The wildly divergent appraisals of the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are as passionate and contradictory as he was in life. Many see him as a hero, a visionary and a brilliant political and military tactician, many others as a war criminal, a racist colonizer, and a lifelong killer and tormentor of Palestinians and Arabs. The tragedy of his life—and of modern Israel and Zionism—is that both views are correct, as seen from different sides.
Like his nickname “the bulldozer,” he was a force that could be used for good or bad. A bulldozer builds homes and farms for Zionist Israelis and also destroys them for Palestinian Arabs; it builds factories, schools and hospitals for Zionists, but also builds illegal colonies and kills decent people like Rachel Corrie. Perhaps a useful exercise in his wake is to analyze whether this criminal-hero was the exception or the rule of the wider values, policies and dilemmas of Israel and Zionism.
Those who honor Sharon see him as a great Israeli who spent his whole life fighting on the battlefield and in the corridors of power and diplomacy to secure the future of Israel and coexistence with the Palestinians, pointing to his striking personality and a few daring military field maneuvers half a century ago. Those who see him as a dangerous war criminal point to his bloody military deeds, divisive political ventures, and racist perceptions of Arabs-Palestinians as not having the same rights as Zionists-Israelis.
Perhaps his real legacy is better seen by reviewing the lasting impact of his actions, rather than his style, personality or isolated political acts decades ago. By these criteria, Sharon strikes me as a tragic figure, because his long military and political record that contributed substantially to all aspects of modern Israel leaves behind a troubled country: an increasingly militarized Israel that faces growing internal demands for social justice; that deepens and expands its colonial settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, while being unable to absorb, expel or control the millions of Palestinians under its occupation; that faces growing demands for equality from its own second-class Palestinian citizens within the 1948 borders; that views with concern its poor relations with all its Middle Eastern Arab, Iranian and Turkish neighbors; that suffers a polarized, aggressive domestic Jewish-Zionist political scene that is increasingly distorted by religious fundamentalists or new fringe parties; that weathers a serious ideological rift with its key supporter the United States on the critical issues of Palestine and Iran; that faces a growing global campaign to sanction or boycott Israelis for their occupation and colonization of Palestine, and routinely compares Israel with South African Apartheid; that faces more robust and technologically sophisticated Islamist-nationalist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas that refuse to be beaten into submission; that seems perplexed by how to respond politically to Arab uprisings that seek democratic governance systems, which will inevitably assert the criticisms of Israel that overwhelmingly define Arab public opinion; and that is more isolated globally on its existential issues, like Iran’s nuclear industry.
This list of problems for Israel is especially relevant today because all of Ariel Sharon’s public policies contributed directly to bringing about every one of them. These Sharon and Israeli policies include assaulting, killing, imprisoning, colonizing, sieging, torturing, massacring and disparaging Palestinians and other Arabs, including deceptions like his unilateral reconfiguration of the Israeli occupation and siege of Gaza, along with his mercurial personalized domestic politics.
Sharon is not tragic mainly because his life’s work led to Israel’s difficult condition today; he is tragic because everything he did was done in the name of Zionism and Israel, often with formal government and public approval, and usually with widespread admiration for his bravado. This hero-war criminal mirrors the larger dilemma of Zionism and Israel that, for Jews, heroically provided a vibrant national home for their threatened community, but also criminally shattered, occupied, exiled and colonized the indigenous Palestinian Arab community.
The difficult current Israeli conditions that I mentioned above and that profoundly reflect the handiwork of Ariel Sharon coexist with an Israeli country that is (for Zionist Jews mainly) economically strong, militarily agile, technologically robust, intellectually vibrant, culturally dynamic, and confident in its ability to protect itself against all threats—while enjoying the legally binding commitment of the United States to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over the combined forces of its enemies or threatening neighbors. Israel is stressed and challenged in many areas, but it is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Sharon’s life and death ideally should be an opportunity to reconsider whether the swashbuckling military bulldozer approach to statehood and relations with everyone else in the Middle East is something to celebrate and perpetuate, or to retire as a relic of ancient militarism. Does Sharon’s approach really make Israelis safer and more accepted and comfortable in the region, or has it rather shepherded them into an ugly corner where they are indicted and sanctioned for war crimes and other terrible deeds, and daily equated with South African Apartheid?
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global