The Tragedy of Ariel Sharon

Somewhere in Israel, there is a sculpture of Ariel Sharon, comatose, in his hospital bed. It is highly realistic, has open eyes and appears to breathe. It represents, according to the artist, the artificial life support of an untenable political body — the Israeli state. I wonder if it still maintains its mechanical breathing now, after Ariel Sharon stopped breathing and passed away from renal failure this afternoon.

That Ariel Sharon has finally died is a relief, of sorts. There something deeply inappropriate about a comatose manon life-support. I feel like the fact that he used to be a soldier deepens that feeling. Just as there is something deeply inappropriate about the persistence of a system of political injustice installed by the aftermath of another injustice.

So what can we take with us from the life of Ariel Sharon? He is a complicated figure. Looking back at the past eight years, he seems to have been dead for years already, so there’s a touch of hindsight already to evaluating his life. Passions have had eight years of cooling before he finally shuffled off.

When he died the first time, in 2006, my first thought was good riddance. But my anger, which I still hold, blends with sadness now. Now I think, first and foremost, that the word that springs to mind now is tragedy. In the original, Greek sense of the word. I see a man of tremendous talent and capability realising only on the brink of death that his life’s work, his enormous energy, has been spent pursuing evil ends.

He was a bold and talented military mind. And by all accounts he fought brilliantly in the wars that Israel had to fight in its founding years. But we need to say what he was and what he did: Ariel Sharon was a war criminal. His actions and inactions during the Shabra and Shatila massacres were pure, unadulterated crimes of war. Crimes against humanity. Thousands of civilian men, women and children were slaughtered because of his actions. Corpses strewn in the streets. Dogs picking at the bodies. An act of inhuman slaughter hung around his neck like an albatross.

And yet, despite his all to brief resignation, a career in public service and the public eye followed. It is a part of the greater, ongoing tragedy of Israel and Palestine that a man with hands completely drenched in blood could return to the center stage, but he did, powerfully supported by friends in the US and on the likudi right.

Shatila. The blood on Sharon’s hands.

And he continued to set Israel on the terrible path of confrontation, confinement and colonisation. He triggered the intifada with a kind of confrontational, school-boy bully delight. And he continued and amplified the onfoing confrontation that is a driver of untold misery today. It continues to create tremendous suffering for the Israelis and Palestinians both. Palestinians because they live under constant and bloody-handed repression. Israelis because it poisons the well of Israeli democracy, cripples the Israeli spirit, creates ingrown and horrific conflicts that will take generations to clear away.

Sharon seemed to be the consummate hawk, dedicated to burning his own country to the ground rather than giving an inch. Poised to become yet another in the line of terrible leaders that afflicts the Israeli population.

And then, suddenly, nearing what he did not know was the end of his waking life, he seemed to realise that his path did not go anywhere. That his actions were creating an unsustainable Israel. He was in charge of sawing off the branch he was sitting on. He changed his mind. Probably in some quite profound way.

Perhaps it was the question of legacy that suddenly moved closer. There is something about the end of a man’s life that sometimes brings the horizon of how history will remember you closer. He stopped caring about the everyday allegiances that got a man who shouldered the responsibility for a mass murder into public office. He seemed to want to try, he seemed to start the slow turning of the great wheel.

And in the last months of his life he showed tremendous political bravery. He reversed many of his earlier policies and started the confrontation with the settlers. He burned a lifetime of bridges.

Would he have kept it up? Would he have taken Israel where it needed to go? Probably not. But we’ll never know. He stroked out and landed in a coma amid the chaos of his final actions.

But, ultimately, it was too little, too late. That was the tragedy of Ariel Sharon. A man who has done tremendously bad things, caused untold misery, who only near the end realises the error of his ways, who begins to repair the damage, but dies before he can mend the fault. It’s a terrible story. Compounded by the fact that he was a criminal who evaded justice. A tragic story. One fitting to the greater, even more irreparable tragedy of the Israeli state.

Update: The best obituary so far is this one, in the New York Times. It tells us exactly how many lives he trampled on to get where he was, and how for a split second at the end, he seemed to understand what needed to be done:

Nine years later, Mr. Sharon didn’t even try to find excuses for his disregard for the loss of life on his way to the top. He ordered the forces invading Lebanon “to finish off” southern Beirut, where the Palestinian refugee camps and P.L.O. bases were located, and “raze it to the ground.” An Israeli weekly newspaper depicted him on the cover as a ruthless Viking trampling on Lebanon.

(…)

Yet he remained on the Ferris wheel for years, as a Knesset member for the Likud Party and as a cabinet minister — until February 2001, when, with Israelis desperate for a strong leader who could stop the violence and terrorism of the second Intifada, he defeated the incumbent prime minister, Ehud Barak.

And then he changed. As long as he was striving for power, Mr. Sharon had been a wild man, a mega-intriguer. When he reached the top, in the midst of a wave of suicide attacks that were wreaking havoc, Mr. Sharon was the right leader at the right time. He ordered that all the resources the defense establishment had developed in preparation for the next war should now be diverted to fighting terrorism.

Update 2: And this one, from Robert Fisk, reminds us even more thoroughly of the slaughter Sharon got done.

In the end, Sharon got away with it, even when it was proved that he had, the night before the Phalangists attacked the civilians of the camp, publicly blamed the Palestinians for the murder of their leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Sharon told these ruthless men that the Palestinians had killed their beloved “chief”. Then he sent them in among the civilian sheep – and claimed later he could never have imagined what they would do in Chatila. Only years later was it proved that hundreds of Palestinians who survived the original massacre were interrogated by the Israelis and then handed back to the murderers to be slaughtered over the coming weeks.

So it is as a war criminal that Sharon will be known forever in the Arab world, through much of the Western world, in fact – save, of course, for the craven men in the White House and the State Department and the Blair Cabinet – as well as many leftist Israelis. Sabra and Chatila was a crime against humanity. Its dead counted more than half the fatalities of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. But the man who was responsible was a “man of peace”.

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