LONDON – The death of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had been in a deep coma since suffering a stroke in January 2006, represents an extraordinary moment of rupture in his country’s history. Of the generation of Israeli soldiers and politicians who fought in Israel’s founding conflicts, only Shimon Peres now remains in a prominent role.
Sharon, who died Saturday at the age of 85, represented a metaphor for Israel’s trajectory. The son of Russian immigrants and born in a farming community near Tel Aviv in 1928, he was a teenage volunteer in the fight against British rule in the Palestine Mandate.
He was present at many of the key symbolic moments in Israel’s development. He fought, and was wounded, in the 1948 war of independence that Palestinians know as the Nakba — the “catastrophe.” A bloody ruthlessness was also evident from early on when he led the infamous 1953 retaliation raid on Qibiya in Jordan that saw 69 Jordanians, many of them civilians, killed.
All would be overshadowed, however, by his role as a key architect of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the personal responsibility a commission of inquiry ruled that he had for one of the worst human rights violations of that conflict — the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacre in which many hundreds of Palestinian were murdered by Lebanese Christian militiamen. And it was Sharon who presided over another landmark moment: the dismantling, in the face of angry opposition, of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
In reality, the rupture with the past took place a long time ago, in January 2006, when Sharon slipped into the coma from which he would never awake. Within a handful of weeks, Palestinian politics would also be transformed with the landslide victory in Gaza of Hamas over the Fatah movement of his old adversary, Yasser Arafat. Israel, and its place in the world, has also changed in those intervening years.
Since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the country has prosecuted two conflicts, against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, that largely failed in their military objectives. The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, while controversial, has continued to gain traction, while the election of Palestine to the U.N. General Assembly as a nonmember observer in 2012 has been another key moment.
Both in domestic politics and on the wider social front, Israel has been forced to confront uncomfortable truths about tensions both within Israeli society and with the wider diaspora long overshadowed by the averred contingencies of national security.
As the Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit argues in his new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” his country has become a less certain place in the last decade, returning to questions Sharon’s generation believed had been answered long ago: “Why Israel? What is Israel? Will Israel?”
In some respects, those such as Shavit, who began in the leftist Zionist movement Peace Now, have moved closer to Sharon’s late political vision when he ordered the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, believing that, without a peace deal imminent at any time in the near future, Israel must act unilaterally to end the occupation of the West Bank as a moral necessity.
In other ways, however, evidence of Sharon and his policies is still sharply in evidence, not least in the separation barrier that he approved.
Perhaps the most significant change is the one that is least visible, a subtle alteration in the balance of power within both Israeli and Palestinian society that has seen the emergence of a newly confident economic class that is demanding a more normalized political state.
In the final analysis, how will history judge Ariel Sharon’s importance? That task is probably best left to an Israeli commentator, Amir Oren, writing in the newspaper Haaretz: “He is a person who experienced pleasure and pain, who lost a son and was widowed twice, who used people and organizations (the IDF, Likud, the Shlomtzion and Kadima parties, the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) as a private launching pad for himself; who achieved maximum power but wasted it on petty matters.”