January 12, 2006
by Meyrav Wurmser
Since Ariel Sharon's departure from political life, many words have streamed into the press about his legacy. Most commentators seem to describe Sharon's legacy as threefold. First, following his election to the prime ministership in 2001, he has defeated Palestinian terrorism. Second, he invented the concept of unilateral withdrawals as the response to the demographic threat and as a way of managing relations with the Palestinian Authority. And third, he created a new centrist political movement known as Kadima.
Mr. Sharon's legacy has thus condensed into the last four years of his political life. All he has done prior to rising to the position of prime minister has been conveniently forgotten. Absent is any mention of the long years in which he held virtually every key ministerial position in various Israeli cabinets, including minister of agriculture, defense minister, minister of construction and housing, and minister of national infrastructures.
Mr. Sharon's many years in public prior to becoming prime minister are omitted perhaps, because if one reviews his political career since 1973, it becomes more difficult to describe him as having a consistent legacy. Beyond his avid Zionism and love of the Jewish people, Mr. Sharon is a man who embarked on contradictory policies at different points of his life. A pragmatist to the core, he lacked deep ideological convictions.
To characterize Mr. Sharon as having a unified legacy is to ignore the fact that he was a man who frequently changed his mind when he felt the circumstances called for it. The party he formed in 1977, Shlomzion, advocated negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the creation of a Palestinian state in some of the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war. But when Mr. Sharon joined the Likud party he then flipped-flopped on his original position: he opposed any negotiations with the PLO and its leader. He opposed the peace treaty with Egypt and supported the establishment of settlements in the Sinai Peninsula but was also the man who evacuated the same settlements as a part of the peace treaty.
He was a man of peace, but also the architect of the Lebanon War and bore some responsibility for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militias that led to his eventual resignation as defense minister. Ariel Sharon not only built many of the settlements in the West Bank, but he was also responsible for tearing them down in Gaza. Thus Mr. Sharon's career was marked not only by inconsistencies but outright contradictions.
To the extent that Mr. Sharon's actions before becoming prime minister were viewed as amounting to a legacy at all, that legacy gave him the reputation of being a right wing pariah rejected by the Israeli left. This was especially true in the 1980s, when Sharon was not regarded in the favorable light that he holds at present. Back then the Israeli left thought he embodied an aggressive Jewish nationalism that would ultimately prove detrimental for Israel's security and standing among other nations.
Nor was this reputation of Mr. Sharon limited to Israel alone. It is difficult to exaggerate the worldwide abhorrence of Ariel Sharon. The international community has traditionally held him responsible for setting off and perpetuating the Israeli-Arab conflict through aggressive actions. In the newspapers of Europe and the Middle East he was reviled as a mass murderer of Palestinians in 2002 at the Jenin refugee camp; he was accused of instigating the second intifada by gratuitously visiting the Temple Mount in September 2000; and he was condemned as a chief architect and ruthless advocate of the Israeli settlement policy. Before he was hailed as a peacemaker for disengaging from Gaza, Sharon was the man who was alone charged in an international court in June 2001 with crimes against humanity for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre.
Even in withdrawing from Gaza - Mr. Sharon's ultimate flip flop from the views he advocated throughout most of his life - he did not leave a clear-cut legacy. His decision to unilaterally withdraw was motivated less by a romantic belief in peace and peacemaking and more by practical calculations of providing solutions to the demographic question and to the need to set Israel's final boarders. It was also a clever way to derail the roadmap and unilaterally set the agenda by leaving the Palestinian Arabs without an appropriate response.
Mr. Sharon's legacy, in other words, is no legacy at all. His political life was marked not by a great vision, but more by the ability to provide concrete solutions to the problems facing the nation at various times. Mr. Sharon stands out among Israeli politicians of his generation precisely because of his lack of deep ideological commitments. In a political system that was deeply ideologically divisive he stood out as a man motivated by love of his people and homeland but not by grand theoretical designs.
This lack of legacy gave Mr. Sharon the ability to revolutionize the Israeli political system by inventing the center. Since the early days of the Zionist movement, Zionist politics were divided between the left and the right. Mr. Sharon's genius was in realizing that by 2005, after the failure of the peace process and the harsh awakening that followed, the ideological commitments of the vast majority of Israelis were fading. Although most Israelis had at one time held deeper political beliefs than did Mr. Sharon, many of them ended up in Mr. Sharon's camp because the old ideologies failed to provide any new answers.
Mr. Sharon's lack of political baggage became his most powerful tool. For this reason, Israelis were about to give Kadima an unprecedented elections victory prior to Mr. Sharon's stroke. Even without setting a developed political agenda, Mr. Sharon was able to attract wide public support by claiming to be a centrist. Israelis, it turned out, were tired of legacies. All they wanted was an experienced politician with practical solutions.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.
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