Jeffrey Goldberg reflects on the legacy of Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday after eight years in a coma:
In 2000, he told me that, “The Arabs don’t want the Jews to be here. That is the secret of this whole story. This land we are on is considered by the Muslims to be holy land. They will never let anyone possess it. You should read the Koran. You’ll see what they think about the Jews. They want to take this land by violence.” Four years later, he told me more or less the same thing, though in language softened somewhat by knowledge that he was speaking as prime minister, not as the leader of the right-wing opposition. “We have a problem with our partner. It is not realistic to think that the Palestinians would agree to stop their war on us if they receive some pieces of territory.” Nevertheless, Sharon by 2005 reached the conclusion that a piece of territory is what the Palestinians would get, without even the hassle of negotiation. “I’ve decided that it is impossible to keep holding three and half million Palestinians in a situation of occupation,” he told me. His use of the word “occupation” in and of itself was revolutionary — in the 1990s, he would describe the West Bank and Gaza as liberated territory, not occupied.
What changed was not his heart, not his life’s aim, but his understanding of reality. In his heart, he understood Israel’s enemies to be implacable. His objective was unaltered: to defend the existence of the Jewish state by any means necessary. For many years, he believed that the existence of the Jewish state was dependent on the occupation of Gaza. But he then came to realize that the “occupation” of Gaza was undermining Israel’s democracy, international standing and security. And so he left. He left Gaza for the same reason he invaded Lebanon: He thought it would make Israel safer.
However, as Yousef Munayyer points out, it didn’t:
Of course, the departure of Israeli settlers from Gaza did not advance the peace process. Instead it worked to effectively freeze it and, according to one of Sharon’s key aides at the time, that was precisely the plan.
“The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians,” Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s aide, said at the time. “When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he added. “Effectively, this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.” The unilateral nature of the withdrawal meant that security coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) never happened. The Fatah-led PA found itself scrambling to fill a power vacuum left by the Israelis in an area where Hamas had significant sway and support. The events in the years that followed, including the political rise and election of Hamas, their eventual assertion of control in Gaza, and the ousting of the Fatah-led PA, meant that the West Bank and Gaza, the two territories of a would-be Palestinian state, were as separated as ever. Israel would continue to use this as an excuse not to make peace.
Hussein Ibish draws from Sharon a lesson on the perils of unilateral action:
Sharon yet again demonstrated that unilateralism between Israel and the Palestinians is a dead-end that only produces more conflict. Unilateral acts do not leave a party on the other side that has entered into a mutual agreement for its own reasons and therefore has a stake in making things work. It would have been wiser for Palestinians to have responded to the Gaza redeployment differently — in the event, they allowed Gaza to fall into the hands of Hamas rather than reflecting a well-functioning and properly-governed society. But Israel did not give them any clear incentive to see the action as an opportunity for progress. Exactly the same can be said of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, which was as unilateral as its various invasions of that country had been. Israelis should consider this when they complain that their “withdrawals” from Lebanon and Gaza were “rewarded” with rocketfire from Hezbollah and Hamas. To conclude that Arabs are recalcitrant or that agreements with them are impossible is to badly misread the reality of such policies. What unilateralism produces is a change in the context of conflict, not an end to it. The same would almost certainly apply to any Israeli unilateral action, as reportedly contemplated by Sharon, in the West Bank.
Tobin, eulogizing Sharon, doubts his plans for a “unilateral peace” would ever have worked:
[T]hough we are being subjected to a chorus of eulogies lamenting that Sharon’s stroke cut short a real chance for peace, the Gaza gambit was as much a flawed big idea as the drive to Beirut. We are now told that the magic force of Sharon’s personality and political popularity would have somehow enabled Israel to set its own borders and then effectively hamstring Palestinian terrorism. But just as unforeseen circumstances proved that Sharon’s strategically brilliant vision for transforming Lebanon from a Palestinian terror bastion into an ally was inherently flawed, so, too, was the notion that the Gaza withdrawal would lead to de facto, if not de jure, peace. As I wrote last week, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is what is preventing peace, not the lack of a leader of Sharon’s stature. For all of his great qualities and dedication to ensuring Israel’s security, Sharon’s popularity would not have survived the Hamas coup in Gaza and the years of missile strikes that followed. Nor would his plan for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank have rallied the world behind Israel’s position. Though Sharon believed, as Abrams writes, that he had achieved a lasting victory by getting Bush to back Israel’s position on the settlement blocs, that triumph didn’t survive Bush’s replacement by Barack Obama.
Raja Shehadeh writes the opposite of a eulogy:
What others called his vision for peace—which he pursued as relentlessly as he pursued war—was based on the total surrender of the Palestinian side and its submission to the dictates of a militarily stronger Israel. But with the whole world watching, Sharon’s brilliance was to portray Palestinian surrender as a painful compromise he was willing to make on behalf of his country, to win for it a true and lasting peace with its aggressive neighbors. This vision was based on sweeping aside the international consensus regarding the end of Israeli occupation of the territory seized by Israel in 1967.
Instead, Sharon was working to force the unequal division of the land between Israel and Palestine, in which Israel would annex, without payment of any compensation, more than seventy per cent of the total land of historic Palestine—the territory administered by the British prior to 1948—including all those areas where water reservoirs are located. Thereafter, the Palestinians living in the fragmented land beyond the wall Israel had built inside their territory would be free to declare their own state or federate with Jordan. This “vision for peace” was based on an utter mistrust of the other side, and the conviction that any peace could only be maintained by a fortress Israel in a state of perpetual mobilization. Even if Sharon had succeeded in forcing his vision through, leaving the other side to make do with its patchwork territory—without a peace treaty, since his moves were always unilateral—any lull in the conflict would have been temporary. So glaring would have been the injustice against the Palestinians, suffering apartheid conditions, that sooner or later, any respite would have come to an end, and hostilities would have flare up once again.
Kevin Lees argues that Sharon was responsible for creating Hezbollah:
By occupying southern Lebanon, a region that even today remains less economically developed than the rest of the country, Israel inadvertently pushed Lebanon’s Shiite population toward the radical leadership that Hezbollah embodied. Had Israel not done so, Nabih Berri, a relative moderate who’s served as the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament since 1992, might today be the dominant spokesman for the Shiite Lebanese population instead of Nasrallah, and Berri’s Amal Movement might be the dominant Shiite Lebanese political force, not Hezbollah. As Labor Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin succinctly put it in the years before his own assassination, Israel’s 1982 occupation “let the genie out of the bottle.” Israel’s invasion spawned an 18-year occupation that allowed Hezbollah to transcend its role representing the Shiite Lebanese community into a force fighting for the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, cheered by Israel’s enemies from Damascus to Tehran.
Yoav Peled reviews Sharon’s economic policies:
In economic terms, the Jewish upper class was paid off handsomely for its support of Sharon’s war against the Palestinians. In 2001 and 2002, Sharon’s first two years in office, the Israeli economy experienced negative growth due to the intifada and the global high-tech crisis. But when the economy recovered, in 2004-2005, the share of the top ten percent of earners in economic income rose to almost 35 percent, up from 30 percent in 1998. The other side of the coin was unprecedented levels of poverty and inequality created by Sharon’s economic policy (mistakenly attributed to Benjamin Netanyahu, who was finance minister only during Sharon’s second term in office), and especially his dismantling of the social safety net. Thus the Gini coefficient, measuring the inequality of income distribution, rose, for disposable income, by 4.3 percent between 2002 and 2004-2005 and by 6.8 percent between 1999 and 2004-2005.
Geoffrey Levin says “Sharon’s most enduring legacy… can be found in the mindset of Israelis”:
Just as Sharon argued years ago, many Israelis now think that there is “no partner for peace“ on the Palestinian side—a conviction that only hardened when Hamas took power in Gaza in the wake of the withdrawal and fired rockets on Israel. Rather than pushing the government leftward toward a peace settlement or rightward toward annexation of the West Bank, some Israelis believe that security is possible with “separation” from the Palestinians but without a formal peace agreement. Instead of supporting parties on the left and far-right that have advocated decisive action on the Palestinian issue, the two most popular blocs in the country’s 2013 election—Likud-Beiteinu and Yesh Atid—downplayed the conflict and instead focused on Iran and domestic affairs.
Finally, Gideon Lichfield calls up his cousins, former Gaza settlers, and asks them what they think:
I wondered whether his feelings about Sharon had softened. ”What would you say to Arik Sharon, if he were still alive and you could talk to him?” I asked. … “I would say that he owes a lot of debts to the people of Israel… and that when he leaves this world, in order to leave it whole, he should repent and return Gush Katif to the people of Israel and compensate all its inhabitants for the crime.” And would Bnaya go back to Gush Katif if that happened? “No,” he said. “I see my mission as being here, with the general public. Unless they were to build Gush Katif differently, as a place for all of Israel and Israelis. Then I’d be the first to go back there.” That’s the lesson Bnaya took from Gaza: That the settlers allowed themselves to get too comfortable and too detached from the rest of Israel. Now they’re back in the heartland, winning other people over to the cause. Many people saw the Gaza pullout at the time as a body blow to Israel’s settler movement. If what happened to my cousins is any indication, Ariel Sharon’s legacy may have been to strengthen it instead.
(Photo: A mourner wearing a yarmulke, reading ‘Ariel Sharon Hero of Israel’ pays his last respects at the grave of Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the funeral at Havat Hashikmim on January 13, 2014 in Israel. Former PM Ariel Sharon’s died on Saturday aged 85 in Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv and had been in a coma since January 4, 2006. By Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)