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I should say R.I.P. but can’t, as I despised and loathed him for way too long, from his invasion of Lebanon through the second Intifada. Along with countless others—including many Israelis—I simply couldn’t stand the man. I could barely even stand to look at his tronche on television and was thoroughly appalled when he was elected PM in 2001. After all he had done, I could hardly believe that he would attain such a position (though I suppose we should thank Yasser Arafat for that). But whereas others will continue to viscerally hate public figures for decades, indeed a lifetime, my detestations are rarely eternal. From 2004 or so onward, I became increasingly indifferent toward him and, I will readily admit, was favorably surprised by the Gaza evacuation. Okay, he may have done it for his own reasons and with no coordination with the PA—which was an error—but he still did it, and ejected 8,000 settlers in the process. No other Israeli politician could have or would have carried out such an operation. But he didn’t get too much credit from his pro-Pal detractors for that. And his death on Saturday brought forth the expected torrent of vitriol and hate from the usual quarters on my Facebook news feed, rivaled only by that accorded to Margaret Thatcher when she passed away last April. On this I adhere to the sentiments of MENA specialist Bill Lawrence—recent North Africa director at the ICG, now with POMED—, which he posted yesterday on FB
All of the Sharon-bashing today on facebook rubbed me the wrong way. I understand why those who Sharon-bashed did it–it is cathartic, among other things. And done right it can be educational and serve to counterbalance misinformation coming out. But it was mostly happening in echo chambers where everyone knows the score. To speak ill of someone on the day they die, no matter who it is, and with so much vitriol, does not make us better. (I am guilty of this bashing the dead myself as well, so I am not trying to be holier than thou here. I’m just trying to process.) Any death is a death for all of us, whether of Sharon, of a victim of Sharon, or a victim of a victim of Sharon. There is no complete justice in this life, and certainly not from killing for revenge, nor from speaking ill of those who just died. I increasingly feel we should use the occasion of any death to try to love each other a bit more, and not hate each other more. Better to bite one’s tongue than to bite another with one’s tongue and teeth. And I say this with full knowledge of man’s inhumanity to man on a daily basis including from my country. I am not calling for silence, or ostrich-like ignorance, just for thoughtfulness on all accounts. May the victims of Sharon rest in peace and may all those who lost their lives today, in Syria, in Libya, in the Central African Republic, elsewhere in Africa, in the Gulf, in Palestine and yes in Israel rest in peace, and may we all learn the lessons of this life and love each other and all humanity more.
The Sharon derangement syndrome—with which I had been afflicted—had become such that even people who should have known better—e.g. MENA academic specialists—were mouthing all kinds of nonsense about him. E.g. a petition that circulated among US MENA and other lefty academics in 2003 or ’04—and that was signed by dozens, including several I knew personally—warned of Sharon’s apparent desire to expel the Palestinian population from the West Bank, to transfer it across the Jordan river, or somewhere. This was preposterous, as Sharon had never evoked such a prospect. He had never even hinted at it indirectly. Ever. Not a single time. And he was never associated at any moment in his career with the sectors of the Israeli extreme right that advocated this (even MENA specialists seemed to forget that Sharon’s early political orientation was more toward the Labor party than the Herut or other right-wing movements). As for the Gaza disengagement, it went almost without saying on the left and pro-Palestinian camp that it would not be repeated on the West Bank, that Gaza was evacuated precisely to reinforce Israel’s hold on the WB. Perhaps. Perhaps not. We’ll never know. On this—as on Sharon more generally—, Shlomo Avineri had an op-ed in the January 11th Haaretz on “Ariel Sharon: The leader who was almost de Gaulle“:
The life of Ariel Sharon reflects, to a great extent, the various upheavals the State of Israel has undergone. Just as the young member of the Haganah (prestate underground army) from Kfar Malal became a glorified military commander, the driving force behind the settlement enterprise, and a symbol of Israeli power-orientation – manifested in the decision to launch the first Lebanon War in 1982 – Israel also went from being a David facing Goliath to a regional military power. At some point, Sharon – like the rest of Israel – came to understand the limits of power and its inherent dangers.
When Sharon shocked his Likud comrades on the eve of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza by saying that the ongoing Israeli control of the territories was bad not just for the Arabs but also for the Jews, it was clear that realism and sobriety had overcome not just the settlement ideology but the intoxication with power that had characterized post-1967 Israel.
It emerged that the cruel dialectic of politics allows those affiliated with the right to carry out what the left wants to do but cannot. There is a great similarity here to Charles de Gaulle. While the French socialists wanted to withdraw from Algeria, they could never muster the required majority for the move. It was de Gaulle – who came to power through a military coup (something that could never happen in Israel) under the slogan “Long live French Algeria” – who put an end to 130 years of French control of the north African state, resulting in the displacement of more than a million French settlers.
From Sharon’s perspective, the disengagement constituted only the first chapter of a process that was to go much further in the West Bank, with his new party, Kadima, providing the necessary public support. The difference between the two, of course, lies in the fact that de Gaulle succeeded in implementing his policies, while Sharon’s effort was abruptly halted midstream.
What caused Sharon to change direction? First, even though he had initiated the forming of Likud, his origins were not in the Revisionist movement but in the Labor movement. Sharon was a hawk, but a security hawk, not an ideological one – even though at times he felt the need to use “Greater Land of Israel” language. Therefore, when he was convinced that an Israeli presence in Gaza was not a strategic asset but a burden, he had the emotional and moral wherewithal to make the tough decision to withdraw from the Strip and uproot the Jewish communities there, even though they had been established, in no small measure, at his initiative.
One needs considerable intellectual honesty combined with determination – if not brutality – to make such a decision.
In a deeper sense, though, a more fundamental insight lay behind the decision to go forward with the disengagement. Sharon, whose political career was almost destroyed following the first Lebanon war, learned lessons from that experience that many others failed to learn, and this was manifest in his words and deeds.
For starters, he began to understand the limits of Israeli power. Though Israel is the strongest military power in the region, it does not have the power to eliminate the Palestinian movement or force the Palestinians to accept Israeli control over the territories.
Second, given the way that the Lebanon war polarized the country, Sharon understood that, in the future, when Israel would face a choice of making war or making peace, it was necessary to make every effort to keep the Labor Party in the government. He did this after he was elected prime minister in 2001, giving the foreign affairs portfolio to Shimon Peres and the defense ministry to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. His forming of Kadima also expressed his desire to establish a central force on the political map that could attract moderates from both the left and right.
Sharon’s eulogizers will spend a lot of time discussing his legacy. It’s a complicated one; the settlement enterprise in the West Bank is certainly making the negotiating process more difficult. But the Gaza withdrawal points to the only process that seemingly has a chance – painful unilateral steps that, even without an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel can take in order to reduce its control over them, even as it preserves its security and survival as a Jewish state.
(A minor quibble: de Gaulle did not precisely come to power in a military coup; there was a sort of coup in May 1958 but he was invested in power legally by the parliamentary regime. But the point is well-taken: Israel is not the French Fourth Republic in its dying days, even though there is a similarity or two.)
À propos of Avineri’s obit, Barak Ravid has a most interesting piece in today’s Haaretz: “Sharon was planning diplomatic moves beyond Gaza, leaked documents reveal.” The lede: U.S. cables, Palestinian papers quote then-Israeli prime minister eyeing negotiated withdrawals from West Bank.
Other worthwhile remembrances I’ve read over the past couple of days:
Aaron David Miller, “Warrior, Farmer, Leader: Reflections on the flawed-but-unmatched legacy of Israel’s Ariel Sharon,” in Foreign Policy.
Times of Israel analyst Avi Isaacharof, “Sharon was reviled by Arabs, but that’s not the whole story.”
J.J. Goldberg, “How we recollect Sharon: good, bad, ugly, human,” in The Jewish Daily Forward.
UPDATE: An elaboration of what I said above on becoming increasingly indifferent toward Sharon (instead of merely hating him). At some point during the second Intifada it began to dawn on me that Israel was not the only party to the I-P conflict that was responsible for the conflict, i.e. the Israelis weren’t the only ones who did horrible things and worsened an already bad situation. It has been observed for a decade now that the wave of kamikaze terrorist attacks during the second Intifada dealt a mortal blow to the Israeli peace movement and hardened the Israeli population toward the Palestinians. Pro-Palestinians scoff at this notion, when they don’t angrily reject it, but it’s true. It really is. Personally speaking, the turning point was the March 2002 bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya. For me, there was a before and an after with this event, even if the evolution in viewpoint did not occur overnight. The kamikaze bombers were sent into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza by organizations—Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade et al—and with the full knowledge and benediction of Yasser Arafat. And it was a calculated strategy, not spontaneous revenge attacks of the weak. I told people—those who would listen—a decade ago that the Palestinians were going to pay a severe price for the strategy pursued during the second Intifada. And I wasn’t wrong. Ariel Sharon may have been an SOB but there have been many SOBs in this conflict, and on all sides. The policies of Sharon during his five years as PM would have been pursued by any other Israeli in his position.
2nd UPDATE: Gershom Gorenberg has a column in TAP on “The damage [Sharon] did.” The lede: Ariel Sharon’s long death watch makes it possible to see what he left behind.
3rd UPDATE: Alain Gresh has an obit of sorts on his Le Monde Diplo blog, detailing all the bad things Sharon did: “Ariel Sharon, la fin d’un criminel de guerre.” Couldn’t put it more subtly than that, I suppose…
4th UPDATE: Raja Shehadeh, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Ramallah some five years back, offers an assessment, on The New Yorker website, of “Ariel Sharon’s corrosive legacy.”
5th UPDATE: Writing in Tablet this time, Gershom Gorenberg says “Let’s remember the dark side of Ariel Sharon’s legacy—and bury ‘Sharonism’ with him.” The lede: As defense minister, he presided over disaster in Beirut, and as prime minister, over disengagement, not peacemaking.
6th UPDATE: Avishai Margalit has a personal remembrance, “In the shadow of Sharon,” in the February 20 2014 NYRB. It is well worth reading.
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