Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday at the age of 85 after spending the last eight years in a coma, was a complex man – too complex to sum up in a single sentence.
But if one were to try, one could describe him as a man who ended his political career with an effort to make peace, having spent most of it trying to make peace impossible.
To some extent, Sharon’s political career was an afterthought: he became famous first as a professional soldier, perhaps (in David Ben-Gurion’s words) “the greatest field commander” Israel has had. In both the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 he was responsible for key Israeli victories, since which time the Arab armies have not dared to challenge Israeli military supremacy.
Even after he turned to politics, Sharon was initially known more as a warmaker. In 1982 he masterminded the invasion of Lebanon that helped to further fragment that unhappy country. He was subsequently judged to share responsibility for the war’s worst atrocity, the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – a finding that put a temporary brake on his political career.
But Sharon returned with a vengeance. As a minister in successive Likud governments of the 1980s and 1990s (including periods as minister for housing and minister for national infrastructure) he was the force behind the expansion of Israeli settlements on the occupied territory of the West Bank. The explicit aim of the settlements, then and since, was to prevent the establishment of any viable Palestinian state.
Sharon’s record as a rejectionist didn’t end there. In 2000, as Ehud Barak’s peace talks with the Palestinians were faltering, Sharon as leader of the opposition helped to set off the second Palestinian intifada – and then reaped the rewards with electoral victory in 2001, to become prime minister with a mandate to resist Palestinian claims. As Ahmed Moor says at Al-Jazeera, “He embodied an expansionary, rapacious view of Jewish privilege in Palestine … well after many of his co-religionists had claimed to settle for less.”
But the last chapter of the story is the strangest one. In power, Sharon evidently changed his mind. Although the project was cut short by his stroke, he had broken with Likud, explicitly endorsed Palestinian statehood, dismantled the settlements in Gaza and dedicated himself to achieving an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
His moment of epiphany, if there was one, is hard to identify. Perhaps his success in sidelining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat made the Palestinians seem less threatening. Perhaps the experience of actually running a government that depended on the votes of the far right made him realise just how unhinged some of the settler lobby were. Perhaps it was all largely an artifact of his battle with Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.
Most likely, it seems to me, is that Sharon, when finally given supreme responsibility for Israel’s future security, was intelligent enough to see that the dream of “Greater Israel” was simply unsustainable. Israel was never going to be strong enough to defy world opinion and hold on to the West Bank in perpetuity – at least not without giving full rights to its Palestinian inhabitants, which from a Zionist point of view was untenable.
The only alternative was withdrawal, and the longer it was delayed the more difficult it was going to be. Sharon, “the bulldozer”, may have had the sheer nerve to grasp the nettle when no-one else would.
Much of the commentary on his death, whether sympathetic or not, ignores or glosses over that final phase of his career. (Guy Rundle’s piece in today’s Crikey is a good example.) And of course there’s an argument that it was all a sham, and that unilateral withdrawal would have left the Palestinians no better off than they are today in Gaza.
But that’s certainly not what the Likudniks thought at the time. Sharon was fiercely denounced across the Israeli right, and had he gone on to win (as expected) a decisive victory at the 2006 election, he would have had a mandate to pursue his new vision. With Sharon incapacitated, however, Ehud Olmert was unable to pull it off, and by 2009 Netanyahu was in power and peace was further away than ever.
In death, Sharon seems to have been received back into the Likud fold. But taking that at face value means forgetting what made him most interesting.