A farewell to the divisive Ariel Sharon

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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The frequent medical bulletins about the steady deterioration of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s health over the last few days and his family’s vigil around his hospital bed should not come as a surprise to anyone. The former Israeli prime minister has been in a state of coma for the last eight years and during this time was constantly on a life support machine.

It seems that the last chapter in the story of one of Israel’s most influential politicians is about to come to a close. Although he has almost disappeared from the Israeli consciousness, the legacy of Sharon, one of the most divisive political and military figures in Israel’s short history, has not vanished from the country’s public sphere.

I have never met Ariel Sharon, but he has had a profound influence on the course my life has taken since I was twenty one years old. In 1982 Israel embarked on one of the most pointless and tragic wars since her inception. The invasion of her northern neighbour Lebanon, a country already ravaged by a bloody civil war, was aimed at installing the militant leader of the Christian Phalange party, Bashir Jumayyil, as the president of Lebanon. Israel’s pretext for this action was to push PLO’s militants away from her border. The Defense Minister and the mastermind behind this war was Ariel Sharon.

Together with his security advisors they plotted the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon and the signing of a peace agreement with the newly elected president in Beirut. It was the ultimate folly of attempted regime change long before Afghanistan and Iraq.

That very year I was contemplating what degree should I pursue at university and was heavily leaning towards one in electrical engineering which I had studied in high school. It would have most likely ensured lucrative employment upon completion of my studies in the fast-growing hi-tech industry. This never happened.

With every piece of news I followed to since the beginning of the war in June that year, I was increasingly lured more and more into the anti-war movement. Eventually I went on to study Political Science and International Relations, and following the massacre in Sabra and Shatila found myself demonstrating more and more against this senseless war.

In this ‘war of choice’ Israel spread destruction and death across Lebanon, sacrificing in the process hundreds of her own young soldiers, only to tarnish the country’s international reputation and creating almost unrepairable divisions among Israeli society. All of this was done in the name of an unfeasible fantasy stitched together by Sharon, the Mossad and the Phallangists in Lebanon.

It kept Israel in Lebanon for another eighteen years, at a terrible cost, and helped to create one of Israel’s fiercest enemies in recent time, Hezbollah. He earned the nickname ‘bulldozer’ for exactly this reason - moving forwards in full force regardless of the trail of destruction that he left behind him. By the end of this war a judicial inquest found Sharon unsuitable to serve as a defense minister, and he was forced to resign. Strangely enough and regrettably, it didn’t prevent him from becoming prime minster nearly twenty years later.

Ariel Sharon was a much celebrated Israeli soldier, a quasi-poster boy for the Zionist dream of a new generation of Jewish youth which was antithetical to the diaspora one. This new generation which formed the country’s military could do no wrong in the eyes of the country’s founders. Nevertheless, even the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who helped to build the Sharon myth, remarked that: “If he [Sharon] could only be weaned of the shortcoming of not telling the truth in his reports, he would be an exemplary military leader.”

This observation represented not only his military, but also his political career, in which he was fully committed to any target he set, but without any moral or ethical brakes on the way to achieving them. The journalist Uzi Benziman described him once as a person who “doesn’t stop at a red light.”

His supporters point out that this mentality helped him during the 1973 war to change the course of the war on the Egyptian front in Israel’s favor. However, it was pointed out that even his military successes were achieved with little regard for the cost in terms of human life or the moral implications of his actions.

Yet, Sharon was a complex figure who confused his friends and foes alike. Towards the end of his premiership, he became the first Israeli prime minister to acknowledge that the Israeli presence in the West Bank and in Gaza was actually an occupation, and that peace with the Palestinians must include a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.

Although he has almost disappeared from the Israeli consciousness, the legacy of Sharon, one of the most divisive political and military figures in Israel’s short history, has not vanished from the country’s public sphere.

Yossi Mekelberg

Unfortunately, his actual policies, possibly more than those of any other Israeli leader, contributed to the perpetuation of the Israeli occupation, at least in the West Bank, and impeded the prospect of a viable Palestinian state living next to Israel. Already, in the early 1990s as a housing minister, he strived to hinder the Madrid Peace Conference by building new settlements to the sheer annoyance of Bush senior’s administration.

His provocative visit to Temple Mount in 2000 in the midst of peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, triggered, although it did not cause, the Second Intifada.

Disengagement without discussion

Even the disengagement from Gaza had all the hallmarks of Sharon, the man and the politician. It represented his ability to alter his policies according to changing circumstances for pragmatic or opportunistic reasons. Nevertheless, his decision to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza strip was taken unilaterally, negotiating it mainly with his party, but not with the Palestinian leadership, though they were still expected to ensure the border between Gaza and Israel would stay peaceful.

What followed in Gaza can be attributed to a large extent to this unilateral approach, which strengthened the Hamas movement at the expense of the Fatah. Sharon humiliated the Fatah by not engaging their leadership in the process of removing the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Sharon’s actions simultaneously alienated his avid supporters in the settlers’ movement; split the Likud party of which he was a founder, only to form the Kadima party as vehicle to support his plan.

Yet, he did not really gain the support of the peace camp which could not warm up to the unilateral nature of the withdrawal which provided no real prospect for peace, or justice and reconciliation with the Palestinians.

Had it not been for his sudden illness, he would have pursued a similar unilateral approach in the West Bank, in the name of what he argued was Israeli security needs, with little prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

Ariel Sharon will remain in the collective memory as a controversial figure. His admirers will remember him as a true Israeli military hero and a patriot, who prioritized the security of the Jewish state above everything else. For his critics, he represents the decline of Israel in the post 1967 era through their expansionist policies, which rely on military might at the expense of other people.

Furthermore, more than any Israeli prime minister before him, he was embroiled in investigations on personal and political corruption, contributing to the corruption of the political system.

This legacy by the man I never met, but who greatly impacted my life, is a legacy which Israel should mostly reject.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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