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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Ariel Sharon - Lights and shades

The Gaza withdrawal has been quickly blotted out of the mind of Europeans. Economist asks:
Why do so many Israelis admire a man who so many outsiders regard with
revulsion? A reading of these biographies suggests that part of the
explanation has to do with memory. To outsiders, Mr Sharon is the hawk
who eschewed compromise and set his face against Palestinian statehood
As though it never happened!

Ariel Sharon

Lights and shades
Dec 13th 2006
 From The Economist print edition

The personification of Zionism, or a stain on its character?

"THE question then must be asked," reflected a recent unfriendly
psycho-history of Zionism: "Is Sharon an aberration, or does he
represent Israel's dark night of the soul? Is he a travesty, or rather
does he, by giving flesh to an abiding logic of Zionist thought, bring
to fruition the nation's most powerful, unanswerable vision of itself?"

Ariel Sharon has been in a coma for almost exactly a year, after a
stroke cut him down at a moment of extraordinary popularity. As prime
minister he had just forced all of Israel's settlers to evacuate their
villages in the Gaza Strip. He had reacted to a mutiny from his Likud
party by creating a brand-new centrist party, Kadima, which was expected
easily to win the forthcoming general election. A former general and war
hero at the head of a party offering a two-state solution: to many
Israelis, Mr Sharon looked like a peace-bringer.

Why do so many Israelis admire a man who so many outsiders regard with
revulsion? A reading of these biographies suggests that part of the
explanation has to do with memory. To outsiders, Mr Sharon is the hawk
who eschewed compromise and set his face against Palestinian statehood.
But that view is based on a caricature of Israel as it strikes much of
the world now: the strong and expansionist country that resorts to
violence instead of compromise. Israelis remember things differently.

Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom are Israeli journalists. They have written a
workmanlike biography. Uri Dan is not only a journalist but also his
subject's lifelong confidant, and much of his book is a record of his
own conversations with Mr Sharon. Both biographies nonetheless start at
more or less the same time and place: the battle of Latrun in 1948,
during which Arik Scheinerman, as he was then, was badly wounded. It was
a chaotic defeat for the Israelis. Many of the Jewish soldiers who took
part were, unlike the native-born Sharon, Holocaust survivors who had
only just disembarked from Europe.

The defeat at Latrun had a formative influence on Mr Sharon. Most
Israelis, but especially those old enough to remember their war of
independence, find it hard to accept the world's view of their country
as the region's all-powerful bully-boy. To Mr Sharon, the survival of
the Jewish state could never be taken for granted, and the perennial
enmity of the Arabs had always to be met by military power and an iron
will. Many Israelis still feel this way: indeed, their mistrust has
increased since the years of intifada and the rise of Hamas and a
militant Iran, which both say they seek Israel's destruction. To that
extent, Mr Sharon was no "aberration".

In exercising military power, did he make a habit of breaking the rules
of war? In 1953 Mr Sharon commanded a raid against the Jordanian village
of Qibya, in which some 70 civilians were killed. Both biographies skip
lightly over the incident, simply reporting Mr Sharon's lame excuse,
which Israel's leaders claimed to believe, that his soldiers failed to
notice the villagers hiding in the attics and cellars of the houses that
were dynamited. The Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon in 1982
receives fuller treatment. Mr Hefez and Mr Bloom quote extensively from
the inquiry that found Mr Sharon guilty as defence minister of failing
to reduce the danger of a massacre before letting Lebanon's Christian
militiamen into the Palestinian refugee camps. But they reserve their
own judgment. Mr Dan quotes mainly his good friend's protestations of

Both books would be better if they made their own judgments more
explicit. But by placing Mr Sharon's life in the context of Israel's
intractable conflicts they perform a service. Here was a fearless,
charismatic and ruthless soldier in a state which, like many, has done
bad things in half a century of wars. As a politician he was often
intransigent. He dragged Israel into the quagmire of Lebanon and
masterminded the colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza, thus making
peace harder to achieve. He could also be supremely pragmatic, as in
eventually accepting the idea of an independent Palestine and evacuating
Israel's Gaza settlements. Israel's enemies brand him a war criminal who
personifies the sins they consider inherent in Zionism. But his story,
like the lights and shades of the conflict that shaped it, is a lot more
complicated than that.

Ariel Sharon: A Life
By Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom
Random House; 490 pages; $29.9

Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait
By Uri Dan
Palgrave Macmillan; 320 pages; $27.95 and £16.99

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