Ariel Sharon’s Legacy
By Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Verso, 2009).
This article appeared on The Guardian
Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday after eight years in a coma, was one of Israel’s most iconic and controversial figures. His long and chequered career as a soldier and politician largely revolved around one issue: the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours. As a soldier he was involved at the sharp end of this bitter conflict. As a politician he became known as “the Bulldozer” on account of his contempt for political opponents and his ruthless drive to get things done. In various ministerial capacities he was a leading player in building Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Without a single exception these settlements are illegal and they also constitute the main obstacle to peace. Sharon was a deeply flawed character, renowned for his brutality, mendacity, and corruption. Despite these flaws he holds a special place in the annals of his country’s history.
Five prime ministers had profound influence in shaping the course of Israel’s history. David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, concluded the 1949 armistice agreements – the only internationally-recognized borders that Israel has ever had. His successor, Levi Eshkol, presided, in the wake of the resounding military victory in the June 1967 War, over the expansion of these borders and the subsequent transformation of the plucky little democracy into a brutal colonial empire. Menachem Begin was the first prime minister to sign a peace treaty with an Arab state. He returned every square inch of the occupied Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt, thereby setting a precedent. Itzhak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to move towards the Palestinians on the political front. He did so by concluding the Oslo Accord with the PLO Chairman in September 1993, and clinching the historic compromise between their two nations with the iconic handshake on the White House lawn.
The fifth towering figure in Israel’s history was Ariel Sharon. Sharon was an aggressive expansionist. His main aim when he came to power in 2001was to eliminate the two-state solution and to determine unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel. By the time he fell into a coma five years later, he had gone some way towards achieving this aim. His short-term success, however, gravely diminished the prospect of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Sharon’s legacy is therefore as controversial as his life.
Sharon had always been an ardent Jewish nationalist, a dyed-in-the-wool hardliner, and a ferocious right-wing hawk. He also displayed a consistent preference for force over diplomacy in dealing with the Arabs. Reversing Clausewitz’s famous dictum, he treated diplomacy as the extension of war by other means. The title he chose for his autobiography aptly summed him up in one word – Warrior. Like Shakespeare’s Corialanus Sharon was essentially a fighting machine. His critics denounced him as a practitioner of “gun Zionism”, as a perversion of the Zionist idea of the strong, fair-minded, and fearless Jew. To the Palestinians Sharon represented the cold, cruel, militaristic face of the Zionist occupation.
Ariel Sharon, minister of defence at the time, on an armored vehicle in the outskirts of Beirut, the 15 June 1982, during the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli army. (AP/SIPA)
As minister of defence Sharon led Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It was a war of deception that failed to achieve any of its grandiose geopolitical objectives. A commission of inquiry found Sharon responsible for failing to prevent the massacre by Christian Phalangists of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps. This verdict was etched on his forehead like a mark of Cain. But who foresaw that the man who was declared unfit to be minister of defence would bounce back as prime minister?
During the 2001 elections campaign, Sharon tried to reinvent himself as a man of peace. Sharon’s spin doctors cultivated the notion that old age was accompanied by a personal transformation from a sanguinary soldier into a genuine peace-seeker. President George W. Bush famously described Sharon as “a man of peace”. For the last forty years the Arab-Israeli conflict has been my main research interest and I have not come across a scintilla of evidence to support this view. Sharon was a man of war through and through, an Arab-hater, and an eager proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict. He regarded the Palestinians as “murderous and treacherous” and he did not believe that the conflict with them could be resolved by diplomatic means. Following his rise to power Sharon therefore remained what he had always been – the champion of violent solutions. Baruch Kimmerling, the Israeli sociologist, coined a term to describe Sharon’s political programme: politicide – to deny the Palestinians any independent political existence in Palestine.
The dominant narrative during Sharon’s premiership was the “war on terror”. Here he was in his element, making the fight against militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad the top priority of his government. After 9/11, Sharon was the first world leader to jump on the bandwagon of the “Global War on Terror”. His message to the American neoconservatives was that they were on the same side: they were fighting terror worldwide while he was fighting terror in his back yard. The Palestinian Authority, the embryonic government of the state-in-the-making, was according to him a terrorist entity. He therefore proposed to deal with it as one should deal with terrorists − with an iron fist. The American policy-makers were convinced by this argument and they turned over the Palestinians to the tender mercies of General Sharon.
No peace negotiations took place between 2001 and 2006 and it was highly revealing that Sharon regarded this as something to be proud of. To his way of thinking negotiations necessarily involve compromise and he consequently avoided them like the plague. For this reason he also rejected all international peace plans aimed at a two-state solution. One was the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative which offered Israel peace and normalization with all 22 members of the Arab League in return for agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with a capital city in East Jerusalem and a just solution to the refugee problem. Another was the 2003 Quartet Road Map which envisaged the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005.
The defining moment of Sharon’s premiership was the launching of “Operation Defensive Shield” in March 2002 in retaliation against a high-casualty Hamas suicide attack. The IDF was ordered to reoccupy the big Palestinian cities on the West Bank which the Oslo II agreement had placed under the control of the Palestinian Authority. In some ways this fraudulently named operation was a replay of the first Lebanon war. It was directed against the Palestinian people; it stemmed from the same equation of Palestinians with terrorists; it was based on the same denial of Palestinian national rights; it employed the same strategy of savage and overwhelming military force; and it displayed the same callous disregard for public opinion, international law, UN resolutions, and the norms of civilised behaviour. Sharon’s real agenda was rather more offensive than defensive. It was to put the clock back; to sweep away the remnants of Oslo; to inflict pain and misery on the Palestinians; and to extinguish their hopes for freedom and statehood.
Sharon was the unilateralist par excellence. His ultimate aim was to redraw unilaterally Israel’s borders, incorporating large swathes of occupied territory. Stage I was to build on the West Bank the so-called security barrier which the Palestinians call the apartheid wall. The International Court of Justice condemned this wall as illegal. It is three times as long as the pre-1967 border and its primary purpose is not security but land-grabbing. Good fences may make good neighbours but not when they are erected in the neighbour’s garden.
Stage II consisted of the unilateral disengagement of Gaza in August 2005. This involved the uprooting of 8,000 Jews and the dismantling of 22 settlements − a shocking turnaround by a man who used to be called the godfather of the settlers. Withdrawal from Gaza was presented to the world as a contribution to the Quartet’s Road Map but it was nothing of the sort. The Road Map called for negotiations between the two sides, leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Sharon refused to negotiate. His unilateral move was designed to freeze the political process, thereby preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state and maintaining the geopolitical status quo in the West Bank. But at the same time it was a momentous move that made Sharon many enemies on the right wing of his own party and among the settler community.
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. Zionist propaganda repeats ad nauseam the slogan “our hand is stretched out in peace”. Sharon’s hand, however, was always clenched in war. Towards the very end of his active life he bolted from the Likud to create the centrist party Kadima but Kadima did not survive his demise. Today it has only two seats in the 120-member Knesset. So Sharon’s last-minute attempt to bring about a re-alignment in Israeli politics has ended in total failure. His enduring legacy has been to empower and embolden some of the most racist, xenophobic, expansionist, and intransigent elements in Israel’s in Israel’s dysfunctional political system.