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.
— D Wasserman Schultz (@DWStweets) January 11, 2014
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
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.
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.