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Middle East

Jan 13, 2014

Ariel Sharon is still dead, like the Israel he controlled

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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

“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.

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17 comments

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17 thoughts on “Ariel Sharon is still dead, like the Israel he controlled

  1. paddy

    Standing ovation for the best thing I’ve read on Crikey this year Guy.

  2. Kevin Herbert

    Erik Scheinerman (aka Ariel Sharon) was an evil fraud….his creation of the Gaza open prison for 1.2 million civilians is his dark legacy.

    Like Stalin, just another Georgian thug.

    Nice work Guy.

  3. colin skene

    Guy Rundle is one of the major reasons I subscribe to Crikey. A tour de force if ever there was one.

  4. mook schanker

    But Greg Sheridan tells me you cannot do anything wrong as long as you’re in a democracy right….?

  5. j.oneill

    “By any justice, he should have ended up in a glass box in The Hague”. But there is no justice any more. The notion of accountability for war crimes barely survived the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. Israel commits crimes against the Palestinians on a daily basis and the Australian press barely mentions them, and certainly not in terms of accountability. When was the last time you saw the Israeli wall on TV? A wall that is both higher and longer than the Berlin Wall which was a constant source for western propaganda.

    After a shift in australia’s voting pattern on Palestinian questions in the UN General Assembly the Abbott government went back to unquestioning compliance with the USA’s wishes and now is a tiny minority voting in Israel’s interests. They were so afraid of adverse publicity that the major policy change was made without even the barest public announcement.

    Our msm still parrots the usual nonsense about the “peace process” and other linguistic distortions of reality. It is a measure of how far we have fallen that the Sharon eulogies paint him as a “moderate” because he unilaterally withdrew from Gaza! How blind can one be to reality. How sick are our values that the architect of the racist apartheid state that regularly attacks, directly or indirectly, its neighbours; that refuses to sign the nuclear NPT; and that uses chemical warfare; and for decades has pursued policies consistent with the so-called Yinon plan that require the destruction of their neighbours.

    I welcome Guy’s statements but they do not go far enough. Our policies need a radical rethink, but it will be a cold day in hell before our present political leadership takes that step.

  6. AR

    One of his nicknames during his career was “bulldozer”. It should be a matter of interest, if only to PhD types wanting a new thesis subject, to ponder how so rigorously secular a concept as the (non Zionist)Israel – the relentless kommunalism of the kibbutzim, the eschewing of obscurantism, the forward looking vision was corrupted. Methinks it was 1967 and the, then, unwanted West Bank acquired purely as a military bargaining chip.
    Once the NY “Eretz Israel” fundis sussed that it could be leveraged as an anti-communist bulwark the rot set in.
    If it goes on for another generation as currently, it will beindistinguishable from any other confessional theocracy, small victories like degendered buses will have been a blip.

  7. Zarathrusta

    Astute analysis. Hopefully Israel can see some wisdom and dig itself out of this mess. The lack of anyone’s real interest being served by helping them now may just assist that.

  8. MJPC

    Guy, good to see that a journalist has the courage to criticise an icon of zionism; of course you know you will now be branded as anti-semitic by some sections of society.

  9. Dez Paul

    @MJPC – that would be by those who confuse a Semite with a Zionist.
    Love your work, Guy. You are able to make an ugly subject such a beautiful read. Whether Sharon was/is a Lion of Zion is not so important. You’re right about him that “…the idea that some unique virtue or vice attaches to him is self-serving on both sides.” He was just one in a long line of grubs, stretching over a long history, across many nations. In all probability we will see the likes of him again, if not in Israel, then somewhere else.

  10. j.oneill

    Juan Cole Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan has a very good 10 point summary of why Sharon was bad for Israel and the Middle East. It can be accessed at http://www.juancole.com