Israel's Ariel Sharon dies at 85

The former Israeli prime minister is dead, eight years after a stroke which ended his political career.

Ariel Sharon has died at the age of 85, it was announced today.

Israel's president Shimon Peres confirmed the news, saying that the former leader had "lost his final battle". Sharon had spent eight years in a coma following a stroke in 2006.

A spokesman for Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted:

 

 

In the coming days, Sharon's legacy will be hotly debated both inside and outside Israel. In 2003, two years after Sharon became prime minister, Stephen Howe wrote in the New Statesman:

To many, he is a bloodstained monster; to a few, a hero and saviour; to pro-Israel lobbyists, a man they may privately detest but towards whom they won't tolerate any public criticism. For decades, his assiduously self-created image was that of the brave, blunt, simple soldier; now it is that of the elder statesman, seeking his place in history as a peacemaker. Since he became prime minister in 2001, even the most well-informed commentators have been polarised.

In 2006, days after Sharon suffered his stroke, Jonathan Freedland urged the left to reappraise the leader's character:

... Why did my heart plummet at the realisation that this man was about to vanish from Israeli politics? . . . 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.

Ariel Sharon in 2005. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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