~“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears:I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them,The good is oft interrèd with their bones.”
~ Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”, 1599
~“The State of Israel is divine. Not only can there be no retreat from a single kilometer of the Land of Israel, God forbid. On the contrary, we shall conquer and liberate more and more. In our divine, world-encompassing undertaking, there is no room for retreat.”
~ Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, Gush Emunim, 1974
~ “Ariel Sharon was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”
~ Pres. George W. Bush, 2014
~“It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country.”
~ Pres. Bill Clinton, 2014
~ “If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.” ~ Ariel Sharon in response to U.S. officials on Lebanese Phalange attack on Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, 1982
~ “ The legal term “depraved indifference” refers to conduct that is so wanton, so callous, so reckless, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant criminal liability. Sharon personified this kind of indifference in his approach to the Palestinians.” ~ Prof. Avi Shlaim, 2014
~ “It’s horrific to watch hagiographies by people like Vice President Biden, by The New York Times, by much of the media, about a man who should have ended up at The Hague before the International Criminal Court. From the beginning of his career, he started out killing people. As commander of Unit 101, he ordered the 1953 Qibya massacre. Since then, he has acted on the belief that force is the only thing the Arabs understand. The idea he is now considered a peacemaker is grotesque.”
~ Prof. Rashid Khalidi, 2014
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As I watched and read commentaries in the U.S. press and media on the January 11 passing of Ariel Sharon, former prime minister of Israel, I wondered how it was so much that is vital to understanding this complex and brutal man was air-brushed almost out of existence, or simply omitted. Even by major American and international statesmen (such as Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair) whose diplomacy he had tried so hard to undermine in the past. It is almost as if, by committing to some kind of ‘vow of silence’ over Sharon’s real past and true beliefs, they thought it might in some way make”peace” between Israel and the Palestinians more feasible to accomplish. Even though no such “peace” talks have occurred since early 2001, when Sharon became Israel’s prime minister.
More probably this is a tragic miscalculation. Only by facing up to the full reality of a man like Sharon, now that he has passed, and the fatal legacy he leaves behind for Israel and the world, can we hope to break with the past cycle of denial and failure. And perhaps thus begin a more honest chapter in which real and lasting peace can start to be achieved. Most major American media have largely omitted references to well documented brutalities, atrocities and military-justified barbarism carried out by Ariel Sharon over fifty years in which his goal was to secure Israel by militarily removing the Palestinians from the land. Ironically, Sharon’s actions did not make Israel more secure, but less so, long-term.
By shunning the need to build relations with Israel’s Arab neighbors – no representative of whom attended his funeral – Sharon furthered Israel’s isolation : as a small vulnerable nation set amidst a still hostile Middle East, that since the 1993 Oslo peace accords (rejected by Sharon) had nevertheless repeatedly expressed willingness for change. Even the withdrawal from Gaza – much trumpeted as his changing point, his move to being a peace-maker – was hardly that. Rather it was done to reinforce Fortress Israel, extending across the West Bank, or the “ancient Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria” which he – like Gush Emunim (Israel’s radical settler movement he had joined in 1975) – would never relinquish.
So, who really was Ariel Sharon historically, politically? What legacy does he leave behind for Israel and the world ?
Early Life: Born in February 1928, Ariel Sharon grew up on Kfar Malal, a Zionist collective farm in British Mandate Palestine. As a teenager he joined a para-military organization, then at fourteen he joined the Haganah – one of the Zionist militias that violently expelled eight hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs from their lands in 1947-48 to create the state of Israel.
Military Career: Shortly after, Sharon joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and began a long career in the army. Ariel Sharon fought gallantly and led his troops to dramatic victories in the Six Day War in 1967, and again in 1973. But his troops were said to be guilty of summarily shooting Egyptian soldiers they captured as they took Sinai.
Life in Politics: In 1982, starting his political career, Sharon as Israel’s defense minister spearheaded the invasion of Lebanon. The aim was to expel all Palestinian refugees and turn Lebanon into a client state of Israel. Eventually Israelis occupied Beirut, caused the collapse of Lebanon’s fragile but hitherto viable multi-sectarian democracy. They aided the Christian Phalange militias in massacring several thousand unarmed Palestinians (many women and children) in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The collapse of Lebanon’s democracy and the brutality of Israeli occupation caused the creation of Hezbollah, initially as a defense organization for Lebanese Shia Muslims under Israeli attack.
Champion of Settlements: A decade later as Israel’s Housing Minister in 1990-92, Sharon launched the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza. By 2000, there were thousands of settlements and over 250,000 settlers. Today, there are over half a million settlers. The single major obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine today is Israel’s unwillingness to give up settlement expansion – a process Sharon started twenty years ago.
In fall 2000, negotiating teams from Israel (led by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak)and the Palestinian Authority (led by Yasser Arafat) had drawn up an agreed detailed peace plan that would have achieved a final settlement through a two-state solution. However, the Likud Party led by Sharon, refused to give up what they consider the “ancient Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria” – today known as the West Bank.
To prevent the peace settlement from going ahead, Sharon and his party organized a highly provocative march and rally at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem – perhaps the holiest Muslim shrine there. That day, the Israeli Jerusalem police had live rounds (not the usual rubber bullets) in their weapons. When the inevitable Palestinian protest at Sharon’s rally occurred, Israeli police shot and killed over two hundred Palestinians, wounding thousands more. This provocative act sparked the Second Intifada – or Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation.
Election as Prime Minister: In January 2001, running on a platform of national security – against an uprising he had himself incited ! – Sharon won a landslide election in Israel to become prime minister.
Since 2001, Israel’s government has been dominated by its right-wing – essentially Sharon’s Likud Party. Benjamin Netanyahu – a fellow extreme right-wing rejectionist – has continued the path mapped out by Sharon since 1992 : settlements expansion and isolation of Israel behind a hugely costly but unnecessary Protection Wall encircling Israel supposedly to protect it from the Palestinians – even though very few Israelis have been killed (less than fifty) compared to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died.
Israel Since Sharon : In the past decade, as Peter Beinart has documented, the entire Israeli governmental apparatus, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer corps, and ever more of the judiciary have been stacked with extreme right-wing militarist Orthodox Jewish Israelis who are hard-line nationalists. Today it is therefore far less likely that any Israeli Government could agree or implement the long-term peace process required for the two-state solution to have a chance of succeeding.
In recent months, hard-line nationalists in the cabinet of Prime Minister Netanyahu have : ~ proposed the full dismantlement of the remaining provisions of the 1992 Oslo Peace Accords; ~ proceeded with settlement expansion because they do not consider peace talks should hold them back. Netanyahu’s cabinet today is designed like the ultimate poison pill against any peace deal : Leading coalition partners are from parties that outright reject the two-state solution. They would presumably resign if it were ever put forward to them, thus causing the Israeli Government to collapse.
All prospects for any peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians seem far more remote today than they were in 2000.
This means long-term Greater Israel – including the West Bank and Gaza – will become almost assuredly a Muslim and Arab majority state. One which Israelis themselves will be unable to govern democratically – as they will never have a majority.
The Way Forward? For Israel to survive long term and to do so as a democratic state – not the flawed democracy it is today – it really needs to do two things : ~ It must undergo fundamental cultural and political change, to accord equal rights in law and politics to women and men of all sects and creeds – in addition to Judaism. This even as it remains the ultimate guarantor of the civil and human rights of Jewish people across the world; ~ It needs to shift from a society led by warrior-priests (like Sharon and Netanyahu) to a modern, forward-looking, pluralist and tolerant state that gradually builds strong relations with its neighbors, to anchor its long-term survival in the region.
With the passing of Ariel Sharon – very much a man of his time and culture – it is to be hoped a new leadership may finally emerge in Israel to take up these monumental tasks. It is also to be hoped that Western nations – particularly the U.S.A. – will have the foresight and statesmanship to enable these changes to occur, rather than continuing to feed the out-of-date dreams of the past that may well doom Israel to long-term future failure.
I, for one, hope that our political leaders will have the courage and vision to see today’s reality for what it is and help Israelis and Palestinians chart a different course for peace!