Small crowds, but plenty to say about former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon

Few Israelis turned out to bid former prime minister Ariel Sharon farewell, but his departure has generated a flurry of commentary on his mixed record as a leader.

Bernat Armangue/AP
The coffin of late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is carried after a state memorial ceremony at the Knesset Plaza in Jerusalem, Monday, Jan. 13, 2014.

If there’s one thing Israelis might agree on regarding Ariel Sharon, it’s that he always loomed large on the Israeli scene – whether in war, or on a visit to a windswept settlement, or in parliament.

But the crowds that have turned out to bid farewell to Mr. Sharon have been decidedly small. A Knesset spokesperson said 20,000 Israelis visited his coffin yesterday, though many newspapers simply said "thousands" came. The 750 chairs at his memorial weren't quite all filled, while only 1,500 were present at his burial – tiny figures compared to the 800,000 that jammed Jerusalem’s streets for the funeral of ultra-Orthodox rabbi Ovadia Yosef a few months ago.

Still, Israelis had plenty to say about Sharon’s life, legacy, and departure, which have dominated news coverage here since his passing on Saturday afternoon. Here are a few common themes, which give insight into how Israelis view Sharon, the last of the founding generation of Israel’s leaders:

1) He was a man of action, unlike any of the leaders we have today.

Nicknamed the “bulldozer,” Sharon was known as a man who would tackle the task before him with irresistible vigor, whether it was eating a sandwich, building a settlement in occupied territory, or invading a neighboring country. While that attitude got him in a lot of trouble, including accusations of war crimes, it also endeared him to many who today bemoan the lack of courageous leadership in Israel.

David Horovitz of the Times of Israel summarized it well: 

… our leaders, when they aren’t bickering among themselves or seeking to outmaneuver each other, complain bitterly and plaintively and protractedly about the unfairness of it all — the terrible international deals with Iran, the lack of will over Syria, the exaggerated empathy for the intransigent Palestinians. Defensive, reactive, they try to muddle through, to minimize the damage, to find the least bad of the options and the courses that others are imposing upon them.

Whereas Sharon would have said two things: First, “Chevre [friends], look how far we’ve come.” And, second, “Chevre, this is what we’re going to do now. Come on. To work.”

2) He understood the limits of power, an important example for Israel to adopt now.

Sharon, perhaps more than any other Israeli general or politician, exemplified Israeli power, destroying Palestinian villages, plowing into Lebanon in 1982, and ordering Israeli military incursions into the heart of West Bank cities such as Jenin during the second intifada.

And yet he apparently came to the conclusion that such power would only carry Israel so far; that in a world that was increasingly recognizing Palestinian demands for sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel could only hold out so long.

Haaretz, Israel’s influential liberal paper, brings this out in an editorial, as well as a column by Gideon Levy:

… his transformation should have taught the Israeli right a lesson, but this didn’t happen. This was his biggest failure, though not his only one. The bravest of all couldn’t convey his concerns to his successors. On the contrary, they’re following the path of the earlier Sharon, totally ignoring the heritage of the later one.

3) He would have destroyed Israel had he continued on the course set by withdrawing from Gaza in 2005.

This viewpoint is most common among the settler movement, which Sharon had long supported by leveraging his various roles in government – from agriculture minister to housing minister – to establish and expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But his decision in 2005 to withdraw from Gaza was seen by many settlers as an unforgiveable betrayal, as well as a supremely undemocratic move, as we reported in our piece about Sharon’s legacy this weekend:

“Ideologues had great ideas, but some of them couldn’t set up a tent,” says Jonathan Blass, rabbi of Neve Tzuf, who has lived in West Bank settlements since 1975. “He was always Mr. Facts On The Ground. He was the person who would get things done.”

… Many settlers bitterly resent the 2005 Gaza “expulsion” as an undemocratic move that set a dangerous precedent and undermined their willingness to trust Israeli leaders’ assurances.

“He implemented a platform that was the exact opposite of what he ran on,” says Rabbi Blass. “Everyone says – great, courageous move. It was a horrible crime against democracy…. I think he trampled Israeli democracy to the point where it’s hard to recover.”

Barak Ravid of Haaretz today wrote that leaked documents show that Sharon intended on withdrawing from much of the West Bank as well. Though the evidence he provides is inconclusive, it supports long-held suspicions that Sharon wouldn’t have stopped with the Gaza withdrawal.

Of note is that a number of Israelis have openly said that Sharon’s illness, which removed him from power, was the will of God and prevented him from damaging Israel’s interests any further, though other Israelis have rebuked them for such expressing such views.

4) He was a "butcher and terrorist."

Outside Israel, meanwhile, news of Sharon’s death elicited celebrations and the burning of his image by Palestinians and other Arabs, many of whom referred to him as a butcher and terrorist. Max Blumenthal of The Nation details their many grievances with Sharon in his piece, “How Ariel Sharon Shaped Israel’s Destiny.” 

Human Rights Watch also chimed in, with Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson expressing regret that Sharon had never been tried for war crimes in the 1982 massacres that took place at the hands of Israeli allies in Lebanon: “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatilla and other abuses.”

Amid all of the conflicting opinions, the title of Haaretz’s editorial may sum up the mood in Israel best: For all his flaws, Israel is poorer without leaders like Ariel Sharon.

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