President George W. Bush has said of Ariel Sharon that he is ‘a good man’. One can see why the President came to make so eccentric an observation: to him it is a mere compliment of state.
It is, nevertheless, the opposite of the truth. By any normal standard, Sharon has been a bad man, a ruthless killer, a general reckless of the lives of his own men, let alone civilians, an unreliable political ally, arguably corrupt, for decades a crude nationalist even against his country’s real interests, an aggressor in the 1981 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
As an Israeli commission found, he was ‘indirectly responsible’ for the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees, including women and children. If Slobodan Milosevic can properly be charged with war crimes, so could Sharon; indeed he already has been, by his own country, and found guilty. Milosevic himself is, after all, an unquestioned Serbian patriot.
The point about Sharon is that he may be a bad and ruthless man, but he is undoubtedly an Israeli patriot. That is the reputation he has earned. He has spent his whole life at war.
He was 20 when he was wounded defending Israel in 1948; even before that he had joined the Haganah, the underground Jewish army that defended Jewish interests in Palestine in the last years of the British mandate.
Sharon was a senior officer in the Arab-Israeli war of 1956 and commanded a division in the war of 1967. He played an important role in throwing back the Egyptian attack in 1973. As a general he did not hesitate to put his troops’ lives at risk, but he fought for Israel, and he won his battles. Israel has had other generals who went into politics, but the last of the formal wars ended more than 30 years ago and Sharon is the last of a breed which included Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic in 1995.
Nations rightly treasure their war heroes. Sharon has gained a national authority which could only stem from war. Rabin was the last Israeli politician to win for himself an equal degree of national authority. It is similar to the authority which enabled Charles de Gaulle to give France a new constitution in 1958. After 57 years at war, Israel is more than usually grateful to generals who won battles. No one other than Sharon would have been able to persuade the Israeli people to support the withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip. Yet, and this is part of the paradox of Sharon, no other politician did more to encourage the expansion of the settlements.
If fewer Jewish immigrants had been allowed to settle on Palestinian land after the Six-Day War, it might have been much easier to negotiate peace between an independent Israel and an independent Palestine. No one other than Sharon could have left his own party, Likud, which he helped to found, and set up a new centre party, Kadima which, until his stroke, had every prospect of winning the March general election. Kadima had a peace mission rather than a detailed peace programme, but it attracted senior political figures and, while Sharon was in good health, gained massive support in the opinion polls.
Sharon alone had the will and the support to found the new party —no one knows whether anyone else will be able to sustain his creation. Yet the initial backing for Kadima does suggest there is sufficient support for the sacrifices required to make a two-nation solution possible. There are many political obstacles in the way. There is extreme uncertainty about Sharon’s possible recovery. If he lives through to the election, perhaps only in the poor health Pope John Paul II suffered in his last months, that would have a positive political effect. Kadima can scarcely expect any active lead from Sharon —that would require a miracle. But it could still be a party with his blessing.
Kadima will have to choose a new leader; Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, is obviously a serious possibility. It is too early for the new party to take that decision. This month there will probably be a Palestinian election, though that is not certain. If it does go ahead, it is only too likely to produce a good result for the terrorist party of Hamas. That would be favourable news for the Right in Israel, but bad news for peace.
Likud must not be underestimated. It is opposed to Sharon’s peace policy and would not have accepted his likely proposals for the withdrawal of settlements. It is now led by Benjamin Netanyahu, a formidable younger politician of the Israeli Right. Likud, naturally, has the support of many settlers on the West Bank, some of whom would have to leave if their land became subject to an independent Palestinian state.
Perhaps the best hope for the peace policy would be an election result that achieved a two-party coalition between Kadima and Labour. The Labour leader is Amir Peretz, an active trade unionist who won the leadership against Labour elder statesman Shimon Peres last November. Peres himself has joined Kadima. He is now 82 and has been a member of the Knesset since 1959. He is a former prime minister and could be the broker between Kadima and Labour.
The loss of Sharon’s active authority makes it more difficult to persuade the Israelis that peace is possible and worth the risk. But Sharon himself was responding to a real shift in Israeli public opinion. He usually gets his political calculations right.
The Israelis want peace and are prepared to make real sacrifices for it. On the Palestinian side, the loss of Sharon as an active politician may be a blessing, though a mixed blessing. Most Israelis thought Yasser Arafat was an implacable enemy, and that there would be no peace while he was alive. For them, Arafat’s death removed an obstacle to peace. For many Palestinians, Sharon is a similarly big but threatening figure, also seen as an implacable enemy. Sharon and Arafat never could negotiate peace together. Perhaps it will be possible for smaller, but more human, men to lower the barrier of fear.
Lord William Rees-Mogg is a veteran British journalist and former editor of The Times. This column first appeared in The Mail on Sunday
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