WARRIOR: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ARIEL SHARON by Ariel Sharon with David Chanoff, New York: Simon & Schuster, 571 pp., $24.95 SEVEN years after a controversy that might have ended another man's political career, Ariel Sharon looks more and more like Israel's next premier.
``Arik'' nearly brought on a government collapse and national elections in July when, gaining command of a crucial Likud Party Central Committee meeting, he torpedoed an Israeli peace plan. A cabinet maneuver just succeeded in salvaging things.
Before the next elections occur, Sharon has written ``Warrior,'' an autobiography of the man who rose through the ranks to become defense minister - then was forced to resign. What brought on the resignation was his ``indirect responsibility'' for the September 1982 massacre of at least 460 residents of Sabra and Shatila, two refugee camps in Beirut. The question is not so much whether ``Warrior'' will polish Sharon's image as whether, in an Israel edging to the right, polishing is needed.
Raised in Kfar Malal, a moshav in British Mandate Palestine, Sharon learned from his Russian immigrant father to both farm the land and defend it. At 13, he was guarding the fields by night with a dagger and club. By his mid-20s he was commander of the counterterrorist Commando Unit 101.
Sparse with personal information, Sharon lavishes words on the reprisal raids he led against Arab terrorists. He gives detailed descriptions of the temperamental equipment, midnight marches through wadis and orange groves, his men's heroics and the enemy's barbarity, and the Arabian horses brought back as booty.
More than once Sharon spells out a lesson from battle: ``It's only when you are there yourself, seeing everything with your own eyes, that you can make the necessary decisions, and the more complicated and confused a situation is the truer that is. That lesson stuck in 1967 in the Sinai and in 1973 on the (Suez) canal.''
Beirut was a confused situation in September 1982. Lebanon's president-elect had just been assassinated. Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, considered it imperative to rid Sabra and Shatila of Palestinian terrorists he believed remained there. Otherwise, the gain from Israel's June invasion - the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) pulled out of Lebanon in August - would be at risk.
But Sharon was in Israel when Lebanese militiamen were sent into the camps. The implication is that officers on the spot, not Sharon, should have prevented what took place for the next 40 hours. His criticism is muted: ``The reporting from the forward command post had been less than perfect.'' Believing no Israeli should be blamed, he omits such details as the thousands of flares Israeli troops fired to light the camps for the militiamen, or the instance when a throng tried to escape the slaughter, only to be chased back into the camps by an Israeli tank.
``Certainly no one had in any way anticipated the events that occurred that night,'' Sharon writes. But five months later, an Israeli commission of inquiry said of Sharon that possible atrocities ``did not concern him in the least.'' For this ``nonfulfillment of duty,'' the commission said Sharon should ``draw the appropriate personal conclusions.''
Others were blamed, too. But Sharon sees himself as the sacrificial lamb, betrayed by fellow Jews.
The Cabinet accepted the commission's report by a vote of 16 to Sharon's one. He resigned as defense minister on Feb. 14, 1983.
But Sharon was still minister without portfolio. He continued to have sizable support from Likud voters, in 1984 winning 42.5 percent of the primary vote to Prime Minister Shamir's 56 percent. National elections brought a joint Labor-Likud government. Sharon became minister of industry and trade, a post he still holds.
The epilogue of ``Warrior'' glides into Sharon's political vision for Israel, a sort of ``if I were prime minister....''
Having arrived at the rostrum at last, Sharon stumbles. His flair for conveying the pounding of artillery and smoke of battle gives way to thudding rhetoric and hazy concepts. And he's uncharacteristically circumspect, neglecting to repeat his public calls for King Hussein to pack his bags so Jordan can truly become the Palestinian state, and for PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to be killed.
If Sharon wants to reach out to voters who would be reassured by some dullness on his part, his final chapter is a good start.