John Kerry’s statement on Ariel Sharon’s death is here. Of course diplomats should be diplomatic and avoid gratuitous insults. But isn’t it possible to say something appropriate or even respectful about Ariel Sharon without pretending he was any kind of peacemaker? In an act of truly world class groveling, Kerry manages to repeat the falsehood of Sharon the peacemaker four times within four brief paragraphs–no modest effort. There’s this:
I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became Prime Minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process. He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace.
Followed a few lines later by this:
In his final years as Prime Minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger.
A notable constant in Sharon’s career was his readiness to massacre defenseless Palestinian civilians. He made his bones, so to speak, at Qibya in 1953, a West Bank town in Jordan. Some Palestinian “infiltrators” had crossed the cease-fire line to murder an Israeli mother and her two children, and the Israeli government decided upon reprisals. (Jordan had denounced the murders and promised to cooperate in tracking down the perpetrators).
The reprisal raid was carried out by Unit 101, commanded by Major Sharon. When it was over, Qibya was reduced to rubble, 45 houses had been blown up, most with their inhabitants inside. 69 civilians, mostly women and children, were left dead. There was a storm of international protest, and Israel initially sought to deny IDF responsibility for the massacre, claiming instead that irate Israeli villagers had taken revenge on their own initiative. The lie didn’t stand up. Israel faced universal condemnation, including from the United States, which called for those responsible for the killing to be held to account. Abba Eban, entrusted with defending Israel at the United Nations, wrote his foreign minister Moshe Sharrett that “Sending regular armed forces across an international border, without the intention of triggering a full-scale war, is a step that distinguishes Israel from all other countries. No other state acts this way.” Sharon was well pleased with the action however, as was most of the Israeli political establishment.
Sharon’s more famous massacre took place at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shattilah in Lebanon. In 1982, the camps were under Israeli control after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. Protected by Sharon’s forces, Lebanese Phlangists –allied with Israel and rabidly hostile to the Palestinians, entered the camps and killed 800 Palestinians, (Israel’s estimate: others are far higher) mostly women and children. Israeli forces protected the forces carrying out the massacres, illuminating the camps with flares. An Israeli investigating commission found Sharon personally responsible for allowing the carnage. He was removed from his post at the Ministry of Defense, though Menachem Begin kept him in the Likud cabinet. Throughout the 1980’s he remained in government, and was a pivotal figure in accelerating Israeli settlement of the occupied West Bank. In 2000, his notorious visit to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, accompanied by 200 armed military policeman, was an intentional act of incitement, one of the matches which ignited the second, enormously destructive, intifada that fall.
There is reason to believe that Sharon felt that provoking the Palestinians to violence could be of strategic benefit for Israel. In a lengthy portrait of Sharon published in the 2006 New Yorker (behind a paywall), Ari Shavit writes:
When he went back to the cozy living room and sank into his favorite armchair, he showed me the book he was reading: it was about the Arab revolt of 1936-39. He said that what interested him was the way the rebellion had ultimately collapsed, causing a disintegration of Palestinian society. He clearly saw a certain similarity between the revolt of the nineteen thirties and the intifada that began in 2000. In time, it became evident that the strategic plan that Sharon was considering involved bringing the Palestinians to a point of political chaos and then luring them into a partial agreement on Israel’s terms—one that would not require evacuation of major settlements on the West Bank or a return to the pre-1967 borders.
I’ve heard other Israeli politicians argue in this vein, implying that they would actually welcome Palestinian violence, because militarily Israel is far stronger and and can damage Palestinian society far more in the context of war than peace.
In most tellings, consideration of Sharon as a peacemaker rests on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2004, when he was prime minister. The move gave Israel a talking point before international audiences: look, Israel is ready to withdraw from occupied territory. Of course it didn’t lead to peace, as the withdrawal was unilateral, and almost entirely limited to Gaza, and was quickly followed by a blockade of Gaza. Sharon aide Dov Weissglas described the Gaza disengagement as fomaldehyde, designed not to make peace but to smother the peace process. In that, it would seem, the maneuver was hugely successful.
It would be more truthful to conclude that Sharon is a war criminal who should have been indicted and tried for his crimes. If one doesn’t want to speak ill of the dead, he could be deemed a brutal but crudely effective general, a type which has existed in many countries. But it is a stretch too far to call Sharon a “man of peace” and to go on about it as Secretary Kerry did, as if black were white. We have still before us contemplation of the parade of American political figures to Sharon’s funeral, many who will mouth panegyrics to the brutal general, making sure their AIPAC donors hear every fulsome word. By all rights, Americans should find their country’s obsequious lauding of this man a source of national shame.