Why does Ariel Sharon matter?
The stroke that ended Ariel Sharon’s premiership in January 2006 also left an impossible question. Without this metaphorical streak of lightning, would the man known as “the Bulldozer” have completed his personal journey from adamantine hawk to flexible pragmatist?
At the moment of his collapse, Sharon had split the right-wing Likud party and formed his own centrist movement, Kadima. He had forced this schism by unilaterally withdrawing all Israeli forces from Gaza in 2005, tearing down the homes of 8,000 Jewish settlers in the process.
Earlier, in 2003, Sharon had put Likud on notice, telling a party meeting that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza could not “continue endlessly”. He added: “To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and bad for them. I want to say clearly that I have come to the conclusion that we have to reach an agreement.”
Sharon, the old soldier who had spent much of his life fighting tooth and nail for every inch of territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, had come to realise that occupying all of this land was against Israel‘s interests. Once total victory had been achieved, he came to question whether all of its fruits were worth having.
The reason for Sharon’s conversion was simple: Arabs tend to have a higher birth rate than Jews. Elementary demographics showed that the area between the river and the sea would have an Arab majority one day.
If Israel insisted on holding all of this territory, the country would eventually be forced to choose between being a Jewish state and a democracy. Once Arabs formed the majority inside its domain, Israel could not be both.
So Sharon was the first leader from the radical right to grapple with Israel’s great – and still unresolved – dilemma. The country may possess the power to dominate every town and village from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, but is this either moral or wise?
Sharon had personally fought his way through the alleys of many of those towns and villages, but his answer was that some territory would have to be sacrificed in order to preserve what mattered most: safeguarding Israel as a Jewish democracy. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety,” he warned grimly, “we are liable to lose it all.”
If he had stayed in office, Sharon might have followed up Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza with a similar departure from areas of the West Bank. But we will never know if he would have conceded enough territory to allow the birth of a viable Palestinian state.
Sharon’s realism after 2003 must be balanced against the indelible stains on his record. In the 1950s, Colonel Sharon led “Unit 101”, a special force charged with retaliating for attacks on Israeli targets.
After a mother and her two children were killed by Palestinian infiltrators at an Israeli Kibbutz in October 1953, Sharon raided the West Bank village of Qibya, then under Jordanian rule.
His soldiers used high explosives to raze 45 houses, killing 69 people, of whom three quarters were women and children.
When Sharon was defence minister, he masterminded Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Later, an official Israeli inquiry found that he carried “personal responsibility” for the massacre of between 800 and 3,500 Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in south Beirut in 1982.
A Lebanese Christian militia carried out the killings, but the commission found that Sharon knew about the massacre, which happened in an area under the de facto control of Israeli forces. He had, at the very least, failed to prevent the bloodshed.
After this, Sharon was seen by the Arab world as a war criminal: he never lived down the memory of Sabra and Chatila.
Because of his notoriety, many Israelis would resent any suggestion that Sharon somehow embodied their nation.
Yet in one sense it was true. As prime minister, Sharon stated the most fundamental truth about Israel’s future: the country cannot dominate for eternity all the territory that it currently holds. He stated the conundrum with typical bluntness, but – even if he still hangs on to life – we will never know what his answer might have been.