Everyone and his horse is writing about Ariel Sharon’s legacy. After all, what else is there to write about at the moment?
My high-school European History teacher used to say that true historians dealt only with stuff that happened fifty or more years in the past; everything more recent than that was considered mere “current events”. (A scary thought: those very words are more than halfway to being “historical”!) So the historian in me cringes at the thought of discussing the legacy of someone still alive, even if his political career is almost certainly over. My own horse, however, insisted that I chime in despite my reservations; and so, in deference to her excellent Zionist credentials (and her poor typing skills), I’ll try to find something to say on the subject.
The Brain Behind the Blogger: Kahlua the Wonder Horse
Much of the stuff that’s being written about Sharon falls into two general categories: “Sharon the Butcher” and “Sharon the Man of Peace”. Some writers manage to combine these two seemingly irreconcilable categories into one theme: “Sharon, the Butcher Who Changed His Mind, Put Down His Cleaver, and Became a Man of Peace”. (The far-right-wing version of the latter theme goes something like this: “Sharon, the Formerly OK Guy Who Got All Wimpy Once He Started Thinking About His Legacy”.) No doubt all of these categorizations of Ariel Sharon – even the right-wingers’ version – have some degree of truth in them; but I think they all miss the essential point.
Was Ariel Sharon a butcher? Certainly his record includes enough violence to make the squeamish squirm. By Middle Eastern standards of violence, though, he really was never anything special; I think that a lot of the outrage at Sharon’s “butchery” has more to do with the fact that that he’s Jewish (and thus, presumably, meant to be above such things – or at least at the receiving end) than with his actual exploits.
So was Ariel Sharon a man of peace? This seems like a gross exaggeration at best – enough, surely, to make the squirmish scream. Sharon never proposed a final settlement to the Palestinians (or to anyone else, as far as I can recall), and indeed never seemed to show much interest in negotiating with any of our various fascinating neighbors. Even when he brought Israel’s soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip – his supposed great gesture as “peacemaker” – he made no attempt to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian leadership. If Arik was really such a “man of peace”, I would think he should have made at least a small effort actually to make peace with somebody.
Did Ariel Sharon see the light in the last few years? Alternatively, did he wimp out in his old age? Certainly he abandoned some of the policies he had previously – and sometimes stridently – advocated. Did the leopard change his spots? (It took me several minutes to type the last sentence; you have no idea how much resistance I had to using a Sharon-as-leopard metaphor.) I think not; and not just because I never saw a leopard that chubby. In my opinion (and I’m not alone here by any means) Ariel Sharon was never a true right-winger, any more than he was ever a true left-winger. He was always an ultra-pragmatic Zionist of the “classic” school. For him, settlements were never anything more than a way to lay claim to territory; and territory itself was never anything more than a means to enhance Israel’s security. Once he concluded that a given bit of territory represented more of a strategic liability than an asset, Sharon was quite ready to jettison it unceremoniously, wonderful settlers or no. So while Ariel Sharon can definitely be accused (and convicted, as far as I’m concerned) of changing his mind (to put it nicely), I don’t think he ever changed his fundamental values.
So if Ariel Sharon is to be remembered as neither butcher, nor peacemaker, nor leopard, what is his legacy? I think I can sum it up in one word: unilateralism.
Throughout his long career, Ariel Sharon has perhaps been most noteworthy for being the Subordinate from Hell. He seldom followed an order he didn’t like, and if the orders he wanted weren’t forthcoming, he’d go ahead and follow them anyway. I could call this habit of his remarkable independence of thought and action, but I’d probably choke on my coffee; I’d rather be honest and call it sheer bloody-mindedness. As Prime Minister, Sharon used this previously-annoying predilection to dislodge Israel from a seemingly bottomless diplomatic rut.
Prior to Sharon’s election in early 2001, Israel’s diplomatic policy had been based on primarily “European” assumptions: that we would eventually reach peace agreements with out neighbors based upon compromise and mutual trading of interests. According to this view, occupied territories and settlements were assets to be swapped – sooner or later – for concessions elsewhere. Both the Labor and Likud parties still base their policies on this “land-for-peace” paradigm; the difference between the two is more about timing and the relative value of various “assets” than about basic ideas.
Arik Sharon eventually realized that this whole way of thinking wasn’t working, and that it wasn’t going to work any time soon. While a few parts of the Occupied Territories could be sensibly made part of Israel, most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip clearly would be bargained away in any peace agreement; but at the same time, there was no realistic prospect of striking such a bargain any time soon. The only thing we really want from the Palestinians is peace and security; and that’s something that no Palestinian government is able to give us. Yet while we wait for a true “peace partner” to appear, we bleed, figuratively and literally.
In contrast to traditional Israeli “Europeanism”, Ariel Sharon adopted (at least tentatively) an “American” approach: Rather than wait for an agreement that may not materialize for decades, why not anticipate some of the elements of any conceivable agreement, skip the tedious negotiations and inevitable disappointments when pretty words fail to create friendship and safety, and start gaining some of the benefits of an agreement even before negotiating the agreement? By harnessing national policy to his personal independence (splutter, choke), Sharon effected a genuine paradigm-shift in Israeli policy and politics.
Of course, there’s a lot more to be said on the subject of Israeli unilateralism; and I’ll freely admit that I’m a more radical unilateralist that Sharon – at least based on his public statements and actions. But even though he was tentative and insufficiently radical by my personal standards, he did break the logjam; from here on in, Israel knows that it can make decisions for itself and let the negotiators clean up afterwards. That’s not a bad legacy, I think.
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As I write, Ariel Sharon is being slowly brought out of his medically-induced coma. He has shown some responsiveness and movement, at least on his right side. As his left cerebral hemisphere was apparently less affected by his stroke than his right hemisphere, there is at least some chance that he will be able to regain consciousness and speech. Like so many others, I remain hopeful that Sharon will make as full a recovery as possible; while I can’t imagine circumstances under which he’d return to politics, I for one would very much like to know what Arik Sharon himself thinks about his legacy – straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.