Lionised by Israelis, loathed by Palestinians, Ariel Sharon’s archaic political vision was a disaster for both. From London, Crikey’s writer at large looks at the legacy.
“Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” Chevy Chase intoned in a classic episode of Saturday Night Live’s “News Review”. The obsequies for former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon have the same air. The man has been dead to all intents and purposes for eight years. We already did the recap when he slipped into a coma eight years ago. Now we have to do it again?
Commemorating his death twice has a macabre logic to it — Israeli forces killed a three-year-old Palestinian girl in Gaza on December 24, part of collective punishment for the random shooting of an Israeli contractor on the border. Her death went unremarked upon. Sharon is to be mourned twice.
But in the time between dying the first and second times, something has happened. Sharon slipped into a coma at the beginning of 2006, at the tail end of US neo-con supremacism. The Iraq War was going badly, but it still had its dogged supporters, and the United States’ bubbling economy had not yet burst. The Arab “Spring”, if one can still call it that, had not yet started, and the idea that Israel could still sit amid a sea of US-backed dictators and monarchs was still a viable one. The Palestinians had been a potent and unified force within recent memory. Carving up the West Bank and kick-starting Hamas in years previous seemed like a smart real-politik solution to Palestine as a “front line” of pan-Arabism.
Eight years on, that dream of an Israeli “smart solution” is a distant memory. The idea of ensuring Israeli security through territorial carve-up had been handed on from the revisionist zionism of the 1920s, which had argued for carving out Israel by force on both sides of the Jordan. The revisionists had become the Israeli Right. When they finally took electoral power in 1977, they began the process of colonising the West Bank. Yitzhak Shamir, that old Zionist fascist, was a prime mover of it. Sharon, dismissed as minister of defence after the Sabra and Shatila massacres, became minister of housing, war by other means.
These men — Likud founder Menachem Begin, Shamir, Sharon — are celebrated by the Right for their fortitude and ruthlessness in defence of their country, damned by the Left for their indifference to the deaths of Arabs, and the European chauvinism — if not outright racism — that lay beneath it.
But quite aside from any moral considerations, the obvious point is how disastrous it has been. Pan-Arabism had collapsed by the end of the Cold War. New rising Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar had no interest in picking fights with Israel, a fellow high-tech boutique state in a newly globalised world. Palestine could have been part of that trajectory, a business-oriented micro-state, kept in client status by Israel. That would have been their two-state solution.
Instead, there is now a one-state solution. It’s just not a very good solution. The territories are by no sane assessment self-governing; the place is an apartheid state, with “native” dependencies. Settlements that have grown over 20 years now bifurcate anything resembling a contiguous territory. They are anchored by political fundamentalist movements within the Green Line. Settlers who once genuinely fled persecution in Europe have now been joined by Americans fleeing anomie in their own country. “Where should we go?” one settler asked a documentary crew when challenged about their right to be there. “Auschwitz?” She was from Brooklyn.
“The world he built died long before he died the first time; it was no more than a ghost the second.”
Parallel to all that, Israeli public life has decayed. Hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid have created a military-industrial-technical complex that has resulted in one leader after another, Sharon included, mired in corruption and kickbacks. The neo-liberalisation of what was once a social democratic country (for European Jews at least) has shredded social solidarity. The secular vision and secular parties are losing moral authority, and the vacuum has been filled by religious groups and the East European-founded parties. They have developed a political kitsch, in which such civic balance as has remained within the Green Line is undermined by insistence on loyalty oaths to a “Jewish state” and the like.
The paradox for Israel is that, having lost its role as a necessary sanctuary and homeland for Jews around the world, much of its identity comes, not despite, but because of its oppression of the Palestinians. The rise of an identity politics — rather than a solidarity politics, even a chauvinist one — becomes difficult to control, because it is never enough. What explains the denial of citizenship to a few thousand children — many of them now adults — born in Israel of Filipino servants? The attempted destruction of Bedouin communities, complete with village demolitions? Such a politics gathers its own force — as it has in the US, with the Tea Party, whose political fundamentalism mirrors that of right-wing Zionism.
Meanwhile, around Israel-Palestine, the whole nature of the world has changed. The combined chaos from the Iraq War, then the Syrian civil war, the fresh rise of al-Qaeda in the horn of Africa and across the region, and the US withdrawal to a micro-targeted, drone-based strategy and a negotiated deal with Iran, effectively renders Israel a side-show — and one now lumbered with an archaic political arrangement, deprived of an imperative.
If it is easier now to say that Israel is an apartheid state, it is because its global position in some respects resembles that of South Africa in its late days. There is no new uprising in the territories, but everyone knows the situation cannot continue indefinitely — and there is no imperative (aside from the voters of Florida) to defend it. The combination of an increasingly stricken political culture and a nuclear arsenal does not bode well for Israel’s neighbours, but it is absurd to pretend that it represents some extension of US power. Due to the policies that Sharon pushed, Israel is a problem for everyone, including Israel.
So the ghostly half-life of Sharon matches that of the old vision he staked himself as the defender of. Both sides, on his second death, have tried to stake meaning on it. The Right outdid itself to portray him as a “maverick” and “bulldozer”, the other side filled the web with fantasies of Sharon in hell — understandably, given the hell-on-earth he had waved through in Sabra and Shatila. By any justice, he should have ended up in a glass box in The Hague — imagine Milosevic’s obituary calling him a “strong but controversial leader” — but the idea that some unique virtue or vice attaches to him is self-serving on both sides.
The world he built died long before he died the first time; it was no more than a ghost the second. And Ariel Sharon is still dead.