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Who Was Ariel Sharon?

January 23, 2014

“The UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
–Nelson Mandela (December 4, 1997)

We know who Nelson Mandela was, but who was Ariel Sharon? A larger-than-life Israeli hero who secured the Jewish homeland against its implacable enemies? Or a reckless warrior who twisted the course of Israeli-Palestinian history into its present hopelessness, fear and hatred on one side, bitterness and hatred on the other? I see the latter, and a consequent erosion of confidence in the future and a deepening anxiety on all sides, including the American. If that seems harsh, see the obituary of Sharon in The Economist: “For some he was indelibly ‘the butcher of Beirut,’ the man who in 1982 dragged Israel into a bloody and gratuitous war in Lebanon which shamed it before the world. For many more he was the hero of the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the man who led his troops across the Suez Canal and thus saved Israel from defeat by Egypt” (January 18-24, 2014, p. 90).

In Jerusalem in 2007—Sharon was then two years into the eight-year comma that followed a massive stroke—I asked a retired American business executive who had moved to Israel how he felt about the future. Without a moment’s pause he said he’d feel a lot more confident if Israel still had Ariel Sharon at the helm. Yet we must wonder: Are the Israelis more secure today, or more endangered by the slow-moving tide of international opinion, which knows that this occupation, now in its fifth decade, must somehow come to an end?

Recently the ASA, American Studies Association, voted to boycott Israeli universities; the intent is to cut off academic exchanges and cooperation in research, but many commentators have belittled the effort by saying it has only “symbolic” effect. That the ASA declaration and others like it in Europe have been met with angry howls indicates precisely that such a symbolic action has powerful effect. It delegitimizes.

Predictably, the boycott declaration has been met with charges of a “double standard” when judging Israel as compared to predominantly Muslim countries. The big difference is that the United States is not linked in economic and military alliance to these other countries as it is to Israel. The other main charge is anti-Semitism–“in effect if not in intent,” said Lawrence Summers (interview with Charlie Rose, PBS). The critics do not pause to comment on the substantive rationale for the action, but only the presumptive motives of the actors. Speaking now anecdotally, but from first-hand experience: At the Palestinian university in Nablus I asked, “Why does it appear that most of the students are women?” They answered, “Most of the young men are in military detention.” I learned from talking with Palestinians who are professionals in Haifa (in Israel proper) that segregation between “Jew and Arab” prevails in public schools, funding for the latter being a small fraction of the former. We Americans are familiar with the “separate and un-equal” formula.

Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, it is delegitimizing the long-dominant Likud bloc. To put it generously, their policies are racist “in effect if not in intention”!

As Americans know, racism has consequences. In Palestine I heard a woman tell how her son, a reporter for the Reuters agency, had been shot and killed in Jenin while photographing demolitions by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). I also heard the mild-mannered Vice Mayor of Bethlehem tell how his young daughter was shot and killed by the IDF in while sitting in the back seat of the family car on the way to the grocery store. Such cases (and thousands more could be told) are regularly explained as the unfortunate result of necessary “security” concerns. Quite apart from the way any moral person feels about such events, think about their cumulative effect on the attitudes of Palestinians!

In Tel Aviv we visited Adam Keller, whose Israeli Peace Bloc publishes ongoing commentaries on the quest for a just peace (see A January 18, 2014 column by Uri Avnery gives a fascinating summary of Sharon’s career and character: “An ex-general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, told me yesterday: ‘He was an Imperator!’ I find this a very apt description. Like a Roman imperator, Sharon was a supreme being, admired and feared, generous and cruel, genial and treacherous, hedonistic and corrupt, a victorious general and a war criminal, quick to make decisions and unwavering once he made them, overcoming all obstacles by the sheer force of personality. One could not meet him without being struck by the power he emanated. Power was his element. He believed that destiny had chosen him to lead Israel.”

When I was a college student travelling in Europe, I recall a suave Swiss psychiatrist (he said he didn’t smoke because it interfered with his appreciation of kirsch) asking us what we Americans thought of Zionism. It had never occurred to me to think it was anything but a noble movement to build a homeland where Jews would create a safe, democratic, and prosperous nation. I was surprised that he asked, and he seemed bemused by the innocence of our answers. This was long before Israelis came to call Ariel Sharon “the king of Israel.”

I can date my “the king has no clothes on” awakening precisely: 1982, when Sharon led the IDF into Lebanon, concealing his intentions from the world, and even from Prime Minister Begin. The onslaught was deadly and destructive; the puppet he placed at the head of the Lebanese government was assassinated within weeks, and hundreds of Palestinians were murdered in their refugee camps. For allowing the massacre to occur he was subsequently held responsible by an official Israeli inquiry; the military and moral debacle cost him his command. For the time being.

In September, 1982 I gave a sermon at the Unitarian Church of Arlington, Virginia—the Pentagon is about 2 miles down the road!—called “Israel Is Creating Palestine.” The title was perhaps too clever by half, or perhaps a century ahead of its time. My intention was to say that the very attempt to deny that a Palestinian people exists (in Israel they insist on only calling them “Arabs”) raised Palestinian national aspiration. Sharon failed to engineer a Palestinians takeover of Jordan, and failed to install a compliant ruler in Lebanon, but boasted success, nevertheless:

“Normal life has returned to the Galilee. . . . The kingdom of terror that the PLO had established on Lebanese soil is no more. . . . No army in the history of modern warfare ever took such pains to prevent civilian casualties as did the Israel Defense Forces. . . . Determined as we are to defend ourselves, it is the path of peace that is most pleasant to us.” (Op-ed column by Ariel Sharon, “Gains form the War in Lebanon,” The New York Times, August 29, 1982.)

After Sharon died, this month, Ari Shavit (author of the acclaimed book, My Promised Land) commented in an NPR interview on the irony of Secretary of State John Kerry praising Sharon: he opposed everything that the Adminstration’s peace initiative stood for! I think Kerry’s words were “diplomatic” and credit his labors as courageous, if not quixotic. The January 15 Washington Post (p. A8) reported that Mr. Netanyahu’s ministers of Defense and Housing both publicly derided Kerry’s efforts to gain support for a peace agreement by satisfying Israeli “security” demands. His reward was sarcasm: his proposal “is not worth the paper it is written on,” said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”

All of which brings us to our present, depressive state of mind. To gain peace between enemies (and it does happen in history) the parties have to both want it and believe that it is possible. We keep hearing that peace is not possible (Netanyahu said the other day about Abas exactly what Sharon used to say about Arafat: “We don’t have a negotiating partner.”) Apparently what they mean is: Peace is not desirable if it means, among other unhappy things, discontinuing settlement construction on land that the other side thinks is up for negotiation. In short, for Israel there is no downside to the status quo. Given the guarantee of American largesse in perpetuity, who needs change?

When I wrote on “The Demise of the Two-state Solution” a little more than a year ago (, December 2012), friends told me I was too pessimistic. Then last September 15 The New York Times published a lead essay in its Sunday Review section, “Two-State Illusion,” by University of Pennsylvania professor Ian S. Lustick. With far greater academic authority than I can claim, he said pretty much what I had said, and went one step further, as the sub-heading suggested: “The idea of a state for Palestinians and one for Israelis is a fantasy that blinds us and impedes progress.” In other words, we must look for radically different solutions. Lustick comments: “The issue is no longer where to draw political boundaries between Jews and Arabs on a map but how equality of political rights is to be achieved. The end of the 1967 Green Line as a demarcation of potential Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty means that Israeli occupation of the West Bank will stigmatize all of Israel.”

As for Secretary John Kerry’s ongoing effort, we can say: If it succeeds, At last, thank God! And if it doesn’t, Maybe this will help tear the scales from our eyes, however painful clear-sightedness may be. Yes, only equal political rights will resolve this conflict.

Some suggest that, if he had lived, Sharon would have found a way to withdraw settlements in the West Bank, as he did in Gaza, and reach some kind of a deal. They even called him a “warrior for peace.” Perhaps, but Ariel Sharon is dead.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Wayne Slawson permalink
    January 25, 2014 4:47 pm

    Hi Kim,

    Terrific piece on Israel and Sharon. Very convincing.


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