Ariel Sharon’s bulky frame, defiant wave and politician’s smile dominated the world’s television screens last week. For some observers, the fate of Israel’s hawkish, belligerent defence minister would reflect either the best or the worst of the Israeli state itself: its sensitive conscience or its defiant militarism. In the end conscience won—and Sharon lost. After a scathing report from a government-appointed tribunal, the 54-year-old career soldier was forced to resign for what the report called his “blunders” during last September’s massacre of an estimated 700 to 800 Palestinians in two refugee camps in Beirut. Sharon did not go quietly: “Why should I chop off my own head?” he railed at cabinet colleagues during their last meeting. “If you want it off, chop it off yourselves.”
The petulant outburst was in keeping with Sharon’s tumultuous career and his legendary bluntness. Despite daring exploits as a soldier, his arrogance and overwhelming personal ambition have alienated important segments of the Israeli public, including many of Sharon’s own soldiers—though not, it seems, Prime Minister Menachem Begin himself.
Indeed, Begin—who, along with five other leading soldiers and politicians, was assigned some responsibility for
the massacre by the tribunal—resisted firing Sharon despite intense pressure. When the beleaguered minister finally telephoned Begin late in the week to resign, the prime minister said that he accepted the news “with personal grief and pain.” And there were indications that Sharon may remain in the cabinet
Despite his resignation, Ariel Sharon will almost certainly remain a major force in the nation ’s politics
in another post. Throughout the week the usually hard-edged Begin appeared frail and distracted, anguished at losing his closest adviser and by his own reprimand from the tribunal. The prime minister also appeared to regret not having pushed Sharon and others for the details of what was happening in Beirut at the time of the massacres. The investigators said that they found it “puzzling” that Sharon had never mentioned to Begin the fateful decision to send the Phalangist militia into the two refugee camps.
Still, supporters of both Begin and Sharon showed their backing in street demonstrations last week, although
thousands of others demanded that the defence minister resign. The tension culminated in a bloody—and unusualexplosion in Jerusalem, when a hand grenade exploded in a group of peace demonstrators, killing one man and injuring 10. One of the wounded was Avraham Burg, a leading religious peace campaigner and the son of Interior Minister Yosef Burg.
The blast was heard clearly by the Israeli cabinet, which was meeting in emergency session nearby. Some observers say that it may have sealed Sharon’s fate—that, along with an alternately bellicose and rambling final plea for support that turned even sympathetic cabinet colleagues away from the embattled minister. But Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai said the explosion “did not affect our decision because we were near the end of the discussion.” In the end they voted 16 to 1 against Sharon.
For others the bombing marked a deterioration in Israeli political life—a new scent of violence fanned by the Begin government’s own combative style. “When hooligans are organized to bust political meetings,” said the Jerusalem Post, “when critics are called traitors, when the opposition is equated with the PLO, when Jewish vigilantism on the West Bank is made legitimate, there is indeed cause for worry.”
As the past week demonstrated, noth-
ing has divided Israeli opinion as sharply in recent years as Sharon and the war he led against Lebanon. In June Israel surprised the world with its lightning strike into Lebanon.
When the war ended last fall, the Israeli troops remained as an occupying force. And it was while they were arranging the evacuation of remaining PLO forces from Beirut that the Sabra and Shatila killings took place. The tribunal of inquiry, headed by Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan, said that before and during the massacre, Israeli commanders—who authorized the Phalange mission—turned a blind eye to the killing of unarmed civilians. “It is impossible to justify the minister of defence’s [Sharon’s] disregard of the danger of [such a] massacre,” said the tribunal. But the possibility “did not concern him in the least,” it added. Leading members of the Israeli forces were also criticized for failing to foresee or stop the carnage. They included Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan, northern front commander Amir Drori, military intelligence chief Yehoshua Saguy and Beirut forces commander Amos Yaron.
Meanwhile, the men who actually did the killing remained unnamed and largely ignored last week. The Arab world directed its fury at Sharon. In Lebanon only the Communist paper AnNida prominently mentioned the role the Lebanese Christian militia played in the massacre. Now, the same force that carried out the killings remains firmly entrenched as Lebanon’s strongest private army and is closely, if somewhat uneasily, linked with the country’s president, Amin Gemayel. Indeed, Sharon hinted broadly in testimony before the tribunal last year that Gemayel did nothing to discourage his Phalangist supporters from taking their revenge for the death in a bomb
explosion of his brother, Bashir. The two men even discussed “revenge” at Bashir Gemayel’s funeral on Sept. 15, the day before the massacre began, said Sharon.
In theUnited States,the major power broker in the region, Sharon’s forced resignation was greeted with relief. The defence minister was less circumspect than many of his Israeli colleagues and he was frequently unfriendly toward his U.S. allies. In Washington he is blamed for delaying the pullout of Israeli troops from Lebanon and for a series of recent confrontations between U.S. and Israeli forces patrolling there. Washington now believes that a weakened Begin, stripped of his powerful defence minister, will make more compromises on troop withdrawals and perhaps even on the broader issue of Palestinian autonomy.
U.S. hopes could be dashed if Begin— who is retaining the defence ministry for himself for the time being—persuades Moshe Arens to take the post. However, Arens, currently ambassador in Washington and a powerful hawk, did not accept Begin’s offer immediately. Apparently he was awaiting a decision on Sharon’s future.
Others believe that it is premature to write off Sharon. Some observers think he will be rehabilitated by Begin after a decent interval—perhaps in some minor ministry. The uproar last week proved that he still has popular support, and he is renowned for his political survivability. And he has never made any secret of wanting to become prime minister. Begin himself once joked that if
he had not given Sharon the defence post, the minister “would have surrounded the prime minister’s office with tanks.”
Sharon is seen by some as a tough pragmatist with little experience in the type of European socialism or North American Zionism that has influenced so many of Israel’s rulers. Asked to define Zionism at Harvard University in 1969, Sharon replied, “Zionism is keeping yourself close to the ground and not getting hit by Egyptian bullets.” The political theory that he seems most comfortable with is sometimes referred to as “Clausewitzian,” after the famed Prussian strategist, by Harvard University Fellow Leon Wiesaltier. Like Clausewitz, Sharon holds to a theory of absolute war—utter destruction of the enemy. Still, some of Sharon’s sternest critics are members of the armed forces—perhaps because Sharon is known for resisting discipline. Recently, his own generals—in an unprecedented move—called a meeting to express their lack of confidence in him. He irked many career soldiers by implying that one parachute regiment had been cowardly during the Beirut siege.
Gen. Mordechai Gur, a well-known Labor Party supporter, has called Sharon “unbalanced, adventurous, dangerous, undisciplined and too independent.” And former Israeli defence minister Ezer Weizman was uncannily prescient when he wrote this description of Sharon in his 1981 memoirs: “Striding through life he tends to leave behind him a wide swath of bitter enemies, disappointed sympathizers and fervent admirers. But Sharon has lost sight of the distinction between his own personal good and the good of the state.”
Last week Israel was widely praised for its moral punctiliousness in insisting that Sharon be removed as minister of defence—even though no Israeli soldier was shown to have taken a direct part in the massacre. Some claimed that the incident showed what sort of state modern Israel really is. Ariel Sharon’s future—obscurity or a return to the pinnacle of political power—may also be an indication about the sort of country Israel will become.
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