Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon passed away this Shabbat, still under the coma that took him in 2006. He leaves behind a deeply mixed legacy, both beloved and reviled by many, and perplexing in his final years. I am not ambivalent about Sharon’s legacy. He goes down in history as a reluctant late-comer to peace and, unfortunately, as a military commander condemned by his own country for permitting the massacre of innocent civilians in Qibya and in Sabra and Shatila. His legacy upon Israeli history is less honorable than I prefer for a leader of the Jewish people.
As a young minister, he satisfied the settlement movement’s horrible appetite by unearthing the bygone Turkish-era law that allowed the seizure of Palestinian land. Defeated at first by the Israeli High Court from building openly on privately-owned land, a Sharon confidant recounts in the documentary The Law in These Parts, Sharon discovered he could appropriate property if he could prevent the owners from farming it for a year. That legal gimmick, aided by a snaking security barrier and countless checkpoints, would dispossess thousands of Palestinians of land upon which today sit the red tile roofs of Israeli settlements.
And Sharon will be remembered with perplexity and mystery. Ariel Sharon in his final years turned against his life-long allies, the settlers. He uttered support for the two-state solution. He did what Israeli doves could not, uprooting Gush Katif. He commissioned the Sasson Report, which revealed how much settlement had gone beyond “legal” methods to the outright theft the Supreme Court had forbidden him decades before. Just before his stroke, debate swirled around whether he would also disengage from the West Bank or whether it was a ruse to put full negotiations in “formaldehyde.” Can we really know how he saw the settlement machine that he himself had built?
I do believe that warmongers can redeem themselves by taking true steps towards peace. Shimon Peres conducted terrorism against the British, Rabin was a hard general of war, as was Arafat, and so too Abbas. But Sharon’s redemptive acts were too late, too little, too counterproductive.
Refusing to work with the Palestinian Authority when withdrawing from Gaza handed Hamas a victory proving that Israelis only understand violence and never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Sharon shares in the creation of the context for the rockets that rained down for years upon Sderot and the brutality of Operation Cast Lead. Innocent lives on both sides wasted. And now withdrawal, a peacemaking necessity, is tainted by unilateralism and the fear of which is why today Israelis haven’t believed they can trust Palestinians to rule.
His mistakes have been our burden to carry. Peace has taken this long as a result of his participation in history. Israel’s democracy today is imperiled by the forces he aided and abetted. I admit the possibility that in the future, we will look back at Sharon’s destructive decisions and see their purpose in the grander scheme. But it’s hard to imagine that such a delay could be to our benefit.
Ariel Sharon will remain a larger than life figure. May he be peacefully laid to rest, the same peace that every man deserves regardless of life’s actions. May someday the pain of the victims of Qibya, of Sabra and Shatila, and of the all the fighting between Jews and Arabs ever since also be peacefully put to rest. A beautiful, full peace that Ariel Sharon will bear little credit in having made possible.