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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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.