This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Sharon is dead. The obituaries are coming fast and furious. Most mainstream news outlets are presenting a “balanced” view of Sharon as a controversial leader bound to be lionized over the next days.
The Guardian plays both sides of the Sharon equation. While it highlights the controversies that surrounded Sharon in life, the Guardian sums up Sharon’s controversial legacy this way:
For many Israelis he will be mourned as a giant figure that played a key role in shaping Israel both as a soldier and a statesman. His passing severs the last link to the iconic generation which fought in the 1948 war that followed the declaration of the state. His reputation as a fearless – and controversial – soldier was matched by his uncompromising ideology as a politician.
Among Palestinians and leftwing Israelis, he will be remembered as a powerful and reviled champion of Israel’s colonial settlement project, and the political force behind the construction of the vast concrete and steel separation barrier that snakes through the West Bank. Many will not forgive his role in the killing of hundreds of Palestinians in refugee camps in Beirut in the 1980s.
But those of us who aren’t beholden to these mainstream journalistic norms, whatever they’re worth, should state what’s on our minds. As Miko Peled writes:
Ariel Sharon was an ambitious man. He was brutal, greedy, uncompromising and dishonest. He possessed an insatiable appetite for power, glory and fortune. His tendencies as a cold-blooded, merciless killer were evident from early on in his career….
Simply put, Sharon was a thug.
Sharon was a thug who courted and exercised power his entire career, ultimately holding the reins of state power. For decades progressive Zionists held fast to the fiction that Sharon was a rightwing bigot outside Israel’s centrist political culture. They were wrong. Though rougher and more bellicose than other Israeli leaders, Sharon’s vision was – and is – at the center of the Israel’s state enterprise.
Sharon’s legacy isn’t about how Jews want Israel to be perceived by others. Leadership style is only a superficial part of the story. Sharon’s legacy is about the policies he carried out as a military and political actor.
In the public arena, Sharon was no different from his predecessors or those who followed him. If anything he was ahead of his time. Though not cutting the same outsized persona as Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu stands squarely in Sharon’s tradition. Netanyahu, too, is a thug who holds the reins of state power.
Sharon’s “uncompromising ideology as a politician” is Israel’s state ideology. That is the significance of Sharon’s legacy.
If Sharon is a thug, what does that make Jews in Israel and America who are paying homage to Sharon? What does that make political leaders around the world who offer condolences and will attend Sharon’s funeral?
President Obama released this statement on Sharon’s death:
We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples. We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.
Ariel Sharon’s journey was Israel’s journey. The dream of Israel was the cause of his life, and he risked it all to live that dream.
I remember reading about Arik in the papers when I was a young lawyer in Boston and marveling at his commitment to cause and country. I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became prime minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process. He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace.
During his years in politics, it is no secret that there were times the United States had differences with him. But whether you agreed or disagreed with his positions – and Arik was always crystal clear about where he stood – you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish State. In his final years as prime minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger.
We honor Arik’s legacy and those of Israel’s founding generation by working to achieve that goal.
No doubt Kerry is honoring “Arik’s” legacy in his current role as Secretary of State. Whatever policies Sharon may have been willing to change before his stroke, only a naïve fool or a willing deceiver would think that it had anything to do with justice for the Palestinian people.
The same with Kerry. Only a naïve fool or a willing deceiver would mistake Kerry’s push for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for justice.
Kerry got it right when he identified Sharon’s life with Israel’s journey.
Indeed, this is precisely why the problem with Sharon’s legacy is much deeper than Sharon himself.