Ariel Sharon’s authority and courage much needed now
Despite a chequered career, by the time he slipped into a coma in 2006, Israel’s former prime minister was widely viewed as a bold and brave statesman
Members of the Knesset guard stand around the flag-draped coffin of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as he lies in state at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem yesterday. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
It may be a measure of the dimming of hopes for a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that Ariel Sharon’s death has evoked in the United States and Europe something close to nostalgia for his time as prime minister.
For most of his long career as a soldier and politician, Sharon’s reputation was as a reckless, bloodthirsty champion of Israeli territorial expansion who showed little respect for the law and displayed utter contempt for Palestinians and Arabs more generally.
For many of his critics both inside and outside Israel, Sharon will be remembered above all as a war criminal, who as early as 1953 led a notorious reprisal on a West Bank town for an attack on an Israeli kibbutz, killing 69 civilians, most of them women and children.
Thirty years later, an official Israeli inquiry found him “indirectly responsible” for the massacre of almost 2,000 people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in southern Lebanon.
By the time he slipped into a coma eight years ago, however, Sharon was widely seen as a bold statesman with the courage and authority to lead his people into a durable peace with their Palestinian neighbours.
His unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which involved the evacuation of all Israeli settlers from the strip, demonstrated that the colonisation of Palestinian territory by settlements must not be irreversible. By abandoning his vision of a Greater Israel that would include the West Bank, Sharon paved the way for his successors on the Israeli right, including Binyamin Netanyahu, to publicly embrace a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This lifelong soldier understood at the end the limits of military force, acknowledging that even Israel’s immense military power could not eliminate the Palestinian liberation movement or successfully enforce the occupation indefinitely.
Born near Tel Aviv in 1928 into a family of Russian immigrants, Sharon fought as a teenager against British rule and was wounded in the battle of Latrun during the 1948 war of independence that established the state of Israel and displaced 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. His death leaves President Shimon Peres, now 90, as the only surviving member of the 1948 generation still active in politics. Sharon fought in the 1956 Sinai campaign, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, winning a reputation for ruthlessness and an appetite for danger. After the 1973 war, he turned to politics, helping to found the right-wing Likud Party and using his first cabinet post as agriculture minister to expand the building of settlements in the West Bank.
During a talk at Washington’ s National Press Club a decade ago, the late British MP Winston Churchill, grandson of the wartime prime minister, said that Sharon had once outlined to him his settlement-building strategy.
“We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them,” he said of the Palestinians. “We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”
Some of Sharon’s admirers have questioned the authenticity of the quote but it represents an accurate description of what has happened across the West Bank, where at least 350,000 Israeli settlers live in heavily fortified towns built on land that, according to the Oslo peace accords, should form part of a future Palestinian state.
As defence minister, Sharon prosecuted the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 but he was forced to resign after the Kahan commission found him culpable for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. Sharon’s political comeback began in 2000 with his provocative tour of Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, accompanied by hundreds of security personnel. His action triggered weeks of Palestinian rioting but helped to catapult Sharon into the leadership of Likud and the prime ministership. He responded to a lethal wave of Palestinian suicide attacks in Israeli towns and cities with the deployment of tanks into the West Bank and Gaza and started building a separation wall around the Palestinian territories.
This strategy of separation is among the most malign elements of Sharon’s legacy, which has left Palestinians trapped in enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank while allowing many Israelis to ignore the occupation altogether. Sharon’s successors have displayed none of his boldness in pressing ahead with disengagement from the occupied territories or confronting the politically powerful settlers. The stroke that left him in a coma for eight years until his death last Saturday intervened before Sharon could demonstrate whether he was prepared to move beyond unilateral moves to engage seriously with the Palestinians to negotiate a comprehensive resolution to the conflict.
In the intervening years, the Palestinian leadership has become weaker and more divided and its people ever more dispirited while Israeli public opinion focuses on domestic social issues rather than on the conflict. Isolated in its own region, Israel risks isolation in the wider world too as its allies in Europe and the United States grow ever more impatient with its government’s apparent reluctance to make significant strides in peace talks and the continuing expansion of settlements. The movement to boycott and divest from Israel has moved from the margins into the mainstream in the United States and in the European Union, even Israel’s staunchest traditional allies are backing action against the settlements. Israel’s political leaders should take note and recapture some of the boldness Sharon displayed in the final act of his political career.
Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor