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
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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.