Arik's Bus

Amir Oren - Haaretz: Israel News - January 6, 2006

"A bus is on the way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem," begins a story told by retired major general Israel Tal. "After Sha'ar Hagai, when the ascent begins, the driver stops the bus, turns around and says, 'I can't drive anymore, maybe there's someone here who can continue until Jerusalem?' Fifty passengers fall silent, look at one another, afraid to take responsibility. A bus is big and heavy and there are turns and cliffs, and 50 people have to get home safely. It's complicated. But the moment a prime minister says 'I can't go on anymore,' 50 people are candidates to replace him - because it's only the premiership, you don't need any special knowledge or skills, we'll muddle through."

Tal's friend, Ariel Sharon, always wanted to jump into the seat of the national driver. With no little agility he made his way forward from the back seats, pushed the passengers in front of him and sometimes had to stand in the aisle, but was never tempted to throw away the keys and get off the bus. In this he internalized the lesson of Menachem Begin's life. After Begin emerged from hospital to become prime minister, in 1977, he was interviewed by Diane Sawyer of CBS. Tell me, Mr. Prime Minister, Sawyer said, like a young student in the department of political science, how did you plan your political course until you reached this position?

Begin, sated with political failures and election losses, guffawed paternally. Politics, he said, is a long corridor with many doors along the walls. The politician goes from door to door, turning each handle in vain, discovering that the doors are closed to him - until suddenly one of the handles works. The door opens and he enters and again finds himself in a long corridor filled with doors, and so on. After decades a last door opens and he is in the Prime Minister's Bureau. Planning? The main thing is to stay in the corridor and keep turning the handles.

Before he learned this lesson firsthand, Sharon (who would not have made the mistake Benjamin Netanyahu did in 1999, when he resigned as Likud leader immediately after his election defeat) was frenetically active, even though his rivals frequently made the mistake of thinking they were rid of him. In July 1973, when he made the surprise announcement of his resignation from the army in order to take part in the Knesset elections that fall, he made his last appearance in uniform in the office of the chief of staff, David Elazar. Sharon emerged smiling, placing his red beret under his epaulet: he had obtained an emergency appointment as division commander in the south. Elazar believed that there would not be a war with Egypt - a view shared by Sharon, who nevertheless took the appointment.

Then came Yom Kippur, and Sharon tangled with Elazar, with Haim Bar-Lev, with Shmuel Gorodish. He was on the brink of being removed - his successor in the division had already been decided, Uri Ben Ari - and was saved only because of the political strength and the calculations of the defense minister, Moshe Dayan. No sooner had the war ended when he sustained two setbacks: the Likud remained outside the government and his foe from the Paratroops, Mordechai Gur, tried to strip MK Sharon of his emergency appointment.

In response, Sharon outflanked Gur, hooked up with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a general "adviser" (he also abandoned him ahead of the 1977 elections), established the Shlomzion party and reentered the Likud through the back door - with the intention of never leaving again. He got his sweet revenge on Gur in the Lebanon War, when, as defense minister, he said with feigned innocence that he was compelled to deny the request of the former chief of staff, now a Labor MK, to be called up for reserve duty.

The price of remaining in the corridors was foregoing principles. The state is I, the army is I, the party is I; therefore I have to be relied on to know what to do at any given moment. Thus with Dayan, thus with Ehud Barak, thus with Sharon as the connecting link between the two.

Chameleon, like everyone
Sharon had viewpoints, but was not carried away to the point of sticking to them at all costs. The most salient example was the dispute over the defense of Sinai in the War of Attrition at the end of the 1960s. In the General Staff of Haim Bar-Lev, the posts of chief of the territorial commands went to Bar-Lev's opponents in this dispute, Tal and Sharon, who espoused a mobile, flexible defense and were against the static, rigid line along the Suez Canal, known as the Bar-Lev line. Tal, who was commander of the Armored Corps, was supposed to become chief of Southern Command, the senior territorial command, while Sharon, who headed the Training Department, was to be appointed chief of Northern Command. Tal made his agreement conditional on a change of the Bar-Lev Line, and when this was rejected, he left the army to develop the Merkava tank. Sharon, though, was not so fastidious. He was convinced he could change the line from within, to do as he pleased. This can be viewed as obtaining something by fraud, or as self-deception.

In his years in the corridors, in the army and in politics, Sharon discovered that there are no shortcuts. The haste to stand out above his peers did advance him for a time, but also generated friction, which braked him. From the moment he received - or, more correctly, took - the opportunity of his life in the 101st Unit of the Paratroops, he became embroiled with his subordinates, with his fellow officers and with his superiors.

The patronage of the supreme authority, David Ben-Gurion, helped him only a little. If it had not been for Ben-Gurion, the chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, would have succeeded in his efforts to kick him out even before the costly and unnecessary entanglement in Qalqilyah and certainly after the costly and unnecessary entanglement at the Mitla Pass. But Ben-Gurion's fondness did not translate into readiness to quarrel with Dayan, with the next chief of staff, Haim Laskov, and with the one after him, Zvi Zur.

The same pattern was repeated when Sharon was minister of defense, in the Lebanon War, and in his thrust to accumulate independent power.

To this day, retired major general Meir Amit, a former chief of the Mossad espionage agency, has not forgiven Sharon for activating the Scientific Liaison Bureau as a competitive Mossad in the recruitment of Jonathan Pollard.

In another matter, Sharon was embittered, and with some justice: he was treated strictly, while others were treated leniently. He was no more of a deceiver, an intriguer, or a political chameleon than the figures who emerged before him and alongside him in the 1950s defense establishment and went on to become political leaders. He behaved like them, but was punished more than them, because he did not understand that the times had changed. What had been classified and therefore permitted in 1956 had become open and forbidden in 1982. Ben-Gurion believed that it was dangerous for Israel to go to war without the support of a world power. Sharon updated the rule: make no move without supreme support (America?)externally and broad support (the Labor Party) domestically.

Fomenter of furor

Sharon was an officer with a sharp political consciousness and a politician who remained enamored of security, always seeking compensation for not having been appointed chief of staff, always ready to abandon a Likud led by Netanyahu for the sake of a security portfolio in the Rabin and Peres governments. According to need, he was a member of Mapai -(forerunner of Labor) and for the sake of the ploy he threatened to leave the army and reinforce the Liberal Party. In his nondescript years, the 1980s and 1990s, and especially as he approached the age of 70 during the Rabin and Netanyahu governments, he waxed nostalgic in describing past battles and spoke longingly of managing the wars of the future. In meetings with retired American generals, he liked to set forth with his pointer the sector boundaries of corps and divisions in the Jordan Rift Valley. His friends say his critics are wrong about him, that he is actually a poetic and goodhearted sentimentalist. More alienated observers see him as a museum exhibit. Both groups forgot his main strength - to create a furor, as when he crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 and when he visited the Temple Mount in September 2000.

The fateful mistake that led to Sharon's election as prime minister was made by Ehud Barak, but underlying it was the spirit of Yossi Beilin. After the Camp David conference, in 2001, Barak was concerned about "Beilin" - a codename for the left wing, for Europe, for the Clinton administration - and about his threat to denounce the government's departure from the holy writ of Oslo. Sharon could have been bought cheaply: the Finance Ministry to him, the Interior Ministry to Silvan Shalom. But Barak flinched, fearing the political price would be too high. He and Beilin did not understand that the alternative then to a government with Sharon's participation was not a government without Sharon but a government led by Sharon.

After the elections, Labor MK Haim Ramon torpedoed Barak's appointment as defense minister in the joint government. If not for that political move, and had it been Barak rather than Benjamin Ben Eliezer serving as defense minister in the Sharon government, the security fence would have been built faster and the tenure of Shaul Mofaz as chief of staff would have ended after three years, in favor of Uzi Dayan.

In a talk about Moshe Dayan at the National Security College in May 2000, when he was free of the burden of bearing the responsibility for implementing his rhetoric, Sharon set forth rules of behavior and indices of success. A year later, and for the next five years, these turned out to be empty words. "Every armed clash between us and the Arabs must end with a decision in our favor ... The dictionary contains no such term as 'a mission that cannot be accomplished' ... Abiding by the basic principles in our relations with the Arabs, reward and punishment ... The war will always be conducted on enemy territory." When he finally reached the highest national rank, he left all these principles in the lurch, along with Gaza.

In his last active days as prime minister, the disengagement looked like a failed initiative in most of its aspects, apart from the evacuation of the settlements. The mass support for the disengagement stemmed from hatred of the settlers and the desire to spare army casualties in protecting them - more than from any belief in the wisdom of Sharon, builder and destroyer of the settlements. Sharon gave, Sharon took, may Sharon's name be blessed. If the months ahead turn out to be rife with chaos in the territories that is attributed to the disengagement, the Sharon heritage will end up making Netanyahu prime minister.

After the suicide of Avraham Ofer, the Labor housing minister, in 1977, the attorney general at the time, Aharon Barak (who authorized the police to investigate Ofer's possible involvement in corrupt practices) said the obvious: Ofer, who was not tried and not convicted, died innocent. Sharon arrived at Hadassah Hospital as a suspect - innocent but a suspect - and he did not bother to do his best to dispel the suspicion, which will accompany him for all time, even after the last of the police files about him is closed.

The draft indictment prepared by former state attorney (now Supreme Court Justice) Edna Arbel will always be remembered; she asserted that when Sharon served as foreign minister and as national infrastructure minister "he took bribes for activity connected to the fulfillment of his office." Sharon's political partner at the time, Yosef Lapid, who was then justice minister, brought about the appointment as attorney general of Menachem Mazuz, who tore Arbel's draft to shreds. But the conviction of Omri Sharon, the prime minister's son in the election funding case made clear an abiding fact: Sharon's victory over Ehud Olmert and Meir Sheetrit in the contest for head of the Likud in 1999 was achieved under conditions of inequality.

What remains

As great as the cyclist Lance Armstrong is, if it is proved that he took banned steroids even once, his glory will be tainted. As for Sharon, dubious relations with the wealthy and people with vested interests characterized him in the past three decades. Sharon's heritage is in part the knowledge that being prime minister does not oblige zealous adherence to the law. It is disappointing to find that a seemingly intelligent and decent person, Avi Dichter, was able to ignore the suspicions against Sharon in his race for the top ranks of the Kadima party. If a candidate for a post in the Shin Bet security service had admitted to Dichter, a former chief of the service, that the police suspect him of taking a $3 million bribe from an Austrian friend, it is hard to believe Dichter would have been eager to hire him.

What will remain of Sharon? Not much. His party-under-construction, which recalls the nonsensical remark made by President Ronald Reagan in seeking to reassure people about a possible mistaken launching of a nuclear war. It is true, Reagan said, that the nuclear missiles in the U.S. submarines are ready to be launched instantly in case of a warning about a Soviet attack, but if it turns out to be a false alarm it won't be terrible - the missiles will turn back to the subs in mid-flight, like a cartoon run in reverse. The missiles that were fired from the Likud and from Labor and hooked up with Kadima in mid-air will now try to return to the submarines.