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  1. Politics
11 January 2014

Israel’s Ariel Sharon dies at 85

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

By New Statesman

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.

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