What Sharon Did
The Bulldozer's long, brutal career ended better than anyone expected.
On the day after Ariel Sharon's massive stroke, it's not difficult to remember a time when the news of his demise would have been, not to be too callous about it, something that would have been welcomed by all Palestinians, many Israelis, and many others with an interest in democracy and human rights. The best way of reminding oneself of this is to take a short refresher course in the 1983 Kahane Commission Report, which investigated the filthy pogrom at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut and which recommended that the prime minister consider removing Sharon from office. (It is also worth looking up Noam Chomsky's mordantly brilliant critique of that report, in his book Fateful Triangle, which disputed the commission's finding of "indirect responsibility" and showed that Sharon had been the effective and conscious author of the massacre.) The events of 1982—the Israeli invasion of Lebanon being one of the most disastrous as well as the most gruesome operations in recent history—did not come as much of a surprise to those who had followed Sharon's career. A notorious unit under his command had been responsible for the mass slaughter of the inhabitants of Qibya, a village in the then-Jordanian West Bank, in 1953. He had gone on to be one of the most promiscuous participants in the lawless attack on Egypt, in collusion with the most reactionary circles in Britain and France, in October of 1956. After 1967, he was a particularly brutal enforcer of the occupation in Gaza.
In politics as well as in the military field, he was a brutal, blustering demagogic opportunist. Very few people, however, noticed one element of that opportunism. For a very brief period after the 1973 War, he tried to start a party of his own, with a "peace" plank. The rough idea was that only someone like himself, with a record of ruthless unsentimentality toward the Palestinians, could make peace with them. This didn't last long, and he reverted to his natural home on the Likud/Herut right and became the patron of the messianic settler movement: that golem on the West Bank that is the source of so many of our current woes.
Bertrand Russell used to employ the method of "evidence against interest"; in other words of deciding that a critique of capital punishment, say, carried more weight if it came from a prison governor. (My friend John O'Sullivan puts it like this: If the pope says he believes in God, he's only doing his job; if he says he doesn't believe in God, he may be on to something.) Thus, when Ariel Sharon—the Arik who had been the hero of the settlers and of those who believed in "transfer" or expulsion—announced that "occupation" was the only word to describe the situation in the territories, the shock was quite something. When he added that the idea of EretzIsrael Ha'shlema *—the "complete" land of Israel—was in fact a demographic impossibility, the shock was even greater. Together with his colleague and possible successor, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he publicly told the old Zionist hard-liners that the expansionist dream of Vladimir Jabotinsky was one that would have to be abandoned. He must have been aware of the ideological danger here, because he had always been the first to say that any challenge to the right of settlement anywhere was implicitly a challenge to the legitimacy of the state itself. It didn't cost him too much to let Sinai go—for some odd reason, the meeting place of Moses and his maker isn't included in the God-given territories—but any retreat on the West Bank or Gaza would have been a challenge to his core beliefs.
It's usual at this point to make comparisons with Charles de Gaulle in Algeria or Richard Nixon in China: that bizarre political alchemy whereby it's supposed to be easier for hard-liners to make concessions. The comparison here is inexact: Sharon's policy was in fact one of what de Gaulle might have termed "reculer pour mieux sauter"—to regroup or retrench in a strategic manner. Any fool looking at the map can see that Sharon's endgame was the permanent retention of huge chunks of the West Bank, together with considerable control over what had ostensibly been "given up" and with near-absolute ownership of Jerusalem. As for Gaza, I never forget what I was told by Ilan Halevi, one of the few Jews in the upper ranks of the PLO, when the swap was first mooted at Oslo. "I proposed we should tell the Israelis, OK, we accept Gaza. Now—what will you give us in return?" That terrible strip of isolation and misery is, in short, no bargain.
However, once a concession is made in principle, it is harder to resist in practice. There are, and always have been, only four alternatives in the Israeli-Palestinian quadrilateral. The first is the status quo of mingled apartheid and colonization that would eventually see the Israelis ruling without consent over a people as large as or larger than themselves and that is now almost universally seen as intolerable and unsustainable. The second is a state where those under its jurisdiction are equal citizens with the right to vote, which would be the end of Zionism. The third is the destruction or removal of one people by the other or their common ruin in a catastrophic war. The fourth is a partition between two separate states. All have their disadvantages, but the fourth appears to have the fewest and is supported officially by the PLO and endorsed by a probable majority of Israeli and diaspora Jews. For most of his career, Sharon supported the first option and conducted occasional flirtations with the expulsionist supporters of the third option. His conversion to the fourth may have taken unpleasing forms—a wall is a wall is a wall—but it did begin to acknowledge the contours of Palestinian statehood, and this counts as one of the better ironies of history.
A month ago, I described the new Kadima party, created by Sharon's departure from Likud and Shimon Peres' resignation from Labor, as "dead men walking." Actuarially, it is not a good proposition (Peres won't see 80 again) as recent events have demonstrated. The person who seems to benefit most in the short run is Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the quadrilateral has been altered forever, and to a great extent by Sharon, and this seems to call for some recognition.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Ariel Sharon on the Slate home page by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/Corbis.