With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon incapacitated, the polite instinct is to praise him and pray. In the half-light between life and death, clarity gives way to hagiography.
Michael Oren, the prominent Israeli historian, wrote in The New York Times (Jan. 8, 2006), ìAriel Sharon is like having Thomas Jefferson in the White House. Heís a founding father.î Jefferson? Sharon was barely Andrew Jackson, a crude soldier alive at the founding but no father. Sharon was just 20 years old and leading an infantry company in 1948, contributing neither thought nor signature to Israelís independence. Just days into Sharonís stroke, it is already shocking to see how the first draft of history differs from the draft weíre seeing now. A year ago, Zev Chafets in The New York Times (Feb. 15, 2005) described Sharon not as Jefferson but as ìan Israeli Luca Brasi,î a thug from ìThe Godfather.î Sharon, said Chafets, in a 50-year career, ìnever uttered a thought larger than ëCharge!íî He was ìthe brilliantly effective clenched fist of a string of mentors.î With the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon ìembraced [President George W. Bush] as his godfather in a shared cause.î
When first elected, The New York Times headlined (Feb. 7, 2001) that Jewish groups showed ìSupport Mixed With Concern,î but anxiety on the Jewish left couldnít have been greater. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, warned in an analysis for MSNBC (Feb. 6, 2001), ìDonít be surprised if Sharon as prime minister precipitates a regional war, possibly even a nuclear one.î Rabbi Lerner added, how could Israel ìvote in a known murderer and bully whose utterances over the years have led many to call him a Jewish fascist?
îOn the right, William Safire, in the Times (Feb. 8, 2001), mused, ìThis election marked a reinvigoration of Zionism. … [A] strong majority of Jews in Israel awakened to realize that a secular triumph at home and a dreamy belief in the good will of implacable enemies on their borders would lead to the doom of a Jewish state.î
Zionism was hardly reinvigorated. On the right, in the Jerusalem Post (Jan.20, 2002) Michael Freund wrote, ìSharon has struck a heavy blow against a central tenet of Zionism. The State of Israel was founded, among other reasons, to ensure that Jews would no longer be killed with impunity. [But] our enemies strike at us daily, and our government sits by passively, doing little to stop it.î
On the left, when Sharon addressed the nation following the worst week of violence in the first 16 months of the intifada, Haaretz headlined (Feb. 22, 2002), ìThe lion that meowed.î Yoel Marcus wrote, ìWith speeches like these to the nation, it is doubtful whether England would have emerged whole from World War II, or whether the United States would have dragged itself out of the economic crash of 1929.îIn complete contrast, Robert Scheer, columnist for The Los Angeles Times (April 16, 2002) asked: ìWhat is the fundamental difference between Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon? The former is on trial for war crimes, while the latter still leads an occupying army.î Sharon, he continued, ìhas humiliated President Bushî by ìignoring his demand for a withdrawalÖ How simple it would be if only the ëaxis of evilí targeted civilians, but from Saddam Hussein to Hamas to Sharon, nobody in the Mideast conflagration has a monopoly on such cruelty.
îThe Israeli press continued to see Sharon as clawless and clueless. A Yediot Ahronot editorial (Oct. 13, 2002) charged Sharon with having ìno policy which will lead to either a vigorous war on terror or a diplomatic solution.î In Haaretz (Jan. 14, 2003) Yoel Marcus wrote, ìThe amazing thing is how every failure has only pushed Sharon higher in the surveys. He wraps himself in the cloak of a dependable person, a person who knows what heís doing. In a kind of Pavlovian reflex, Israelis have flocked around this man, who projects self-confidence by virtue of being where he is, no matter how many people are killed.îNewspaper clippings indicate that the Bush-Sharon relationship was never Roosevelt-Churchill, but littered with snipes and slights. Less than a month after 9-11, Haaretz (Oct. 7, 2001) reported ìa public confrontation, rare in its sharp tones,î when Sharon warned Bush not to ìappease the Arabsî and sacrifice Israel as if it were Czechoslovakia in 1938. The White House responded that Sharonís comments were ìunacceptable to the president,î and Sharon quickly praised Bushís friendship.If Bush gave Sharon his clear backing it was hard to see where. Almost every Sharon initiative ó from isolating Arafat, to the security fence, to unilateral disengagement, to targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders ó was initially greeted with rejection before eventual acceptance. In 2004, Maariv headlined, ìPresident Bush retracts pledges to Sharon.î The Associated Press headlined, ìBushís Support of Israel Falters.î
The Washington Post (June 8, 2004) said the Bush-Sharon relationship was ìhighly scripted and awkward.î Sharon ìworks hard to stay in Bushís favor,î but even with the Gaza withdrawal in the works, Bush thought Sharon is ìa good person with little or no vision,î said the paper.According to the Washington Post, when Sharon described himself as a ìman of peace and security,î Bush scolded him: ìI know you are a man of security. I want you to work harder on the peace part. [When] I said you were a man of peace, I want you to know I took immense crap for that.îAfter an Israeli commission called him indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, Sharon sued Time magazine for libel after Time wrote that he directly encouraged that Phalangist Christian assault on Palestinian civilians in Beirut. Sharon proved the facts but he lost the trial because he couldnít prove Timeís malice.So it must have been a sweet dessert for him to have sat down with Time (May 15, 2005) for a sympathetic interview that signaled one of the many media pirouettes that now portrayed him as nothing less than a profile in courage for his Gaza disengagement. After all the hard years, his opponents now seemed like the extremists, not he; the old pariah was now depicted as a sober advocate for peace.ì
Backed by the Bush Administration and a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians,î wrote Time, ìthe disengagement plan stirred hopes for a breakthrough in the moribund peace process.î Optimism ìgained fresh momentum,î and the massacre wasnít mentioned once. At least he lived to see that second draft of history.But now, as Sharon lies in a hospital bed, Oren, the historian, writes in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 6, 2006) that Sharon ìsucceeded in establishing remarkably robust ties with the Bush administration.î Perhaps the third draft of history will be different altogether. These are the days for prayers and praise. n