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Sharon's Stillborn Coup D'Etat

In The Escape Artist, Gershom Gorenberg details some disturbing suppressed history in Israel.

The report that General Ariel Sharon proposed a coup d’état in May 1967, like so much else we have heard about the man, is both shocking and utterly unsurprising. No one in Israel has a longer record of ignoring rules and authority.
He's still a heroic figure to me, a great man. And I wasn't even born at the time.

The account of the coup proposal comes from Dr. Ami Gluska, a reserves colonel and ex-security official, in a doctoral thesis published by the Defense Ministry’s press, as reported by Ha’aretz. Gluska’s documentation is Sharon’s testimony, after the Six-Day War, to the army’s own history department. The information’s provenance raises a tangential but disturbing issue: the way the government and army forbid publication of historic material, then open the door to insider researchers. Usually that insures that history is written to fit the establishment narrative. Occasionally, an insider spills an upsetting piece of the past.

Sharon’s proposal to dispense with democracy came during what’s remembered in Israel as the Waiting, the days after Egypt moved its army into the Sinai in mid-May 1967. Top generals, including chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, wanted to attack before Egypt did. The cabinet was divided between those who agreed, and those who wanted to give a last chance to diplomacy. At a May 28 meeting, the cabinet narrowly chose restraint.

In Sharon’s testimony to the history department, he reportedly explained that he’d always believed a military takeover "couldn’t happen" in Israel. But after the May 28 meeting, Sharon -- then commander of a division -- allegedly told Rabin and other generals that "for the first time a situation has been created where the thing could happen and would be well received." The goal would not be for the army to govern, he explained, but only to make the decision to go to war. Sharon claimed that he couldn’t remember if Rabin agreed or not, "but I think it looked like that to him too."

On June 2, the brass met again with prime minister Levi Eshkol and senior ministers, who chose to wait a bit longer. Afterward, Sharon again allegedly raised with the other generals the idea that that "at a certain stage, we get up," order the cabinet into a closed room, and have Rabin broadcast to the nation "an announcement." (The actual, democratic decision to go to war came shortly after.)
So Sharon's alliance of convenience with Labor against his own party to implement disengagement and silence dissent isn't exactly novel or uncharacteristic, according to the article.
Interestingly, ben Gurion called Sharon a liar in his diaries.
Normally, one wouldn’t depend on Sharon as a historical source, since his capacity for prevarication is well documented. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion, in a 1960 entry in his diary, said of Sharon: "Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth… he would be an exceptional military leader." Ben-Gurion stood behind Sharon even after the young commander led the infamous 1953 attack on the West Bank village of Qibiya, in which his force killed some 70 civilians. Ben-Gurion remained his sponsor after the 1956 Sinai war, in which Sharon ignored orders, pushed a battalion into the Mitla Pass, and caused the unnecessary death of 38 Israeli soldiers. Ben-Gurion thought Sharon was "an original, visionary young man." Sharon implemented his aggressive policies, and it seems Ben-Gurion considered him the avatar of the daring young Sabra. But he knew that the man lied, regularly, often.

In the 1967 story, though, Sharon’s testimony is against himself. The published bits have the tone of someone who expected someone else to tell the story, and so wanted to give his version. His claim that Rabin saw things as he did is speculation without evidence. The safest evaluation is that Sharon twice suggested to the country’s military leaders that they seize power, and that the other generals ignored him or said no.

Sadly, this isn’t a vindication of Rabin. The question is why, even after the war was safely won, he allowed Sharon to stay in the army. Add that to the question of how Ben-Gurion remained Sharon’s patron after Qibiya and Mitla. Then there’s the question of why Pinhas Sapir, kingmaker of the Labor Party, wanted to run Sharon as the party’s candidate for Tel Aviv mayor in 1969. And the problem of how Sharon evaded a court martial for "exceeding authority" and expelling thousands of Beduin from their homes in the Sinai in 1972 (see "Sharon’s Bulldozers, Then and Now," April 5, 2004). And finally, there’s the problem of how the Likud stuck with Sharon after he misled the nation into the disastrous Lebanon War and was found by a commission of inquiry to bear "personal responsibility" for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. Sharon’s motto, "The dogs bark and the caravan keeps going," is an unintended indictment of our politics.
I think disengagement is good policy in Gaza. But I'm profoundly uncomfortable with the way Sharon is going about it, and this doesn't ease my fears any.

Posted by evariste on Nov 28, 2004 7:47 pm

1 comment

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