Background Report a Tenacious Defense Minister

Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, known as “Arik” to friends and foes alike, has been likened to a bulldozer, pushing everything aside to get where it wants to go. Like the American World War II General, George Patton, Sharon is acknowledged by supporters and detractors to be a brilliant field general but a man whose abrasive character has antagonized more people than have been attracted by his successes on the battlefield.

It is these attributes of general disregard for superiors and inferiors which has barred Sharon from the advancement within the army he has sought all his life — to the top post of Chief of Staff.

Even under the Labor governments, it was his personality more than his politics which blocked his way to the top; and it was his character that shunted him into the Ministry of Agriculture in the first Likud government, rather than the post of Defense Minister he coveted.

But now, with the Defense Ministry portfolio in his hands as reward for the major role he played in returning Menachem Begin to power for a second term, his abrasive character and bulldozer tactics have again caused trouble, this time with his own Defense Ministry employes.

REFORMS ARE LONG OVERDUE

Many of the reforms he is now seeking to implement in the defense establishment, streamlining operations and avoiding unnecessary duplication between the civilian ministry and the military General Headquarters, are generally acknowledged to be healthy and long-overdue.

It is the method by which he has sought to implement his reorganization rather than the reorganization itself which created the tension that has degenerated into outright hostility, strikes or labor sanctions in a ministry which has never experienced such upsets in over 30 years of its history.

In addition to his reorganization plans, Sharon intended to bring in outside aides, without consulting the workers committees or informing them in advance. His choice of Arye Genger, a former Israeli living in the U.S. where he made his fortune and adopted American citizenship was announced by Sharon without warning that Genger was arriving immediately to take up a post as personal aide with responsibility for centralizing all arms sales abroad.

Sharon may have gotten away with his choice and even turned it into an example of “soul-saving and bringing home a yored” if he had used proper public relations. But Sharon simply does not believe in consulting the hired help. Consequently, he annoyed and antagonized many devoted employes with years of hard and often underpaid service who would have liked an opportunity to be considered for such a plum job.

Genger resigned from his well-paying job in the U.S., rented out his New York apartment and came to Israel, only to announce a few days later that the local opposition to him made it impossible for him to accept the job for which he came.

The Defense Ministry and Army Staff reorganization plans drawn up by Sharon were announced by the Defense Ministry spokesman as covering three main fields. These involved the consolidation of the Army’s quartermaster branch and the Defense Ministry’s purchasing and procurement directorate; integration of the two units’ research and development facilities; and a joint project administration for production of the Lavie jet-fighter aircraft.

In addition, the Defense Ministry’s European purchasing mission, based in Paris, would be combined with the Army’s purchasing mission and placed under command of the military attache at the Embassy in Paris. A similar consolidation is also planned in North America.

Most of these consolidation moves put the civilian installations under the command of army officers –a reversal of the customary subordination of the military to overall civilian control Sharon’s opponents charged. Sharon himself tried his very best to explain that the opposite was the case, that he was only trying to tighten up civilian control by concentrating power in his own hands as Minister responsible for the civilian ministry and with parliamentary responsibility for Army General Headquarters.

Angered by Sharon’s complete disregard of their feelings, the Defense Ministry’s workers committee started a series of “labor sanctions” which they threatened to escalate into a full strike, for the first time in the history of Israel, if Sharon persisted in implementing of his reorganization plans. They instructed the head of the civilian purchasing mission in Paris not to cooperate with the Army General who Sharon sent to the French capital to implement his integration plans.

Zvi Allon, the head of the Paris ministerial office, has now agreed to leave his post in March rather than in June as planned, and has agreed to hand over authority to the Military Attache before he goes.

CLAIMS MOVES WOULD SAVE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS

In an address to the Knesset in reply to opposition motions criticizing his plans, Sharon explained that his moves would have saved the country millions of dollars and would have resulted in greater efficiency of both the army and the Defense Ministry. Observers admit this may be true, and that much of the reorganization program is long overdue.

But this does not soften the criticism, still expressed, of Sharon’s methods and his personal relationships with equals and inferiors. Neither does it do anything to lessen fears that Sharon’s almost dictatorial attitudes could, at some time in the future, represent the greatest threat to Israeli democracy. Critics recall that it was Begin who once summoned up the bogey of Sharon ordering tanks to surround the Cabinet office.

A MAJOR TESTING TIME

The next few months will be a major testing time for Sharon, both as regards his relations with his civilian staff and his political future and general popularity. The first test will come next April for it is Sharon, as Minister of Defense, who will be responsible for implementing the final withdrawal from Sinai.

It will be Sharon who will order — or refrain from ordering — the Chief of Staff to use force to evacuate settlers from Yamit, if they refuse to move of their own accord. Until now, Sharon has repeatedly appealed to his Cabinet colleagues to show restraint, not to force the issue now but to wait until April before deciding whether to move the Yamit residents and the squatters, who have joined them.

Although Sharon’s popularity in public opinion polls is among the highest at the moment, his high standing might not survive an order for Jewish soldiers to move Jewish settlers by force if necessary. A decline in popularity might prejudice Sharon’s chances of becom- ing Prime Minister if Begin steps down for any reason. Sharon still most definitely has his eye on the Premiership.

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