Feature

Israel: Ariel Sharon’s ambiguous legacy

Ariel Sharon played a key role at every major crossroads Israel faced in his adult life.

Ariel Sharon was one of “the most clear-eyed realists in Israeli politics,” said The Jerusalem Post in an editorial. Sharon, who died last week after eight years in a coma, played a key role at every major crossroads Israel faced in his adult life. As a soldier, his “bloody cross-border retaliation attacks against Palestinians” forced Israelis to grapple with moral questions about the use of violence. As a politician, he sent Jewish settlers into the Palestinian territories, but once he “realized that controlling the West Bank and Gaza jeopardized Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he changed tactics and announced a unilateral disengagement from Gaza. He even created a new party, Kadima, when his Likud party would not support his plan. What was most important to him was not party loyalty, or keeping territory, but ensuring that Israel would survive and thrive.

That’s an overly generous interpretation of his turnabout, said Uri Elitzur inMa’ariv. In fact, Sharon withdrew from Gaza not because he thought it would be best for Israel but because he needed to distract the country from the scandals that threatened to unseat him. In early 2004, Sharon was accused of using his influence to help his son’s friend build a casino on a Greek island and then of taking money from a British businessman to finance his campaign. His response was to come up with a scheme that redrew the Israeli political landscape and “totally changed the face of the Middle East, the state of the dialogue with the Palestinians, and Israel-U.S. relations.” We may honor Sharon the soldier, but “we do not forgive Sharon the politician for the giant destruction operation he initiated and carried out for the sake of the survival of his rule.”

Many Israelis fault Sharon for giving up Gaza, said Shlomo Avineri in Ha’aretz. Yet this lifelong warrior’s greatest achievement was recognizing the limits of military might. Israel is strong, but it “does not have the power to eliminate the Palestinian movement or force the Palestinians to accept Israeli control over the territories.” Sharon’s legacy is mixed, as the settlement projects that he encouraged in the West Bank complicate negotiations for a two-state solution. Yet his 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which involved the unpopular uprooting of all Israeli settlers there, “points to the only process that seemingly has a chance”: Israel’s unilateral reduction of its control over the Palestinians even without their cooperation. His action paved for the way for his successors, even those further right like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to publicly embrace a two-state solution.

Yet without Sharon, can we get there? asked Aner Shalev, also in Ha’aretz. “He was a man of decisions and changes, a man who shaped reality instead of surrendering to it.” Netanyahu, by contrast, tries to pretend that Israel can just sit tight, giving up no territory, ignoring Western criticism and social protest alike. “Now that death has released Sharon from his eight-year coma, Israel must awaken from its own comatose state.”

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