Book review: Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon, by David Landau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 3:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 5:30pm

Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon
by David Landau
3 stars

Jack Kelly

Its dust jacket hails Arik as "the first in-depth, comprehensive biography of Ariel Sharon, the most dramatic and imposing Israeli political and military leader of the last 40 years".

Comprehensive it certainly is, and author David Landau's timing is fortuitous. Sharon died on January 11 this year, aged 85. Born on February 26, 1928, in Kfar Malal in central Israel to parents of Russian Jewish descent, Sharon (originally, Scheinerman) joined the Haganah, the underground Jewish army during the British Mandate, at age 14. He fought bravely in the war of independence and joined the Israel Defence Forces after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Sharon remained in the IDF until 1973, rising to the rank of major general. In 1953, he founded and commanded Unit 101, a commando unit charged with launching retaliatory strikes against Palestinian terrorists. He commanded a brigade of paratroopers in the 1956 Arab-Israeli war, and an armoured division in the 1967 war.

Sharon's greatest military triumph came when he took his armoured division across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, cutting off the Egyptian Third Army and forcing Egypt to sue for peace.

A national hero as a result of that daring action, Sharon went into politics. He helped found the right-wing Likud Party and became defence minister in the government of Menachem Begin in 1981.

As defence minister, Sharon designed and presided over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He was forced to resign a year later when Lebanese militias allied with the Israelis massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. When Time magazine claimed he'd conspired with the militias, Sharon sued for libel. A US court found the story false, and Sharon won an apology from Time.

After outmanoeuvring Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of Likud, Sharon was elected prime minister in a landslide in 2001. Then after long opposing trading "land for peace", he unilaterally withdrew Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip.

Sharon's dramatic change of heart caused a revolt in the Likud Party, so he bolted it and formed a new centrist party, Kadima. He was soaring in the polls when he was felled by a stroke in December 2005. After suffering a second, more severe stroke in January 2006, Sharon fell into a coma from which he never recovered.

Landau, former editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, began work on the biography shortly after Sharon suffered that stroke.

If you like exhaustive detail, you may like this rambling book. But if you find exhaustive detail exhausting, you may conclude that the fat kid who became one of Israel's greatest soldiers, then its most controversial politician, deserves a biography that does a better job of separating the wheat in his life from the chaff.