Man of War
“We cannot continue holding them under occupation – and it is occupation, you might not like this word, but it is really an occupation. Holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is in my opinion a very bad thing. It cannot continue forever. Do you want to remain forever in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem? I do not think this is right.”
These words were uttered by none other than former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in one of his last public speeches in the Israeli Knesset a short while before he tragically fell into a partial coma after suffering a stroke. No one would have imagined him becoming a man of compromise or peace because until 10 years ago, his name was mainly associated with war.
Ariel Sharon was ultimately a bold and resolute warlord. The founding father of the Israeli settlements in the territories, he was a staunch hawk who did not see the Arabs as peace partners. He continually advocated that Israel should live by the sword and build up Jewish strength. Israel, he would always say, is the only place in the world where Jews can defend themselves by themselves. That was the quintessential Sharon.
Then a big change took place that turned him into a figure that all world leaders scrambled to hear addressing the U.N. in September 2005, some two months after Israel carried out the disengagement in which 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in northern Samaria were destroyed, thereby ending the occupation in Gaza and making a “down payment” for possibly a similar move in the West Bank. Sharon had just completed one of the most astounding about-faces in Israeli politics. And he did it in the way that only he could: with full force, without any hesitation, taking no prisoners and not looking back.
His underlying narrative had not changed that much. Israel, he said, continues to be the only place where Jews can defend themselves by themselves, but it cannot do it while continuing to control another people. Sharon had reached the conclusion that the burden of the occupation had outweighed its benefits. He realized that this could not go on. As soon as it dawned on him, he knew exactly what had to be done. Because he was the one who built the settlements, he decided that he would also be the one to destroy them, or at least start that process. Nobody but him could have risen to the occasion and carried out this terrible task.
Ariel Sharon was not a saint. Far from it. In 1982, as Minister of Defense, Sharon launched a controversial and much-contested invasion of Lebanon. It ended with a commission of inquiry which recommended that he be impeached in the wake of the massacre perpetrated by Christians against Muslims in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Sharon was not charged with perpetrating the massacre, but with not having identified the danger and having preferred to turn a blind eye and let the Arabs kill each other without realizing that he was the responsible adult in the area. During the 1980’s and 1990’s Sharon supported the building of settlements atop every hill in Judea and Samaria, and in the Gaza strip.
Neither was Sharon one of his kind. Israel’s founding generation had many other warriors who dared also to dream, dared to do. Yet besides the never-ending Shimon Peres, it now seems that in today’s Israel, there is no leader capable of uprooting as much as a single house in an illegal outpost in the territories. The State of the Settlers in the West Bank is thriving, gathering influence and strength at the expense of the State of Israel. In today’s Israel, there is no leader who can make such a decision and see it through with vigor and resolve. Prime Minister Netanyahu has neither an iota, nor a smidgen or a modicum of the internal strength that the aging Sharon used to have.
Tormented and indecisive, Israel is split between its different identities. Sharon’s many admirers, as well as quite a few of his detractors, are unified in the opinion that we will never see such a leader here anymore. Many Israelis will weep for Sharon from the bottom of their heart. A handful will sigh in relief as he is laid to rest. Want to guess who?