A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What to Say About Ariel Sharon?

De mortuis nil nisi bonum: in the commendable effort to speak no ill of the dead, many of the remembrances of Ariel Sharon are struggling to talk about his achievements rather than his controversies, though few men have drawn more controversy around themselves in their careers than he. After many years in a deep coma, many may have forgotten, or may be too young to have known, the extent to which the man was a lightning rod not only in Israeli-Palestinian relations but in domestic Israeli politics as well. But he was a contentious figure, and whitewashing him after death would probably not have pleased his own combative and aggressive personality.

History has a way of sorting out reputations, but Sharon's is a complicated one to interpret. A brilliant battlefield tactician who fought in all the wars Israel fought in his productive lifetime, his campaigns in 1967 and especially across the Suez Canal in 1973 were extraordinary. But he also had a reputation for being a loose cannon, from the Qibya Massacre by his Unit 101 in 1953 to, most notoriously, Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Though the Kahan Commission that investigated those killings absolved any Israeli of direct involvement, it did conclude that Sharon, as Defense Minister in charge of the Lebanese operation, bore "personal responsibility" for not anticipating the violence by Israel's Lebanese Forces militia allies. And his political patron Menahem Begin supposedly was convinced that Sharon deliberately deceived him about the military objectives of the Lebanese operation.

His political career was stormy as well. After the Kahan Commission he held a series of lesser portfolios but remained as a strong supporter of the settlement movement (yet in the end he pulled settlements out of Gaza). He feuded with Yitzhak Shamir and others in the Likud leadership, but finally took over the party after Binyamin Netanyahu's loss to Ehud Barak in 1999. His provocative visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on September 28, 2000, was widely seen as derailing the already faltering Camp David II process, and directly provoking the Second Intifada, but it also led, at last, to the top job as he became Israel's 11th Prime Minister.

As Prime Minister, his determination to disengage from Gaza (while maintaining a land and sea blockade, in effect), led to divisions with his Likud colleagues and with his old allies in the settlement movement; in the end in 2005 he broke with Likud and started the Kadima Party. But that same December he suffered a stroke, and in January 2006 an even more severe one. That ended his career and began the eight-year coma that has now ended. What Sharon's course would have been had he not been incapacitated is hard to predict; some feel he planned unilateral disengagement in the West Bank as well.

Israelis will disagree about him; Arabs have long since demonized him. But from 1948 until his stroke, there is no denying that he was a towering, if divisive, figure in Israeli history.

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