Reading Gilad Sharon’s new biography of his famous father, Ariel Sharon, one comes to understand why Gilad and his brother Omri insisted on keeping the former Israeli prime minister alive, against the advice of doctors, when he suffered a debilitating stroke almost six years ago.
Much as others have questioned that judgment, as Sharon remains in a coma-like state, it was consistent with the way their father lived, and led, on the battlefield and in the seat of power in Jerusalem. And the basis for the sons’ decision goes back more than six decades.
As he launched a major U.S. book tour, Gilad, a tall, thin, soft-spoken man of 45 with a slight lisp and pleasant manner, explained the other day how his father’s life and point of view changed forever on May 26, 1948.
It was during a key battle for the village of Latrun in the war for independence, and Ariel Sharon was already a platoon commander at the tender age of 20. But on a sweltering day in the wadi below the village, Sharon’s group of 35 men was ambushed by Arab fighters in a devastating attack, and he himself was severely wounded.
Lying there, looking out at the dead and wounded around him, friends he had grown up with, he realized there was nothing he could do for them as the Arabs advanced.
He gave what he later called “the most difficult” order of his life: to retreat and save the few soldiers still alive, leaving the wounded to their awful fate at the hands of the approaching enemy.
The experience forever haunted his father, Gilad recalled, and led to an ironclad rule he enacted in the army: no soldier, alive or dead, could be abandoned. (It’s a message Gilad stressed in justifying the release of Gilad Shalit in the recent lopsided prisoner swap.)
It seems clear that to Gilad and Omri Sharon, following the advice of their father’s doctors would have been like leaving him on the battlefield.
At the end of his new 600-page biography, “Sharon: The Life of a Leader” (HarperCollins), Gilad reveals that when doctors told him there was nothing more they could do for his father, in early 2006, he told them of a dream he had years earlier in which his father lay incapacitated in a hospital bed and wordlessly stared at his son “with this look, with those green-gray eyes of his, and I knew I would never give up, and that I simply would not leave him.”
His book, a long and loving portrait that attempts to show the human side of the mythic Israeli figure, is a son’s effort to speak for and defend his father, who has been both glorified and reviled in Israel for more than five decades.
In an interview at the JCC Manhattan last Wednesday evening before an audience of about 150 people, Gilad told me he “felt a duty to share” the story of his father’s life from his “unique point of view” as his father’s confidant, closest friend and protector. He said he spent four and a half years going through his father’s extensive archive of diaries, letters and other writings in researching this biography of a man who suffered great personal tragedy and public triumph.
Sharon’s first wife, Margalit, was killed in a car accident in 1962, leaving behind their son, Gur, who was 5 at the time. Sharon later married Margalit’s younger, sister, Lily, who helped raise Gur until his untimely death in 1967, when a playmate accidentally shot him with a rifle while playing in the backyard. He was 10 years old.
Lily died of cancer in 2000, leaving behind Gilad and his brother Omri, two years his senior.
Omri is the better known, for better or for worse, of the two surviving brothers. Like his father, he is a large man with an outgoing personality, and served in the Knesset before resigning when convicted of fraud — a topic not mentioned in Gilad’s book.
Gilad served as a major in the IDF reserves, writes a column for Yedioth Achronot, an Israeli daily, and manages the Sharon family farm, where he worked on the book.
Hero And Villain
Reading of Ariel Sharon’s military and political triumphs and failures, one is reminded that he was not only witness to all of the modern state’s history but was at the very center of it as a chief actor, alternately seen as both a creator and destroyer, hero and villain.
In his early 20s he created the first anti-terror unit in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and was instrumental in the state’s victories in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. As defense minister in 1982 he initiated and advanced the fight against the PLO in Lebanon but later came to be blamed for deceiving Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and the country, by pursuing the enemy beyond the promised boundaries.
After years of political exile, he was elected twice by wide margins as prime minister, and was en route to a third victory when he was felled by a series of strokes.
As prime minister Sharon reversed the course of the horrific second intifada, striking back at the terrorists in the West Bank and constructing a security fence. But the father of the settlement movement infuriated former supporters on the right when he planned and executed the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005.
Love him or hate him, he was a strong leader with a sense of purpose, evoking intense feelings of loyalty among those who served under him in the military and deep jealousy among fellow officers who found him headstrong, arrogant and overly blunt in his criticism of them.
Gilad’s book covers the major events of his father’s life, the political and military battles, but clearly from an admiring and devoted son’s point of view. This is especially true in descriptions of his father’s actions during the Lebanon War of 1982, when a blue-ribbon commission blamed him indirectly for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres of Arab Muslims by Christian Arabs, and recommended that he be removed as defense minister.
Gilad maintains that his father alerted the Begin cabinet of his plan to push toward Beirut, and that it approved, and that his father was unfairly blamed for the massacres and libeled by Time magazine. The sensational trial, in which Sharon sued Time for suggesting he encouraged the attack, ended in a draw of sorts. The court ruled that Time’s allegations were false and defamatory, but that the magazine did not act with “actual malice” so was not guilty of libel.
This book is not the place to look for hard criticism of Sharon. If, however, you are looking for dirt on just about every other major Israeli leader, from Moshe Dayan to Bibi Netanyahu, you’ll be delighted.
Dayan is portrayed as a good general but political coward, Shimon Peres as caring more about his career than his country, and Ehud Barak as able to disassemble watches but unable to tell time politically. The harshest words, though, are reserved for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, viewed as cowardly and untruthful. Gilad charges that Netanyahu, after being elected prime minister in 1996, reneged on a promise to appoint Sharon finance minister. A year later, he writes, on being summoned to a meeting by Netanyahu, Sharon told him, “a liar you were and a liar you have remained.”
It was, Gilad writes, “the shortest meeting in the history of the prime minister’s office.”
The most disturbing allegation in the book, though, is that jealousy and politics led Israeli generals to delay Sharon’s repeated efforts to launch the critical counterattack against Egypt that reversed the tide of the Yom Kippur War. Untold lives were lost as a result of the postponement, casualties of internal conflict.
In explaining the painful episode, Gilad told me that his father had helped found the Likud party at a time when the army was overwhelmingly affiliated with Labor. As a result, “you couldn’t get to a certain rank if you were not a member of Labor,” Gilad said. In addition, he asserted that “my father’s abilities and energy put to shame all the rest (of the top officers), and he never held his opinions back. It didn’t help.”
In his own soft-spoken manner, Gilad lets his political views be known, and they lean decidedly to the right. In a lunch meeting at the Conference of Presidents on Wednesday, and at the JCC program that evening, he was asked, and responded to, a number of questions. He suggested the Arab Spring may well result in more problems for Israeli security and asserted that the Arab dispute with Israel is not territorial but based on a refusal to accept a Jewish state.
Asked he if plans to go into politics, Gilad, a member of Kadima (founded by his father), demurred, saying he is going to spend more time now with his wife and four children after finishing the biography.
“Spoken like a true politician,” I told him.
In our conversation, he said the question he is asked most is “what would your father do now?” and it is applied to virtually every controversial Mideast event over the last six years
His consistent answer is indirect, but the message is clear. “My father had no regrets,” he says.
It would appear that Gilad does not regret going to extraordinary means to keep his father alive, describing his condition as less dire than most imagined.
“He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly,” Gilad wrote on the last page of his book.
“Large, strong, self-assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he’s awake, he looks out with a penetrating stare. He hasn’t lost a single pound; on the contrary, he’s gained some.”
Gilad said that he, his wife or his brother have not missed a day visiting Sharon in the hospital, and that the former leader appears responsive when he is awake. “I’m sure he hears me,” he said.
Wouldn’t we all like to know what he’d have to say about what Israelis call simply “the matzav” (the situation) today?