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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.


“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 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

  11. Thteribl

    Alas for Israel ! Its democracy, so prized by by the Left, has delivered a Rightist regime, dependant on xenphobia to corral the electorate to retain their hold on power. I can identify with that.

  12. Mike R

    Guy Rundle has written an article of over 1000 words ostensibly regarding the sudden and unexpected death of Sharon. This is clearly momentous as of his death, Sharon can a no longer exert his considerable but comatose influence upon the politics of the Mid-East. I guess in his Rundle’s view, things are all very quiet in the rest of the Middle-East at the moment.

    I am however in agreement with much of the contents of Guy Rundle’s mostly well written (with some exceptions, see below) article. In particular I share his extreme distaste for the chauvinist extremists in the settler movement and those factions that represent them within the present Israeli government. In this sense Sharon indeed represented much of the worst of the worst and I personally do not mourn his demise.

    What is intriguing about his article is that for some unfathomable reason Guy neglected to mention Sharon’s withdrawal of Israeli troops and forcible evacuation of settlements from within Gaza some two years prior to his incapacitation . I seem to recall Sharon was demonized as a traitor by the extremists from the settler movement due to the forced evacuations of the settlements in Gaza . To account for Guy’s omission, either these facts didn’t fit in with the rest of his narrative or he may have accidentally hit the ‘Ctl X’ key inadvertently wiping out this key passage. Another possibility is that he has hit his word limit of 1153 words.

    When it comes to Israel, Guy often loses the plot and goes over the top. ‘Oy Vey’, there is so much wrong with Israel that is well documented by Rundle that it is a wonder that the inhabitants aren’t fleeing back to their former refuges in Syria ,Iraq and other areas of the Mid-East. The others could return to their homes in Central Europe where they could be guaranteed their traditional welcome. As for the US citizens (less than 3% of the population) they are probably safe in their former abode.

    I am sure his article will play well with those acolytes that have preformed ideas and therefore unlikely to be confronted by the content of Guy’s article with the notable exception of ‘but it is absurd to pretend that it’ (I assume he is referring to Israel)’ represents some extension of US power.’

    In his enthusiasm Guy also regurgitates a common meme popular among ‘certain sections of society’ (different market segment to that referred to by MJPC above). The analogy between Israel and apartheid era South Africa is, like most such analogies, just a by-product of lazy journalism. Yes there are undoubtedly many similarities but there are just as many or more dissimilarities. From one among a myriad of differences – How many, and if so from which, Bantustans were Qassam, Katyusha and Grad rockets (or any missiles) fired at population centres in South Africa during the apartheid era? Like most historical analogies these comparisons are more often than not superficial, odious and/or just stupid.

    Clearly Guy Rundle is not stupid and I usually enjoy his articles due to the bespoke nature of his rhetoric but when it comes to the confines of the Israel/Palestine he often resorts to an assembly of standard off the shelf material to construct a diatribe (Look for the “Interglot” in the IKEA catalogue. It comes in a flat pack and a range of colours suitable for any prejudice). I am sure his article provides much comfort to those readers of Crikey that worship at his feet. I am also a follower, but being slightly more discerning, I refrain from worship when Guy has stepped in something particularly odious.

    As I stated above, a kind interpretation of his use of the apartheid analogy is that is simply a by-product of lazy journalism but his focus on Israel suggests his ideological blinkers are restricting his vision. Guy has much form in this matter but I would not dare to impugn his motives. He is clearly not enamoured of the Jewish state of Israel but I would start to get worried if he vilified all the others, in particular Birobidzhan

  13. Kevin Herbert

    Mike R:


  14. Mike R


    Thank-you once again for your contribution which demonstrates your normal intellectual rigour.

    However I note that there are less ‘zs’ than your previous narcoleptic contributions. Despite this I still suggest you seek treatment for your condition as it is dangerous to drive or operate machinery, even a computer in your state.

    Other signs of progress I have noticed are you willingness to branch out a bit by the inclusion of the full stops. Keep it going. There at least 256 standard ASCII characters (if you run out try using Unicode) that can be accessed from the keyboard. Give them a go and I reckon if you type enough of them randomly you might manage to give Shakespeare a run for his money.

  15. AR

    MikeR – that would fewer ‘zs’.

  16. Mike R

    AR -Thanks for providing the correction. Much appreciated.

  17. Mike R

    I quite enjoy the contributions from the commentariat that invariably follows articles about Israel and the Palestinians. In particular I always enjoy Kevin Herbert but others who join the fray also provide their moments.

    The following illustrates the dangers of making superficial analogies even though I agree with the point about the visibility of the Israel/Palestinian conflict. I apologize in advance for going into ‘crack a walnut with a sledge hammer’ mode but it’s way too hot to do any useful work.

    j’oneill – “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? ”

    I agree the daily news cycle at present tends to be dominated by other events in the Mid-East. j.oneill is quite right that Israel/Palestine is not getting a lot of coverage at the moment. It is getting blown off the front pages and news bulletins by footage of the carnage in Syria with over 100,000 dead in 3 years (about 100 dead per day amortized over 3 years) and Iraq (relatively quiet compared to Syria with only 8000 dead last year) along with the occasional mayhem in Beirut. So the sporadic exchange of fire across the borders with Gaza and Lebanon accompanied by the relatively low numbers of casualties ( 1 or 2 per month typically in a quiet period) does not seem to be as newsworthy.

    I am not sure whether j.oneill has any preference as to the number of violent deaths in Gaza and Israel so that it can once again dominate the news cycle? The massive number of news correspondents in Israel/ Palestine, relative to Syria, probably means a death toll one thousand times fewer than in Syria could do the trick. Sorry so be so macabre.

    j.oneil again “A wall that is both higher and longer than the Berlin Wall which was a constant source for western propaganda.”

    No mention of thicker but j.oneill’s other point comparing the Israeli West bank barrier to the Berlin Wall is, like many such analogies, not only stupid but particularly amusing. The extent of the West bank wall is about 5% of the total length of the barrier. I agree with some critics that it has not been totally effective. The number of Israeli suicide bombers attacking buses and cafes in the West bank has not changed since the construction of the ‘Wall/fence’.

    However the number of terrorist attacks by Palestinians has vastly decreased.

    Look I know correlation does not mean causation but there are no other rational explanations for the reduction in terrorist attacks inside Israel ( OK despite the lack of a scintilla of evidence, maybe the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are extending their hand of friendship to Israel) .

    In the absence of a simultaneous control Israel /Palestine without a wall/fence (probably the closest are enclaves under siege such as Aleppo but there are too many confounding factors) the only method to provide additional evidence would involve the removal of the wall to see if the terrorist attacks return to their baseline numbers. I suggest j.oneill personally makes the call to the Israelis with such a suggestion.

    j.oneill also seem to be upset that the wall is not shown regularly on Australian TV. Well he/she could suggest a channel devoted full time to the wall (real time footage from one stationary camera should be particularly fascinating) to the ABC (maybe ABC5). SBS might be worth a go and you could have Marg Downey reprising her role with edited highlights of the coverage. It would certainly be as entertaining as classics such as the Peruvian “Silence of the Llamas’ or even the Korean classic “The Shoe, the Spade, the Cheesegrater and the Lump of Fat “.

    I don’t think you would get a great response from the commercial networks except maybe Foxtel (don’t expect a HD channel though) and the ratings maybe awful despite it being better viewing than most channels on Foxtel.

    I am most curious as to why the comparison with the Berlin Wall was made. I have this naive belief that the Berlin Wall was meant to keep prevent the population leaving en masse and not to prevent the entry of western terrorists. J.oneill also gave the impression that he/she believes that the Berlin Wall was given bad press by the Western Media (presumably mainstream) for propaganda purposes . In that case then the footage of Germans manually tearing down the wall was fabricated by the Western media (in ‘Goodbye Lenin’ style). I am interested in how he/she has formed this view (personally I wouldn’t necessarily believe any acquaintance who was previously a member of the STASI).

    J.oneill, do you have the same view regarding the walls along the border between North Korea and China (presumably to keep Chinese out of North Korea , especially the terrorists)? I see a sudden vacancy has arisen in the leadership of the North Korea at the moment and you seem to have plenty of idle time.

    There are numerous walls and fences through- out the world (you can find a list of them here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_walls) from the wall between the USA and Mexico (much longer than the Israeli and Berlin walls ) , a wall that divides Cyprus that passes through the centre of Nicosia, even a Saudi fence to keep out Yemeni terrorists . There are enough walls to keep Roger Waters generating albums (maybe we will all get tired of it by The Wall part 21) for several lifetimes.


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