Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ariel Sharon, man of peace or man of war?

I figure we should put some words on this blog about Ariel Sharon. The Israeli Prime Minister is, as I write this, laying in a Jerusalem hospital bed fighting for his life, after suffering what the talking heads refer to as a “serious stroke” (I didn’t know that there was any other kind). Pundits are also trying to predict what impact this will have on the peace process. I guess I should just say outright to the CNNs the FOXNews’ that in the history of Israel it has been damn near impossible to predict what events mean and what their outcome will be. So quit it with all the lame guessing. I will save you all a lot of effort. No one knows what comes next, and only Prime Minister Sharon’s doctors know the true extent of the damage to his health at this point.

Instead of focusing on the legacy that Prime Minister Sharon leaves behind, I would like to talk about where he comes from. I decided to read up on the man’s past. It turns out the Ariel Sharon was born Ariel Scheinermann (I’d change that name too!) in the British Mandate of Palestine or BMP (the last time that Jerusalem was “Palestinian”). His parents were Eastern European Jews that had immigrated to the “holy land”. His parents were affiliated with a number of “left leaning” (read Commie) groups.

From an early age, Sharon was a member of a paramilitary group called Haganah. They were a small group that was formed to protect Jewish settlers after the Jews determined that the British had no interest in confronting the Arabs for their continual attacks on Jewish farms (Kibbutzim) and settlements. During World War II the British asked Haganah for assistance in fighting the war, which they provided. They were deployed in North Africa in case German General Erwin Rommel broke through English lines. After having served Haganah returned to the BMP and began undertaking paramilitary (a friendly substitute for the more apt: terrorist) actions against the British in Palestine.

The mission of Haganah sounds vaguely familiar, I am not quite sure, but there exists somewhere an organization dedicated to a similar premise. That’s right, they are called The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO formerly PLA substituting the word Army in, but Organization is so much more respectable). How quickly we forget what the L stands for when we just use the acronym.

Well, I have strayed sufficiently off course. Let me sum up Ariel Sharon’s career by saying that he gained fame and acclaim in what became Israel for ruthlessly fighting Arabs. From the early 1940s until the early 1980s it was Ariel Sharon’s job to kill Arabs and defend the state of Israel. He was controversially linked to the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. I am not going to get into a debate over the merits and/or ethics of his job. I will leave that spitting match to Arabs and Semites. I will say that throughout its history the Israelis have been surrounded by neighbors that would gladly see every single Jew in the holy land dead. Living in that kind of neighborhood can make someone understandably skittish.

The next phase of Ariel Sharon’s life saw him parlaying his fame into a political career. Ariel Sharon spent over 30 years as a backbencher or in the opposition. From the cheap seats Sharon became very comfortable spouting off about the hard line and the calamity that will come from negotiating with Palestinians. As a life long member of the Likud Party, Sharon was appointed to the government of Menachem Begin. His career followed many twists and turns winding up with his appointment to the position of Foreign Minister in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1998-1999). When the Likud government fell in election to Ehud Barak, Sharon position within the Likud was elevated. It seems that his vocal opposition to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority reached its zenith during these years, but when Barak’s government fell in 2001 and Sharon found himself as Prime Minister the slow thaw of his stubbornness regarding negotiations and peace began. Sharon, like many ex-generals come prime minister, learned that once you are in a position of leadership the intractable side of ones nature is instantly obsolete. This was not an instantaneous change in Sharon. It took a number of years, bad years for the peace process, before he came to the realization that peace is more important than rhetoric.

So now, what comes next? I think it is pretty obvious that Sharon’s career in politics is over, but perhaps he may have gone out in the perfect way. To simply walk away would have left a vacuum. To be removed forcibly, before people were emotionally ready has made him into a Yitzhak Rabin, of sorts. He has left a cause without a standard bearer. Perhaps someone will step up to seize the reins. While I won’t endorse a candidate I will say to the people of Israel that they should be very wary of Bibi Netanyahu. This is a man who has already been prime minister. He has learned the challenges a leader faces first hand and yet he still tows the hard line and actively works against efforts to make peace. This is a man who is woefully obstinate; Israel will never know peace under a man like this.

In the end, Sharon’s legacy is unknown. He walked away from his beloved Likud Party because they could not see, as he did, that peace will never come from violent resistance but through dialogue and slowly breaking down prejudices. Ariel Sharon is a man who started as a nationalist, became a Zionist and finally wound up a patriot. A better path could never be charted by a man. He is no saint. He most certainly has blood on his hands, but as a good Jew he made efforts to atone for past wrong-doing. Peace will not come quickly, but come it must. A warrior like Sharon learned that the hard way. Let that be his legacy.