Thursday, January 12, 2006


What I didn't mention in my last post, and might turn out to be Sharon's most important legacy, is what he did just a few weeks before his stroke: his decision to split the Likud and start a new party, Kadima. Many considered it a one-man show, and it might still disintegrate - this is politics after all - but at the moment it looks posed to win the next elections. The new party is mainstream Israel: rightwing, deeply ethnocentric, but not zealously ideological. It does not have the fundemantilst elements of the Likud. It is far less attached to the West Bank settlments than the Likud, and is much more pragmatic. This move has 'corrected' the Israeli political map, since the Likud was too right wing for most of its voters, and Labour has failed to present a political alternative since 2000. The consistuency of the new party is a large section of the Israeli public, middle-class and secular or not very religious, who consider themselves centre or right wing. They supported the Gaza pull-out and most of them would back a peace agreement on the lines of the Clinton/Geneva proposal - if it ever came to it. With Sharon I am sure it would not have come to it. But I think that his successors will not be as averse to negotiation as he was. So in a sense, forming this new party and then leaving politics was perhaps Sharon's best service.

Don't get me wrong: I am far from being enthusiastic about this new party. And I don't share the view that the settlers are the problem. They are one aspect of the problem, often a very ugly aspect, but the problem is the occupation and the ethnocentric mentality which stand at the heart of this confict. The new party is a very good expression of this mentality.

I also dislike the focus on political agreement as an ultimate solution. A peace agreement would be a good start, but whatever form it takes, it would still leave behind many many issues unresolved. Some of these issues are symbolic and emotional, others are economic (the gap between the two economies could not be bigger).

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Sharon's departure

The headline of the Evening Standard, hand-painted on the advertisement boards outside shops, was Sharon's fight for Life - Latest. I've passed four of them this morning. Another Standard headline I saw was See Your Doctor at the Chemist. Well that's too late for some of us I guess.

In retrospect, it is amazing to think how Sharon's first, minor stroke (two weeks ago) was downplayed in the Israeli media. A 77-year old obese man runs for premiership, has a stroke, and nobody’s raising an eyebrow. On the contrary, he just did better at the polls. Last week Rosenblum wrote a funny article about it in Haaretz, "a stroke of good fortune". I think this says a lot about the desperate mood of the majority of Israelis, who opted to put their faith in this old man – who they knew to be corrupt, unpredictable, brutal, and undemocratic. But now, even if he survives the stroke, it is clear that he will not run again. (Some people suggested replacing him with Simon Peres - who's 82 year old! unlikely though).

Everybody’s talking about Sharon’s role as the patriarch – the old granddad; the fact that he was from the '48 generation, when Israel was established. But alongside his image as a seasoned politician, Sharon’s biggest asset was his ambiguity. He never explained what his goals are and where he’s going. His moderate-leaning supporters highlighted his comments on ‘painful concessions to be made’ and the pull-out from Gaza. More hardliners focussed on his unilateral approach and his relentless fight against the Palestinians.

Some people believed he was making the ground for a big dramatic overture after the elections; that this is the reason he left the Likkud. I personally doubt if Sharon knew where he was going himself. Sharon’s five years in office do not provide any indication that he was going to negotiate with the Palestinians. The last year, with the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Presidentand the pullout from Gaza gave plenty of opportunities for negotiation (not necessarily for a full peace-deal, but even on short-term issues), but Sharon was not interested. And all his career – wherever he went, whatever he did – was based on a unilateral approach.

This, of course, suits the majority of Israelis, who became convinced after the collapse of Camp David in 2000 that a peace deal is impossible to reach. Rather than explaining the failure in concrete political or soci-economic terms, the common perception is that Palestinians are unwilling to accept Israeli existence, and that this has always been so and always will be. I see things differently but it’s a long story.

We will probably never know what Sharon aims were, so for me the question is irrelevant. What is his legacy though? What mark did his five years leave? I am not talking about his role in the first Likud government, 1977-1984, where he was very influential for the mass-scale settlment project and the Lebanon war.

In many ways Sharon’s policies did not differ from the ones before him. I know that in most of the world he has the image as a bloodthirsty warmonger, yet he was not more brutal than Barak in suppressing the Intifada. The assassinations, house demolitions, and targeting of civilians all happened under Labor. His support for the settlers in the West Bank was in line with Israeli policy for the last 25 years, and the restrictions on Palestinian movement started in 1991 – although they are just getting worse. All of these are of course bad enough but they are standard Israeli policy, the nature of the Israeli occupation, not Sharon’s individual contribution.

Two things can be seen as Sharon’s 2000-2005 legacy.

The first is the Separation Wall: this was not Sharon’s idea. He was forced to build it under popular pressure because of suicide bombing. He can be seen as responsible to the land-grab of about 10% of the West Bank, the consolidation of big Israeli settlments, and the anticipated destruction of Palestinian life in the Jerusalem suburbs. The Wall is extremely important and will have many consequences, yet again this was not his personal project: the Army and Security are heavily involved in this

His real contribution is the pull-out from Gaza. This is the only thing which I see as Sharon’s personal mark. There was no popular pressure to leave Gaza now. Yes, there was public support, but that’s a different thing. The Army were equivocal about it. It was his decision. No Israeli prime minister dared to confront settlers before. I think the fact that the pull-out went peacefully and with overwhelming support has done much to undermine the position of the settlers.

However, the stubborn unilateral approach was the downside. Whatever goodwill that this could have brought was squandered by the ‘f**k-you’ approach towards the Palestinians; not only before the pull-out (this is how I wrote about it in April) but also in the four months since. I find it ridiculous that some people see it as a Israeli ‘gesture’ or ‘concession’. It was all about ‘good riddance’. The feeling was of course mutual. But contrary to what Israelis would like to believe, Israel still controls Gaza in so many ways (electricity, telephone grid, access to imports/exports of practically everything, even the population registrar is in Israeli hands). Since the pullout, Israel did not show any signs of loosening the grip on Palestinian lives. It is doubtfull if the border-crossing to Egypt would have been opened without American pressure - it was stalled for months until a direct intervention of the US Secretary of State suddenly solved all the issues. (This didn't last long, as the anarchy in Gaza forced its closure). As far as I'm concerned, the results of the pull-out – the anarchy in Gaza, the rockets on Israel, and the rise of Hamas – are hardly surprising.

I’m not going to write about the future. I personally will be far from sorry to see him gone. Beyond other things, I think that Israeli politics was dependant on Sharon in a very unhealthy way. No other politician could get away just by being so ambiguous about his plans. No other man had so much power.

The last year saw the departure of the two patriarchs in Israel/Palestine, Arafat and Sharon. I think the biggest wish of both of them was to outlive the other. Well Sharon won, but not for long. Now both patriarchs have departed from the political life. The death of the father can sometimes force the children to grow up and take responsiblity. That would not be a bad outcome.