With ill health forcing the Israeli president from office, we ask what his legacy could mean for the region
Ariel Sharon, the 11th Prime Minister of Israel since February 2001, is a long-serving Israeli political and military leader. Tragedy struck at the 77 year old’s political peak, when he suffered a major stroke on the 4th of January this year. He was a founding member and former head of the Likud party, and previously served for 30 years in the Israeli Defense forces, rising to the rank of Major General. Sharon changed the history of the Middle East, by withdrawing from Gaza and building a barrier in the West Bank, effectively killing the dream of a Greater Israel, incorporating captured Arab lands. However, this Middle Eastern figure has been shrouded in controversy for the majority of his professional life. Referred to by many as “the Butcher of Beirut” from being found indirectly responsible for the massacres of ‘Sabra and Shatila’ of 1982 in the Lebanon war by the Kahan Commission, to the brutal reprisal raids he held against Palestinian infiltrators in the 1950’s, it is no wonder why people compare him to a terrorist and war criminal. However, within his own country, there has never been a leader accepted with such devotion. He is known as, “Arik, King of Israel”, and former peace negotiator Amos Guiera, doubts Sharon’s political successors will ever be embraced as warmly. At home, Sharon is a war hero, who strove to establish peace without sacrificing Israel’s security, as in the 6 Day War in 1967, and in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War. Both left and right Israelis – even those who reviled him as one of the chief architects of Israel’s greatest folly; its programme of settlement building – had come to see him as the only politician capable of leading the country in any direction.
Having successfully pulled off the Gaza withdrawal and founded a new Centrist party, Kadima, that looked poised to win elections on 28th March, what is the future for Israel? Nobody knows who will carry on Sharon’s unfinished mission of drawing Israel’s final boarders, especially as his political heirs lack the strength and popularity to uproot Jewish settlers from the West Bank. There is no denying that Israelis will find it hard to adjust to life without a larger than life leader, with no one quite sure what is coming next.
One thing is for sure, Mr Sharon’s departure from politics will be bad for peace with the Palestinians. Until his stroke, a party of the centre, ready for a two-state solution but tough on security, was just what secular Israeli mainstream seemed to want. But with no clear or strong heir, Kadima isn’t as powerful as was thought. Even if they were voted in, Israelis know the best they can expect is for them to carry on with the disengagement plan, the very plan that, although praised everywhere else, has added to the lawlessness and impoverishment of Gaza. Olmert, Kadima’s new leader and acting Prime Minister, lacks a natural following, Peres, a new Kadima supporter and past Prime Minister, is a serial loser of elections and widely distrusted, and Peretz, the Labour Party leader, stands little chance of winning with the political mood in Israel.
Thus, whether you consider Ariel Sharon to be a war hero or a bloody tyrant, you cannot deny he has been present at or involved in nearly every seminal moment in modern Israel’s history, and with him gone from the political landscape, the agenda for the Middle East seems even more uncertain.