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Ariel Sharon: War Criminal or Savior of the Nation?

There are two divergent tracks that the Sharon obituaries are taking in the media today: either he was a war criminal or a hero of the nation.  Max Blumenthal writes in The Nation offering a suitably grisly obituary that hits all the notes in Sharon’s brutish past.  He reminds us of the thousands of Arab soldiers and civilians from Egypt to Lebanon (and everywhere in between) who were ruthlessly killed to achieve his political or military objectives.  His Hebrew nickname was “The Bulldozer,” perhaps a suitable reference to his days as undisputed national champion of the settlements and Greater Land of Israel.  But we might think more aptly of the D-9 armored bulldozer that murdered Rachel Corrie.  Sharon was a figure who mowed down anyone who stood in his way, whether Arab or Israeli.

On the other side, then there’s Rep. Deborah Wasserman-Schultz’s over the top tweet featured here with shout-outs to Amb. Ron Dermer and @Israel, the Israeli foreign ministry’s “digital diplomacy team”:

May G-d console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Rest in peace, Ariel Sharon

sharon michael jackson shmuley boteach uri geller

Almost surreal to consider this cabal of charlatans: from l., Shmuley Boteach, Uri Geller, Michael Jackson, Ariel Sharon

There is also this piece of typically borderline liberal Zionist hagiography by Ethan Bronner in which he makes this false statement about what he calls Sharon’s “barrier”:

It not only reduced infiltration by militants into Israel but also provided the outline of a border with a future Palestinian state, albeit one he envisioned as having limited sovereignty.

Though terror attacks from the West Bank declined, the Wall had almost nothing to do with it. Further, the Wall provides the “outline” of a border only if you accept Israel’s theft of 15% of the overall territory of Palestine by means of fence-fiat.

Ronen Bergman writes a much more nuanced portrait of Sharon’s weaknesses and strengths, though he ultimately accepts the perspective of Israeli liberals who saw Sharon as the DeGaulle of Israel.  A strongman, ex-general who would miraculously rescue the nation from itself and make peace with its enemies. While this is an attractive narrative, especially for those who despair of Israel ever making its way out of its miasma, it ultimately grants Sharon more credit than he deserves, since he never got to realize this dream. Thus we can never know if he would:

If Mr. Sharon had not had a stroke in 2006…he would most likely have reached a peace agreement with the Palestinians. And he would have used his powerful personality and irresistible drive, as well as the widespread affection he had acquired among his people, to force the right-wing settler movement to accept it.

This time, I have no doubt, Mr. Sharon would indeed have saved Israel — mainly from itself.

I am not as sanguine as Bergman. Sharon may’ve reached a peace agreement. He was strong and wily enough to have done it had he wanted to. Certainly, an argument can be made that this was the direction in which he was headed just before his fatal stroke. But the truth is, we’ll never know. I, for one, am not prepared to say that a leader with as brutal and unpredictable a past as Sharon definitely would’ve done something that would’ve marked such a radical break with his political and ideological past (making peace with the Palestinians).

This argument made on Sharon’s behalf is similar to one made, and more justifiably in his case, in favor of Yizhak Rabin: had he lived, he would’ve transformed Oslo into a real and lasting peace. Though Rabin too had a ruthless streak and past, it seems to me more credible to believe Rabin could’ve made such a break and negotiated a peace deal with the Palestinians. But again we’ll never know. And the truth is that each of these leaders had horrific crimes in their past, which don’t allow us to predict exactly how much they could’ve or might’ve changed had they lived.

begin sharon

Begin refused to name Sharon defense minister because he was “likely to surround the prime minister’s office with tanks.”

Unlike Bergman, I find it difficult to write or think anything positive. I can remember when I was a graduate student at the Hebrew University in 1980 riding on a public bus past a government office in Jerusalem and seeing a mock tank placed outside it by protesters who feared Sharon would mount a military coup to attain power. Israeli liberals saw Sharon then (and really for many decades) as evil incarnate. Even Menachem Begin didn’t trust Sharon (though he later relented and named him defense minister, a decision he undoubtedly regretted for the rest of his life after Sabra and Shatilla).  In the accompanying article from Maariv during that same year, Begin is quoted saying he wouldn’t name Sharon defense minister because he was likely to “find tanks circling the prime minister’s office.” It’s hard for me to believe anything constructive could come out of such a person.

We don’t know what he might’ve done had he lived. But my sense is that Israel is in such a desperate state that if anyone could’ve saved the country from itself, it was him. He was the sort of larger than life figure who could’ve, had he been convinced it was an existential necessity, carried all opposition before him in favor of a peace agreement. Settlers, his former ideological mates in the Likud, all would’ve been swept away by the forcefulness of his personality.

The question is whether Sharon could’ve freed himself enough from his past to understand what was truly necessary to get an agreement. He might’ve, instead, been happy to offer the sort of bantustan plan Bibi is hoping will come out of the current round of peace negotiations. But that would not and will not be enough to satisfy Palestinian demands. Would Sharon have agreed to return essentially to 1967 borders (with territorial adjustments) with Jerusalem as capital of two states? Would he have been able to come to an agreement on the issue of refugees?

Those of us who have always had and continue to have hope for Israel would like to think so. But the evidence since his coma in 2006 points away from this. Instead, it points to an Israel hell-bent for disaster, if not self-destruction. Therefore, pondering the “what-ifs” around Sharon’s life and death is a luxury almost too painful to contemplate.

Finally, I first heard this passage from Bertholt Brecht quoted in an article penned by a famed Hebrew University history professor.  It is as apt today as it was thirty years ago when I first read it:

Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.

Israel is a land that desperately needs a hero.  It is a land that might’ve bred such a one had Sharon lived and fulfilled the dreams of some of those who believed in him (“might” in this case promising more than one has any right to expect).  But it is ultimately now bereft even of that possibility.  A land with no hope of a hero.

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{ 23 comments… add one }

  • Shmuel January 12, 2014, 2:30 AM

    Why does he have to be either or?

    He may have committed war crimes in his past but also was a savior especially in the Yom Kippur war when he was the only commander in the south that didn’t lose his head and saved Israel from a possible massive defeat.

    His withdrawal from Gaza was brilliant diplomacy which may have led to better things had the stroke not brought his leadership to an abrupt end.

    He may favorably be compared to yassir Arafat who was also a war criminal but in later age realized that compromise is necessary and went for it.

    Ironically they could not abide each other

    • Shohana January 12, 2014, 3:10 AM

      Sharon evacuated Gaza with no thought of returning.
      Arafat signed onto Oslo but never gave up on a his dream of Palestine ‘from river to sea’.

      A significant difference, IMHO.

      • Richard Silverstein January 12, 2014, 3:41 AM

        Shohana: Palestine was rightfully a lot more important to Arafat than Gaza was to Sharon (again, rightfully in his case). Not to mention that Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal was disastrous because it was unilateral. It was an absolutely stupid decision that backfired naturally.

        • David W. January 14, 2014, 7:31 PM

          I don’t get it. You’re against the occupation, and when the occupation of Gaza ends, you criticize it because it was unilateral.

          So if Israel tomorrow decided to disengage from the West Bank, would you slam that as unilateral?

    • Richard Silverstein January 12, 2014, 3:13 AM

      @ Shmuel:

      Ironically they could not abide each other

      Not so ironically, Sharon may’ve ordered Arafat poisoned.

      • Shoshana January 12, 2014, 4:52 AM

        “Not so ironically, Sharon may’ve ordered Arafat poisoned.”

        I’m no so sure of that. The suggestion that Bush and Sharon toyed with the idea of assassinating Arafat was in the midst of the second intifada. There were no open hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians when Arafat died.

        • Oui January 13, 2014, 1:08 AM

          @DavidL: Not so difficult to find Israeli assassination advocates to eliminate Arafat.

          @Shoshana: “There were no open hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians when Arafat died.”
          Sure.

      • DavidL January 12, 2014, 9:36 AM

        Your comment seems incorrect. According to a Wikipedia report just the opposite occurred.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cause_of_Yasser_Arafat's_death

        “…the IDF had wanted to take harsh action against Arafat, ranging from killing him to expelling him, but Prime Minister Sharon rejected these ideas, stating that the advantages wouldn’t outweigh being accused of killing Arafat…”

        Please back up your speculation on this with a source.

        • Richard Silverstein January 12, 2014, 6:11 PM

          @ DavidL: And Wikipedia is an authority on this subject because…?? This article’s characterization of the situation is simply false. In fact, Sharon is known to have told numerous individuals that he wanted to kill Arafat. They in turn spoke publicly about these conversations and even expressed a belief that he did. The only question is whether he actually did it or not and how to prove it. I’ve written about this very subject here in the blog a number of times. Do a Google search on “Uri Dan” (if memory serves), among other search terms.

          • DavidL January 13, 2014, 1:00 AM

            Thanks for the search to Uri Dan.

            From what I saw it is still all speculation and nothing conclusive. What IS conclusive is that Sharon, z’l DID say it was not in the best interest of Israel (PR reasons) NOT to kill him. No doubt in my mind that Sharon DID want Arafat dead, but other interests kept him from carrying out his desire.

            So the “may” in your statement above is a big one. There is no “smoking gun” so- as of now, there is no proof.

            And based on this same type of conjecture I can also use the “may” word in describing a part of Arafat’s life…. but I won’t, simply because it is not provable and I don’t like the idea of making disparaging conjectures on people’s lives, especially once they are gone. המבין יבין

          • Oui January 14, 2014, 11:12 AM

            @DavidL: Do you want Arafat’s death sentence in handwriting? Sharon’s support for the US invasion got in the way and postponed Arafat’s execution.

            PM Arik Sharon wanted to bury PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the rubble of his Muqata HQ in Ramallah. President Bush pleaded with the “Bulldozer” not now, as the US needed support of Arab states for his invasion of Iraq – October 2002.

            “After the recent strikes that killed the Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, Israel has widened the net and indicated that it will go after Hamas leaders abroad. Its targeted killings have already included members of Mr Arafat’s organisation Fatah and its affiliate the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has been responsible for many of the suicide bombings against Israel.

            Ariel Sharon issued an ominous warning last night that Yasser Arafat could be the next Palestinian leader to be in Israel’s line of fire, when he reneged on a promise not to harm his old adversary. In dramatic remarks certain to aggravate regional hysteria over Israel’s targeted killings of Palestinian militant leaders, the Israeli prime minister said he had told President George Bush that he was no longer prepared to exempt Mr Arafat from physical harm.

            Mr Sharon had hinted at his change of policy in interviews earlier this month in which he warned that he might take unspecified action against Mr Arafat. … [these] remarks were the strongest signal yet that Israel may follow up its recent assassinations in Gaza with the decapitation of the Palestinian leadership.”

            [Source The Guardian - Sharon: 'We may kill Arafat' on April 24, 2004]

          • Oui January 14, 2014, 11:31 AM
  • Oui January 12, 2014, 2:59 AM

    Thanks for this article. You express exactly my feelings towards “bulldozer” Ariel Sharon. Due to my age, I don’t need to watch the news, read obituaries and especially watch historic films of Sharon’s command in war and atrocities. I lived through this period and still have the images stored in memory, too many to mention. Today I was taken aback when I researched his command of “Unit 101″ during a short period of its existence. From a link to Jewish Virtual Library I came across German “Battalion 101″ in Poland during the war. It took my breath away.

  • Rima Najjar January 12, 2014, 3:27 AM

    Of all the obituary headlines that came my way during this mass murderer’s 15-minutes of fame, the one that most made sense is the one titled “Ariel Sharon’s story was that of his country’s”. His objective and methods of execution that of Israel’s since it was planted in the heart of historic Palestine against the will of the indigenous population: Ensuring a viable and strong state for the Jewish people in their “historic homeland”.

    That statement is the root cause of the conflict, because it obliterates the existence of the indigenous Palestinians in historic Palestine in order to avoid even a mention of their inalienable rights in their homeland.

    Richard, you conclude your article with these words: “Those of us who have always had and continue to have hope for Israel would like to think so. But the evidence since his coma in 2006 points away from this. Instead, it points to an Israel hell-bent for disaster, if not self-destruction. Therefore, pondering the “what-ifs” around Sharon’s life and death is a luxury almost too painful to contemplate.”

    May I ask what you mean when you use the words “disaster” and “self-destruction”?

    [Note: Apparently, Israel's lunatic fringe reads your blog and have mis-attributed something I posted here to my niece, Rima Najjar Kapitan, whose BDS video talk at NYU they were busy vilifying.]

    • Richard Silverstein January 12, 2014, 3:44 AM

      @ Rima Najjar: Ah yes, you’ll find that I’m the bete noire of the lunatic fringe. They range from JDL to settlers to Orthodox Jews (not all, of course). Some of them hang on my every word hoping to pounce on errors, etc. I’m sorry for that if it affected your cousin. They’re also not a terribly precise bunch & quick to leap before they look as you’ve discovered.

  • Tal January 12, 2014, 4:58 AM

    His decision to withdraw from Gaza was not “brilliant diplomacy” at all. It was a calculated decision, to be able to transfer military resources to the Zionist project that really mattered to him, Jewish settlement in Judea and Shomron, while of course – for propaganda reasons – stressing to the world the “withdrawal” from Gaza. Disastrous in this way that he did not foresee the consequences, the thousands of Qassams fired from Gaza into Israel.

  • Shmuel January 12, 2014, 6:12 AM

    Everyone foresaw the missiles from Gaza, but most assumed they would be controllable as they are today after military action.
    The result is that there are hardly any Israeli deaths as opposed to the 2 or 3 a month when idf and settlements were still there.
    It was a great decision!

  • Oui January 12, 2014, 8:04 AM

    Sharon was ‘shocked’ the MoU letter from the White House had no judicial standing, not worth the paper it was written on. PM Netanyahu sticks to the letter of promises from Bush offered in Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza. The road map was written for Sharon, not for the Palestinian people. Israel’s escape clause: “We have no parther for peace.”

    “… we are immediately going to return to the construction formula that was agreed between Bush and Sharon, on the basis of which Sharon accepted the road map. And Jerusalem is outside the discussion.”
    [Source: 'Independence War hasn't ended']

  • pabelmont January 12, 2014, 8:39 AM

    “Ariel Sharon: War Criminal or Savior of the Nation?”

    Of course, he could be both, because he could be (as I think he was) a “war criminal”, a legal notion, though not convicted by any court; and Israel can regard anyone it likes as a hero or savior.

    When we consider that Israel elected the terrorists Shamir and Begin as PMs, despite denouncing “terrorists” from the roof-tops, we can easily see that Israeli categories are conditional, and “terrorist can be laudatory if the terrorist is Israeli (or Jewish) but condemnatory if the terrorist is anyone else (especially Palestinian or Arab).

    I don’t know if Israel spends much “ink” on the concept of “war-criminal” Its wide-spread flouting of international law makes me believe that it does not do so.

  • yankel January 12, 2014, 10:09 AM

    “You think Sharon’s fat?” went the early ’80s joke “It’s no fat. It’s all skin.”
    Throughout his bloody career (and family life shenanigans, same adjective applies), Sharon’s abundant (justifiable) self confidence and notoriety of total disregard to (just as justifiable) criticisms were his persistent trump cards.

    Sharon was certainly the last major Israeli leader who had the nerve and (obvious) guts to tackle the feared settlers head-on. He had his unique (proven) ability to muster not only popular support and political numbers but the military subordination necessary to remove Jewish settlements at will.

    His Gaza “disengagement” had little to do with peace seeking. From his point of view, the withdrawal’s immediate advantage was creating the misleading percept of an “independent” Gaza entity, thus making disproportionally murderous collective-retaliation — his old time speciality — more internationally acceptable. As Shmuel mentioned above, it worked and still does. In the longer run, establishing the Gaza-bantustan would alleviated the demographic urgency to preserve the appearance of “Israeli democracy”.

  • Elisabeth January 12, 2014, 1:44 PM

    The picture seem almost surreal. What a find!

  • Ron Temis January 13, 2014, 8:05 AM

    You are not worthy to have shined his shoes. Yes, Israel needed Ghetto Jews like you and Marc Ellis and Phil Weiss to defend us. כל הכבוד לאריק וצה׳ל

    • Richard Silverstein January 14, 2014, 12:11 AM

      @ Ron Temis: As long as you don’t say I’m unworthy to have patted his belly. I’d agree with that statement 100%.

      –a proud resident of the Seattle Ghetto!

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