The larger national tragedy of Ariel Sharon

2014-01-20 10:00

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The divergent appraisals of late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are as passionate and as contradictory as he was in life.

To many, he’s a hero, a visionary, a brilliant political and military tactician. To others, he’s a war criminal, a racist coloniser, and killer and tormentor of Palestinians and Arabs.

The tragedy of his life is that both views are correct, as seen from different sides.

Like his nickname, “The Bulldozer”, he was a force who could be used for good or bad.

A bulldozer builds homes and farms for Zionist Israelis, but destroys them for Palestinian Arabs. It builds factories, schools and hospitals for Zionists, but builds illegal colonies and kills decent people.

Perhaps a useful exercise is to analyse if this hero/war criminal was the exception or the rule of the wider values, policies and dilemmas of Israel and Zionism.

Those who honour Sharon see him as a great Israeli who spent his life fighting on the battlefield and in the corridors of power and diplomacy to secure the future of Israel and coexistence with the Palestinians.

Those who see him as a war criminal point to his 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.

By these criteria, Sharon is a tragic figure because his long military and political record contributed substantially to all aspects of modern Israel.

In this March 7 1984 file photo, an Israeli soldier keeps his finger on the trigger of his assault rifle while former defence minister Ariel Sharon stands on the bridge overlooking the Awali River, Israel’s most northerly position in Lebanon. Picture: Max Nash/AP

He leaves behind a troubled country, an increasingly militarised Israel that faces growing internal demands for social justice; that deepens and expands its colonial settlements in occupied Palestine while being unable to absorb, expel or control the millions of Palestinians under its occupation;

that faces growing demands for equality from its second-class Palestinian citizens; that views with concern its poor relations with its Middle East neighbours; that suffers a polarised, aggressive domestic Jewish-Zionist political scene that is increasingly distorted by religious fundamentalists; that weathers a serious ideological rift with its key supporter, the US, on Palestine and Iran issues; that faces a growing global campaign to sanction or boycott Israelis for their occupation and colonisation of Palestine, and routinely compares Israel with apartheid;

that faces more robust and technologically sophisticated Islamist nationalist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, who refuse to be beaten into submission; that seems perplexed by how to respond politically to Arab uprisings that seek democratic governance systems; and that is more isolated globally on existential issues like Iran’s nuclear industry.

This list of Israel’s problems is especially relevant today because Sharon’s public policies contributed to bringing about each of them. They include assaulting, killing, imprisoning, colonising, sieging, torturing, massacring, and disparaging Palestinians and other Arabs.

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 in the name of Zionism and Israel. This hero/war criminal mirrors the larger dilemma of Zionism and Israel that, for Jews, provided a vibrant national home for their threatened community, but also criminally shattered, occupied, exiled and colonised indigenous Palestinian Arabs.

The Israeli conditions coexist with a nation that is (for Zionist Jews mainly) economically strong, militarily agile, technologically robust, intellectually vibrant, culturally dynamic and confident in its ability to protect itself.

Sharon’s life and death should be an opportunity to reconsider if the military bulldozer approach to statehood and relations is something to celebrate and perpetuate or to retire as a relic of ancient militarism.

»?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

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