From the Archive, 2006: We were wrong about Ariel Sharon

His past is appalling and we may loathe his motives, but he did things that Palestinians and peaceniks have been demanding for years. And he would have gone on doing them, says Jonathan Freedland.

Ariel Sharon. Photo: Getty

On 4 January 2006, Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke which left him in a coma, from which he died on 11 January 2014. This piece was written in the days following the news.


On 7 February 2001, the day after Ariel Sharon won his first landslide election victory, this is what I wrote in the Guardian. "It's as shocking as if Jean-Marie Le Pen had become president of France, or Ian Paisley ruled over Northern Ireland. Last night Israel, by a massive landslide, turned to a man who has spent two decades as an international byword for extremism - a global hate-figure - and elevated him to the country's top job. Ariel Sharon, who once seemed destined only for exile into disgrace, is now the prime minister of Israel. For anyone who wishes peace for that nation and its neighbours, today is among the darkest of days."

I did a brief survey of "the roll-call of shame that constitutes his CV", from the brutal reprisal raids he led against Palestinian infiltrators in the 1950s to his blood-soaked invasion of Lebanon three decades later. I referred to the subsequent verdict of Israel's own Kahan Commission, which found Sharon "indirectly responsible" for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila of more than 2,000 Palestinian refugees, slaughtered by Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militiamen. I noted that the same inquiry declared him unfit to serve as defence minister, though that hardly stopped him. As minister of agriculture, or of housing, or of national infrastructure, he continued to act as the godfather of the settler movement, funnelling cash and support to the new colonists of the West Bank and Gaza. With unerring consistency he opposed every move Israel made towards peace, from the 1978 Camp David accords with Egypt to the Oslo Agreement with the Palestinians of the 1990s.

So I was brought low by his victory on that winter's day five years ago. I had been 15 years old during the Lebanon war, a member of Habonim, a youth movement that styled itself as "socialist-Zionist", allied to the Israeli kibbutz movement and the dovish, utopian form of Zionism that the kibbutzim embodied. I remember the loathing we felt even then, as teenagers, for Sharon. He was the butcher of Beirut to us, too - and when some 400,000 Israelis, 10 per cent of the entire population, gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against the Lebanon war, we felt we were standing with them. Not long afterwards I spent a gap year in Israel and saw that the mood among Israeli progressives had not much changed. I asked if anything would ever make them leave the country - and, by implication, give up on the entire Zionist project. The answer was always the same: "If Ariel Sharon becomes prime minister, I'll be on the first plane out of Tel Aviv."

This was my personal history with Sharon. And yet, when I received a text message on the evening of 4 January, telling me to switch on CNN, my heart sank. The news that the Israeli prime minister had suffered a massive stroke did not shock me or fill me with grief. This was not like Yitzhak Rabin's assassination by a Jewish extremist in 1995, which was experienced as a collective trauma in Israel and throughout the Jewish diaspora.

This was different. Rabin had died a violent death, one that seemed to presage an Israeli civil war. Moreover, he had been an avowed peacemaker, one who had, however reluctantly, reached out to the enemy. He shook Yasser Arafat's hand on the White House lawn, declaring "enough of tears, enough of bloodshed, enough". The stories that emerged after his death cast Rabin as an extraordinarily sympathetic figure: a chain-smoker keeping a lid on raging inner emotions; a man who wrote late-night letters to the parents of army conscripts, by hand, hoping to ease their fears.

Sharon was not like that. He had not become a peacemaker in the Rabin mould; the personal details that emerged as people began drafting what they thought would be his obituary this past week were not nearly so attractive. We were told Sharon liked good food (you could see that), had a lively sense of humour and was a shrewd listener - but there was little to win one over.

So why did my heart plummet at the realisation that this man was about to vanish from Israeli politics? The answer is far away from the idealism, the Oslo dreams of peace, that were dashed when Rabin fell. It is altogether less romantic. It is simply that Sharon was beginning to do what needed to be done: he was acting for the sake of Israel, of course, but his actions would ultimately have benefited the Palestinians and those who desperately crave some respite from this desperate conflict.

We know Sharon did not believe in Rabin's path, the path of Oslo, seeking an accord with the Palestinians. When Ehud Barak failed in the attempt at Camp David and in the months that followed, the Israeli public came to the same conclusion - peace with Arafat is impossible - and expressed it by anointing Sharon. His job was to deal with the Palestinians by force, not negotiation.

In that, he did not really waver. Even Sharon's celebrated withdrawal from Gaza last year was a military step, taken by a general who decides to conserve his forces and pull back from a futile front. It was not part of any dialogue with the Palestinians; they barely featured in his thinking. He did it for his own, Zionist reasons: he had realised that holding on to Gaza was jeopardising the larger mission. Not only did it drain military resources, but it created a demographic headache. With Gaza and its 1.4 million Palestinians included in the total population of historic Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), the two peoples - Arabs and Jews - were on course to reach numerical parity. Before long, Sharon realised, he would be ruling not a Jewish state, but a binational one. The withdrawal was the first step towards reducing that demographic pressure - in effect, to having fewer Palestinians on Israel's books.

So his motives were far from noble. They were born of a pessimistic belief that a negotiated peace was neither possible nor desirable, that Israel should act on its own terms. Rather than wait to agree a border, Sharon imposed his own: what Israel calls "the security barrier" and the Palestinians call "the wall". He would give up Gaza and, in return, keep chunks of the West Bank: quid pro quo.

Yet out of this dismal logic came action that peaceniks, Palestinians and their supporters around the world had long craved. Last August, after years of refusal, Israel withdrew from occupied territory and dismantled settlements. Rabin had never dared do such a thing, afraid of the settlers' might. But as the settlers' former patron, Sharon had the credibility and clout to take them on. All signs pointed to him doing more of the same, once re-elected in March, eventually pulling out from 90 per cent or more of the West Bank.

This is not how Israel's doves or Palestinians would have wanted to do it. In an ideal world there would be a peace treaty, with Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, more or less, allowing for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. But Israelis and Palestinians do not live in an ideal world. They live in the Middle East. The choice was not between the right, just solution and Sharon's plan: it was between Sharon's plan and nothing.

People like me decided to seize on what Sharon was offering. Let him do the heavy lifting, potentially ending 90 per cent of the occupation; once that's done, precedent set, the peace camp can complete the job. To oppose Sharon because he was offering to do only most of the work would be perverse. It is to say that if we are asked to choose between some Palestinians living under occupation or all of them living that way, we prefer that they all do. Sometimes you have to choose what is better even if it is not best.

And there is a wider lesson here for the left, which watches the Israel-Palestine conflict so closely. We can keep demanding absolute justice for the Palestinians and a complete resolution of the conflict, but the result will be that the Palestinians get nothing. We can demand a full, final peace treaty, but we will find ourselves in the same camp as Binyamin Netanyahu, who also says nothing should be resolved until everything is resolved. He, too, demands perfection, knowing it will never happen.

Outsiders may treat this as an arena in which to strike a pose, to show their lefter-than-thou credentials. But for Israelis and Palestinians, and also for many Jews and Palestinians around the world, this is not a slogan on a T-shirt. It is a matter of life and death. If Sharon was going to reduce the occupation even a bit, then that was progress. Not perfect, but progress. And if the chance of even that small advance has gone, then it's not just me who should feel glum.