Sharon the pragmatist
31 December, 2013Published on 11th January 2014.
For many in the west, Ariel Sharon was 'the bulldozer', an embodiment of Israeli strength and reputed political stubbornness. He was the architect of victory in the Yom Kippur War but also of settlements in the territories. He was the man who drove Israeli forces to Beirut but also the one blamed for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila (it was actually the Arab Phalange militia). For the left, he was a blundering belligerent, an anti-Arab racist and an unbending foe of Palestinian statehood.
But such assessments, with their half-truths and omissions, tell a distorted story. For one thing, he was not anti-Arab. He once expressed the conviction that 'Jews and Arabs could live together' because they were 'both inhabitants of the land'. He was also far from being a stubborn defender of the status quo. As Prime Minister, he made bold moves towards a political settlement, only to find his hopes dashed by Palestinian extremism. As a result, he exposed the grave perils of making peace with an enemy that had little interest in ending the conflict.
In 2005, he pulled nearly 10,000 Jewish settlers out of Gaza in a controversial move to end the political stalemate. He ceded Gaza to the Palestinians on the assumption that this would serve Israeli interests and preserve Israel's Jewish demographic majority. Sharon also had little faith that the Palestinians could change their rejectionist outlook and believed that Israel had to seize the initiative. He conceived disengagement as a prelude to a wider political settlement, but his hopes were to be dashed.
The end result was an unceasing barrage of rocket and missile attacks on communities in southern Israel, much of it orchestrated by Hamas leaders who took power in 2006. As with Ehud Barak's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, territorial withdrawal created more, rather than less terror. Indeed Sharon had predicted such an outcome in 1989 when he reportedly said that if the IDF left Gaza, 'the terrorists [would] fire cannons and missiles on Sderot and Ashkelon, just as they did in Lebanon'.
Ultimately, unilateralism failed because it required no concessions from the Palestinians, including adequate security measures once Israel left. The lesson then was that peace could never be one sided and that reciprocity was vital for progress. In particular, as long as incitement against Jews and Israelis went unchallenged, the Palestinian mind-set would remain forever hostile. It is a lesson that John Kerry would do well to remember today.
But Sharon was undoubtedly steadfast in his fight against terror. In 2002, after a repugnant wave of suicide bombings killed hundreds of Israelis, he ordered the IDF to smash Arafat's terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank.
But here again, Sharon was pragmatic enough to know that military might alone was insufficient. He also put in place the security barrier to protect Israelis on a more permanent basis. In the last decade, the barrier has drastically reduced the threat of suicide bombings and provided a major deterrent to Palestinian terrorism. It is a fitting legacy for the old warrior.
Sharon was pragmatic and flexible in other ways too. It is true that, as a minister in various governments from the 1970s to the 1990s, he played an important role in the expansion of settlements. But what is often forgotten is the role he played in uprooting some of them. He implemented the withdrawal of Jewish residents from Yamit in 1982, as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, before doing the same thing in Gaza 23 years later.
Though much maligned, Sharon believed that these decisions would better serve Israeli strategic interests. By doing so, he alienated certain elements within Likud and ultimately deserted it to form a new centrist party, Kadima. But as soldier or politician, Sharon was defiant and courageous, never afraid to challenge the establishment if he felt it was warranted.
Above all, he was a strategic hawk rather than an ideological one. He was open to making territorial concessions but not suicidal ones that imperilled Israel's existence. It is the tragedy of the Palestinians that Sharon's willingness for compromise and pragmatism, like that of his predecessors, was never matched by their own leaders.
Sharon deserves to be remembered for his great military victories, his unconventional thinking and his uncompromising defence of the Jewish state. But he should also be remembered for making bold moves for peace, albeit ones that went unreciprocated.Post to Delicious