Gaza, and also, recently, on the Lebanese front. They are working with Hezbollah.

“Therefore, any attempt to describe Arafat as a moderate is wrong. He has more Jewish blood on his hands than anyone since Hitler. He should be removed from our society altogether. This is not a man with whom you can negotiate. You cannot expect anything from him.”

Would he agree that the P.L.O. has more to gain from peace talks than does Hamas?

“I think you are wrong about that,” he says. “Things should be judged by action and not by words. I don’t see any difference whatsoever between the goals and intentions of the P.L.O. and the goals and intentions of Hamas. There is one target. Jews. Kill Jews. Destroy the State of Israel. There is no difference.”

“You don’t feel,” I asked, “that the P.L.O. has agreed to recognize Israel and that the peace negotiations mean anything?”

“There is nothing to do between the P.L.O. and peace. The P.L.O. has always been an obstacle to peace and it is an obstacle to peace now.”

“So what’s the point?” I want to know. “Is it to sit with Syria and Jordan and get treaties from them?”

“I can tell you how I see it,” Sharon says. “According to the current logic, the negotiations will never lead to peace. We should be going about it differently and deal with an entirely different set of issues on a much wider scope and with more serious problems than we’re dealing with now.

“The conflict is wider than Israelis and Palestinians. The major problem is that there is no will, whatsoever, among the Arab nations to reconcile with Israel. That is the basic thing. They use different tactics to distract us, but the strategy is the same. To understand what I mean you have to read the Arab press, especially the Egyptian press.

“The Egyptians have been at peace with us for 14 years, yet nowhere has there ever been an acceptance of Israel’s existence. I am reminded of Habib Bourguiba, president of Tunisia in the ’60s. He was a very clever Arab leader who told the other Arabs that they will never defeat Israel militarily—that Israel should be worn down slowly.” “What weapon are they supposed to use?” I asked. “Public relations. It’s a media war, and they have managed to paint the EL.O. as peaceful. Under the title of conciliation they have managed to paint Israel as a country against peace. That put pressure on Israel and caused an internal split. Divided we fall, just as that Arab predicted.”

One of the other major problems is the amount of military hardware being sold to the Arabs by the United States, the states of the former Soviet Union, Korea, China and Europe. Sharon gives me a long list of materiel including SCUDS, the Syrian tank count (more than 5,000), how many surface-to-surface missiles there are and the distance they can cover. All of them can reach Tel Aviv, no problem. Sharon can also supply the list for Egypt and tells me, “They are working like mad on nuclear weapons.”

And then he addresses the question of Arab terror. “Forget about borders. We have been dealing with Arab terrorism for more than 120 years. My grandfather and father faced Arab terror, so have I and so do my sons.”

Sharon was born in the Galil in 1928. His parents were ardent Zionists who gave everything up to scratch out an existence in a moshav (farming settlement).

“Terrorism causes wars because when we cannot protect our citizens, we retaliate. Then there’s counter-retaliation and the cycle of violence escalates. Add to that the lethal personalities of the Arab dictators who are so hard to deter. They don’t care about the future. So if they kill off 250,000 of their own people, they get away with it.

“Now diplomats can do great things. Talking brought down the Iron Curtain and talking is building bridges to China. But how do you talk to a psychopath? Two or three bombs in Saddam Hussein’s hands or in some Ayatollah’s arsenal are more dangerous than 300,000 nuclear warheads in the U.S.”

I ask if there is a difference between psychopathic totalitarianism, religious fanaticism and political hatred.

“Put them together. There is no difference in their brutality, not in the goals and names, not when it comes to Jews.

“Look. Faisal Husseini is considered a hero. He was nominated by Arafat to be in charge of the military arm of the P.L.O. and the Fatah organization in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He is the man behind the killings now. And one of Israel’s major mistakes is to try to draw distinctions. We have to remember that in 1987, the then minister of defense thought it might be suitable to help the Hamas organization, dreaming that they would fight the P.L.O. terrorists, because in those days, the RL.O. was the threat.

“Today they are making concessions to the P.L.O. terrorist organization, they are helping again—not the terrorist squads, but the P.L.O., in the hope they will fight Hamas. You know what happens next? They will fight us together. Recently we found evidence of combined squads in Lebanon and in Gaza. To think for a moment that we will gain anything out of this shows a deep lack of understanding of, and a wrong evaluation of, the situation in the Middle East.”

Weeks later, after Rabin and Arafat shook hands in Washington, Sharon made the same point, only stronger. He wrote in The Jerusalem Post: “By reviving Israel’s greatest enemy on the eve of its disintegration and turning it into Israel’s shield against Hamas, the government has added crime to folly.” In our conversation, he added another ingredient to the lethal mix, the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Unlike Israel, which absorbed millions of refugees from Europe and the Arab countries, the Arab countries have never absorbed the Palestinians who remained in the camps. “It is an open wound, and until you deal with it, you can sign all the peace agreements you want, and nothing will help,” Sharon said.

So what would be Sharon’s conditions for a peace agreement?

“Call a moratorium on arms sales immediately. That’s first. That’s the simplest thing. Then enter into arms reduction treaties and equalize military strength throughout the region. In order to eliminate the terrorists, every Arab country has to agree to dismantle, eliminate, deport or arrest those engaged in the business of terror. Dismantle all the offices of terrorist organizations operating in their cities. If any Arab country wants to become part of the process, we should tell them, ‘You want to negotiate? Stop terrorism.’ If Syria wants to sit at the table, let them stop the Hezbollah from operating in the Baalbek region, where they’ve been active since January 1976.”

What about the MIAs? Shouldn’t they be part of the package?

“That’s a terrible problem. Unquestionably, that should be part of the deal, but these are very sensitive issues and we cannot discuss them. In the meantime, terrorists are training in the Sinai near the Suez Canal, in Amman, Jordan, in Syria and Lebanon. So, first, stop harboring and training terrorists, then solve the refugee problem. Especially those 350,000 Palestinians who were ejected from Kuwait during the Gulf War and are rotting in the Jordanian desert in deplorable conditions.”

Say those criteria are agreed to, everything is moving right along, and then King Hussein of Jordan dies from cancer. Then what do you do?

“Now we come to what I think is the solution,” he responds. “There is a Palestinian state and maybe we should look at the map for a minute. I brought it with me to Washington back in 1982 to try to solve some problems.”

Sharon pulls out a worn map that indicates the former borders, first demarcated by the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and shows me how 75 percent of that area was lost during the War of Independence, which is the first war Sharon fought in. [He was just 17.]

“In 1948, all the Arab countries invaded Israel. You know people say ‘occupied territory.’ Who occupied what? They occupied us. Gaza occupied? It was occupied by the Egyptians! That terrible war cost us 1 percent of our population. The Egyptians were stopped 27 kilometers from Tel Aviv. That situation lasted for 19 years, and included the loss of the Old City. “Then came 1967. We asked Jordan to stay out of it. But they didn’t, and so we came back to this border. Jordan is the Palestinian state. Its inhabitants are Palestinian.

“For 15 years I have tried to convince my own government of this fact. Peace should only be negotiated with the Palestinian state that exists: Jordan. There are many issues to deal with, like who gets passports, how taxes are paid, how local governments are administered, how elections will be held. There are many things to be discussed, but they should only be discussed with Jordan.

“The country is making a major mistake because it is not pursuing the autonomy Mr. Begin talked about. There’s nothing to compare, because this autonomy is an entirely different thing. Thinking that autonomy is going to be the answer to every pain and problem is wrong.”

Sharon pulled out another map and showed me how he had laid out the settlements. They ran together to form bridges, or corridors across the West Bank and through Gaza. The Arab villages are broken up—surrounded, so to speak—so that there is no continuity or bridges between them. They would become cantons. According to Sharon, the Jewish settlements under development should never, ever come under any Arab control.

Again I ask what happens if King Hussein dies in a few years, and again he avoids answering, telling me that he hopes the King will live a full life. “ Okay, what happens wen one Arab leader is replaced by another? Say someone kills Saddam Hussein or Assad?

“That proves you have to be very, very careful about the steps you take. Today there is one lunatic. Tomorrow there can be another. Former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney said something at a NATO conference years ago. ‘It’s not what your enemy says, and it is not what his intentions are. What is really important is only one thing and that is your enemy’s capabilities.’ That’s why we first have to deal with the Middle East arms race. It doesn’t matter who says what or what their intentions are. It’s their stockpiles that count.

“And as for King Hussein, I have great respect for him because he managed to survive in political life for 40 years. I only lasted 20, so I can appreciate him. When he goes, maybe his family will take over or maybe the Palestinians will. Who knows?”

After September’s signing of the letter of mutual recognition, Sharon protests the participation of Arabs from East Jerusalem in the elections, seeing it as a basic erosion in the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The government has agreed to the return of the 1967 refugees. Sharon is convinced that hundreds of thousands of Arabs flooding into the territories will escalate terrorism and deepen hostility.

Autonomy should not affect areas settled by Jews, he says. It should not be effective in the corridors and bridges that link the Mediterranean with the Jordan Valley and conditions and terms should be laid down before autonomy is granted.

And what is his message to the confused Jews of the Diaspora?

“First of all, stay Jews. Stick to Judaism. Learn the Bible, learn the history of the land and the people. Then move to Israel. Send your children there. Anti-Semitism is spreading like fire around the world. And until you get there, back Israel politically. Invest in Israel.

“I came to America to strengthen the small Jewish community that lives within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. When you walk in the narrow streets and see the holes where the mezuzahs once were, and you see the places where they have changed the doorposts so you can see that they’re hiding Jewish places, you will understand the fragility of our security.

“We need to be strong within the walls and in the City of David, the place where all our stories began, more than 3,000 years ago. We need to survive.”

Right now, Ariel Sharon may feel like he’s fighting alone. But as Sidney Zion, a veteran New York journalist noted, it isn’t the first time, and it’s probably not the last.


from the February 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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