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Ariel Sharon's legacy and Israel's national strategy
Analysts weigh in on what his example says about Israel's approach to questions of war, peace, diplomacy and territory
January 13, 20146:00PM ET
Steven A. Cook
Steven A. Cook is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
As with everything related to Ariel Sharon, controversy defines his legacy. He was all at once heroic, audacious, reckless, mendacious and criminal. Sharon’s reputation in the West was based on his daring performance during the October 1973 War, but despite the ultimate success of the Israel Defense Forces, he was an insubordinate officer who ignored direct orders from his superior, preferring to follow his own battlefield judgments and instincts. When it came to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, there is evidence that Sharon deliberately misled the Israeli government on the scale of the military operation he had planned. These episodes speak to the way in which Sharon approached diplomacy, peace and security, as well as war. He trusted his own instincts and paid little heed to other perspectives, all in a single-minded effort to ensure Israeli security. Although some have hailed him for doing just that, his legacy suggests that he also caused considerable damage during his long military and political career.
Diana Buttu is a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization in negotiations with Israel from 2000 to 2005
Ariel Sharon will be remembered for his war crimes committed against the Palestinian people, including the massacres in Qibya in 1953, in Khan Younis in 1955, in Sabra and Shatilla in 1982 and in Jenin in 2002. He will also be remembered for being the person who built and expanded more illegal Israeli colonies than any other figure in Israel.
During his five decades as a political figure in Israel, he faced the same choice: allow Palestinians to live in freedom or continue their subjugation. At every turn, he chose the latter.
At his core, he was a racist who never believed that Palestinians are entitled to live in freedom. Despite the attempts by many to whitewash his crimes, people of conscience will remember him precisely for what he was: a war criminal who evaded prosecution.
Meir Javedanfar is the owner and editor of the Iran-Israel Observer. He teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel
Sharon’s legacy is the idea that Israel has to be militarily strong and it has to show its enemies that it will defend itself with all its might, if and when it has to do so. At the same time, when it comes to some challenges, especially when it comes to the Palestinian issue, having a strong army will not be enough. When it comes to occupying someone else’s land to provide security for your citizens, less is more. In fact, occupation of someone else’s land makes you more insecure, and the argument that settlements provide security for Israel is nonsense, because houses full of Israeli women and children in occupied territories are never meant to be used as shields. So how can they provide security?
I hope Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu follows his example and withdraws from the occupied territories as part of a peace deal with the PLO. It's time for Israel’s politicians to be brave, and not just its 18-year-old soldiers.
Alon Pinkas is a former Israeli diplomat, political adviser to President Shimon Peres and chief of staff for then–Prime Minister Ehud Barak; he is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum in New York
Sharon's life and legacy essentially personify the dissonance that modern Israel experiences: deep belief in military solutions and an equally deep realization that it cannot really solve anything; fearing a Palestinian state yet realizing that it is the only viable solution; valuing territory and understanding that in modern geopolitics and technology it means little; thinking that Israel must be invincible but acknowledging the limits of force.
Avrum Burg was speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, from 1999 to 2003, and is currently a businessman and political activist in Israel
His greatest leadership deed — the disengagement from Gaza — was his absolute conservative act. By doing it he preserved his conflictual and confrontational philosophies. For Sharon was — more so than many others — the symbol of the Israeli with whom no Palestinian can talk. Sharon was the ultimate “no partner” for the Palestinians. Leaving Gaza was not a departure from the old ‘Sharonism’ of refusal and rejectionism, but its preservation and empowerment. He was a leader but not a groundbreaking leader, not a game-changer — just another very impressive road-blocker with his body and actions.
David Pollock is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute
Ariel Sharon rose to prominence as a warrior. But in his final years in political office as prime minister, even while ruthlessly and effectively striking back at Palestinian terrorists, Sharon demonstrated a very different side. He agreed to limit Israeli settlements in the West Bank, accepted the idea of an independent Palestinian state and initiated the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The contradiction was merely a superficial one; for only a man with Sharon’s unrivaled reputation for toughness could have pulled off such switches so successfully. That was when and why President George W. Bush famously, and correctly, finally called Sharon a “man of peace.”
Twenty years earlier, in 1985, I had met Ariel Sharon for the first time. To my astonishment, he maintained that a million or more Jewish immigrants could quickly be brought to Israel from the Soviet Union. Within less than a decade, Sharon’s dream of mass Soviet Jewish immigration came true. Those immigrants, he hoped, would largely “solve” Israel’s “demographic problem” of including so many Arabs within its expanded borders. Yet by the time he became prime minister in 2001, Sharon realized that this part of his dream was unrealistic. So he reversed course and decided that for Israel’s own sake as a Jewish and democratic state, he had to uproot the settlements in Gaza, as he had at Yamit in Sinai for the sake of peace with Egypt in 1982. And for the sake of peace with the Palestinians, or at least separation from them, he had to build a wall dividing Israel from the West Bank and concentrate further settlement only in the sliver of land around Jerusalem and Israel’s “narrow waist” near the Mediterranean coast — precisely the area that Palestinian and other Arabs have finally agreed could be swapped to Israel as part of a final peace agreement with a Palestinian state.
This trajectory sums up Sharon’s legacy: First, be a fearsome warrior in order to be able to turn later to the work of peace. Because of this legacy, Israel today can contemplate its future more confidently, even as the region around it implodes, or explodes. But whether or not that national confidence produces a new paragon of personal courage and political decisiveness a la Ariel Sharon is still an open question.
Matthew Duss is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress
It's obviously difficult to capture the legacy of so controversial a figure as Ariel Sharon in a few sentences, so I'd like to focus on the impact of the last major initiative of his public career, the Gaza withdrawal. Long one of the strongest advocates of Israel's provocative policy of implanting settlements in territories occupied in 1967, Sharon shocked supporters and opponents alike when he decided to withdraw settlements from Gaza in 2005. While not conceived as step toward a two-state peace (Sharon's own adviser Dov Weissglass admitted that it was intended to put the peace process in "formaldehyde"), the withdrawal does have positive implications for a two-state outcome. First, it showed that Israel could remove settlers if and when its leaders mustered the necessary political will. Second, by dismantling settlements whose presence Sharon himself had once insisted was absolutely necessary for Israel's security, he showed that previously stated "red-lines" should not be considered insurmountable obstacles to future agreements. It's deeply ironic that this opponent of the two-state solution should, in his final act, effectively demolish two of the main arguments for why that solution isn't possible.
Yousef Munayyer is the executive director of The Jerusalem Fund
Among the messages and obituaries that have been written since Ariel Sharon's death, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's included a particularly accurate line: "Sharon's journey was Israel's journey." Sharon was part of every major event in Israel's history during his life and almost always left a bloody mark. His legacy — and it is one that Israel shares — is that of total impunity. Time and again, Sharon was responsible for crimes, collective punishment and mass destruction, and yet, despite sometimes significant criticism of his behavior by other Israelis, Sharon was consistently able to maintain a role in public life and positions of power.
Like Sharon, Israel too has been able to exercise impunity on a global scale, consistently violating international law and rarely being held accountable. The United States, the ostensible mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, has played a significant role in enabling this destructive behavior on Israel's part. Never had it been more clear that the U.S. had completely lost its mediator's compass when then President George W. Bush called Ariel Sharon a "man of peace." With ambivalent or malevolent protectors in high places, Israel is able to continue to live out Sharon's legacy of impunity.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a weekly columnist at The National
Ariel Sharon will be primarily remembered for two things. First is the degree with which he came to epitomize the image of "Israeli toughness," whether on the battlefield against conventional Arab armies or in the disregard he often showed for Arab and Palestinian civilian lives. Among Israelis, his reputation was secured as a tough and maverick general who won wars and defeated opponents with pluck and ingenuity. In Arab eyes, he will be forever remembered as the "butcher of Sabra and Shatila," and, earlier, Qibya and other notorious massacres of civilians.
Second, he showed that even the most hawkish Israelis could be moved by the simple facts of the Israeli-Palestinian demographics in the occupied Palestinian territories. He was one of the first Israeli right-wingers to openly acknowledge the reality of occupation and call it by its real name. He was also, perhaps, the first to openly endorse Palestinian statehood as a goal. Even more important, Sharon did something that no one thought he could ever do, and that many believed was absolutely impossible: He evacuated settlements.
However, Sharon's Gaza redeployment did not produce positive results for either the Israelis or the Palestinians. While he demonstrated that settlement evacuation is possible, he also showed that unilateral actions cannot result in an end of conflict, or even greater security for Israel. Rather he proved, once again, that unilateralism is a surefire path to greater violence.
Sharon ended his life an unexpected believer, or at least public advocate, in a two-state solution and a proponent of at least certain forms of settlement evacuation and disengagement with the Palestinians. But his unilateralism also extended toward the West Bank separation barrier wall and other harsh forms of apartheid-like separation. If there are any lessons to be drawn from his final policies, it is this: He proved what Israel could do for peace when it wants to, especially by evacuating settlements, but also that a continued reliance on the unilateralism, which he championed and which has spread far and wide on the Israeli right, is a dead end. It can never lead to peace with the Palestinians, and, ultimately, could prove a royal road to self-destruction.
An unceasing proponent of the use of force against the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon was the greatest apostle of Israeli colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories. From his early days as commander of the infamous Unit 101, which murdered 69 Palestinian villagers in 1953, through his bloody repression of the occupied Gaza Strip in the early 1970s, and his roles as architect of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, which killed and maimed nearly 50,000 Palestinian and Lebanese, and of the reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002, Ariel Sharon was an implacable enemy of Palestinian self-determination and of a just and equitable peace.
Sharon’s impact went beyond his notoriety as a war-maker. If the creation of a truly sovereign, independent, contiguous and viable Palestinian state is not possible today, as most sober observers believe, this is largely the achievement of Ariel Sharon. From his appointment as Agriculture Minister in 1977 until his passing from the Israeli political scene after his stroke in 2006, Sharon probably did more than any other Israeli leader to make Israel’s colonization of the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem a success. He flew over the region in a helicopter to select sites for new colonies, meanwhile pioneering novel means of stealing land from its Palestinian owners and of manipulating Ottoman-era jurisprudence to justify this theft. As prime minister, he continued this expansion process, which, while turning Gaza into an open-air prison fully controlled from without by Israel, has made the occupied West Bank into a Swiss cheese patchwork thoroughly dominated by lush Israeli settlements on what seems to be every hilltop.
Ron Pundak is the former director general of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel. He played a vital role in establishing the secret meetings held in 1993 that eventually bore the Oslo Accords
Ariel Sharon's attitude along his long career could be summarized in one word — opportunism. He had neither ideology, nor rules of engagement. His dominant characteristic was to keep the initiative on his side and never allow anything or anyone to dictate his plans, which altered frequently according to his own reading of ad hoc realities. But this is not necessarily his legacy. The public's interpretation regarding his legacy is different. It relates to being a pragmatist: to promote an idea (i.e. settlements) for a long period and yet to give it up if necessary. To talk harsh about the Arabs, but to enable and lead negotiations with them. To be a brutal military commander and to respect your enemy. But last and definitely not least is the most relevant legacy, which is that Israel is able to leave territories it occupied in 1967, as happened during the unilateral disengagement which took place in the summer of 2005.
Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller was involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a Clinton Administration official, and is currently vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Love him or hate him, Ariel Sharon was a stunningly consequential, larger than life and historic figure, the likes of whom we will not see again. For those Palestinians, Arabs and even Israelis who will never forget or forgive his transgressions, that's just as well. Still, Sharon's passing highlights the troubling reality of a region without leaders. This isn't so much reflected in the comparison of what Sharon accomplished to what little has been achieved by current politicians in the Middle East; Sharon was far too controversial for greatness. Rather, it is reflected in the thought of what leaders of Sharon's stature, authority and power might be able to do for the Middle East today if they had the necessary skill, strategy and partnership.