Ariel Sharon was born in British Mandate Palestine to immigrant parents, where he was swiftly recruited into an elite unit in the lead-up to the declaration of the State of Israel. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and played a principle role as a General in many of Israel’s formative wars. Growing tired of military life, he moved into the world of politics, where he was one of the leading lights of his party. Serving as Minister of Defence, he oversaw some of the darkest moments of modern Israeli history, but nevertheless went on to become Prime Minister. Under the public scrutiny inherent in such a position, he performed a remarkable U-Turn from the hawkish policies that had defined his earlier life, and seemingly took strides towards reconciling and finding a peaceful solution with the Palestinians. However, before his vision could be fully realised, he was struck down, prematurely ending his premiership and leaving Israel in a state (no pun intended) of flux.
This story will sound familiar to you by now as a condensed obituary for the late Ariel Sharon. However this is also the story of another great Israeli statesman, considered the greatest Israeli in a 2005 poll, Yitzhak Rabin. These two men worked alongside one another for decades: they were colleagues in the IDF and the Knesset (Parliament), Rabin led the Labor Party between 1974 and 1977 and once again from 1992 until his assassination in 1994. Sharon was Prime Minister of Likud (before forming a new party ‘Kadima’) from 2001 until he succumbed to a stroke in 2006 that left him in a coma until his recent death.
Prior to their periods as Prime Minister, both were famed for acts of brutality. As leader of Unit 101 – which specialised in reprisals – Sharon oversaw incidents such as the Qibya Massacre, which wiped out the residents of the whole town. He gained further notoriety in his role as Minister of Defence during the 1982 Lebanon War, where his negligence resulted in the deaths of between 750 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese refugees in the Sabra & Shatila Massacre. As a result of this, Sharon became known in some quarters as the ‘Butcher Of Beirut’. Similarly, Rabin was the Minister of Defence during the First Intifada where he called for a policy of ‘bone-breaking’, ordering soldiers to brutally attack any Palestinian “militant” (the definition of which was catastrophically vague).
After decades as the consummate military insider, Rabin is best known for his role in the Oslo Peace Accords, which set plans for the creation of the peaceful establishment of a Palestinian state in motion. In fact his assassination was at the hands of a Jewish extremist who opposed the giving up on biblical Jewish land. Rabin Square – the place he was shot in Tel Aviv, named in his honour – continues to be a must-see site on organised trips to Israel. A similar transformation occurred when Sharon orchestrated the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, seen as a step towards Palestinian Statehood. It seems that both men learned that military solutions would only get you so far, but that diplomacy is what creates lasting peace. However both men have been accused of making shallow claims to peace in order to retain the status quo of the occupation, particularly Sharon, who spent two years as Housing Minister vastly increasing the size of West Bank settlements and whose unilateral withdrawal is a fairly good example of a cowboy attitude to diplomacy.
Although they followed similar paths in life, they truly have diverged in death. Rabin has become a byword for the two-state solution, creating a quintessentially Israeli paradox that sees one of their greatest warriors as their greatest champion of peace too. There has been wrangling over Sharon’s legacy since his death, flitting between the Butcher and the Peacemaker but settling more on the former.
Given their similarities, why has Rabin been lucky in the legacy lottery? Looking back at 1994, the international arena saw Israel more as a plucky young state that, despite being a little fond of shooting people, was making steps towards peace. Meanwhile the world views Israel now more as an occupying bully that flirts a little too much ethno-nationalism for everyone’s taste. This, ultimately, is the legacy that these men have taken on. It doesn’t matter that after the assassination of Rabin, the Israeli public elected Binyamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister, who sought to dismantle the Oslo Peace Process, meanwhile Sharon’s incapacitation was followed by the election of his more dovish acolytes. It is cast aside that Sharon followed a precedent set by his mentor Menachem Begin (who as Prime Minister made a lasting peace deal with Egypt) of right-wing leaders making peace. What it leaves us with is one sole founding father of the State of Israel left, Shimon Peres. At 90-years-old, he is the oldest Head Of State, and has played a part in the careers of both Rabin and Sharon, winning a Nobel Peace Prize with the former, and legitimising Sharon’s move to the centre in creating the Kadima Party. He sat at the funeral of Sharon bent double under the weight of his responsibility, probably wondering how he will be remembered, and what it will mean for the future of the State of Israel.