Some ten years ago during the Israeli-Palestinian relations course I often teach, I began by sketching the political scene: Ariel Sharon was Israel’s prime minister, and with the second Intifada underway, peace was a distant prospect. We then cycled back through the decades. During the lecture on the 1982 Israel-PLO War in Lebanon, we discussed Sabra and Shatila and the resulting Kahan Commission which found that Sharon bore “indirect responsibility” for the massacre. Realizing that my students would benefit from some clarification of names and personalities, I paused to tell them that this Sharon was indeed the same figure who was now prime minister. A student cut in, her voice thick with disgust. “How could Israelis elect this man?” she seethed.
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Barely 30 years old and fairly fresh out of graduate school, I felt my cheeks burn. As irrational as it was, I had the feeling that the student was personally accusing me of bringing Sharon to power. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I’m not an Israeli citizen and thus have no vote, and that I tend to favor policies to the left of Sharon’s vision anyway, I don’t hide the fact that I value my Jewishness and stake emotional claim to Israel as a partial marker of my identity.
As Sharon’s health is rapidly declining after eight years in a coma, this anecdote raises questions beyond pedagogy. Today, especially in light of the significant coverage of Sharon’s legacy, we must ask about the role of individual leaders in statecraft, the subject of collective responsibility, and the moral essence of a nation.
Here at Haaretz my colleague Gideon Levy contends that Sharon “was more influential than any other individual in shaping the dominant dialect of the State of Israel: the language of force, of war, of occupation and violence.” It may be true that no other figure was more influential. But it still leaves us with the question of how influential Sharon actually was in shaping Israeli policy. Do individuals determine policy outcomes? In other words, had there been no Sharon, might there have still been the Lebanon War? How about the Sabra and Shatila massacre? Would there still have been the Gaza pullout - sans negotiation with the Palestinians?
Foreign policy is partially a product of those at the political and security helm. But those at the helm are in turn a product of the societies from which they were reared, and thus necessarily reflect the dreams and desires -- however latent -- of the electorate. Israelis may have been appalled by the “war of choice” that became the Lebanon War, prompting nearly 10 percent of Israel’s population to gather in protest in Tel Aviv, but the road to war does not get paved overnight. Neither does it get completed by a single man.
Counterfactual reasoning must always be done with caution. But I would bet that Israel would have found its way towards “wars of choice” and “unilateral measures” even without Sharon. From by now well-known accounts of the 1948 war and the Nakba to the unilateralism of the “separation barrier” and the favoring of “targeted assassination” to the increasing use of shock-and-awe responses to missile attacks from Gaza, Sharon’s security temperament can’t be the only, or even the main, factor having led Israel to use various forms of violence as a central means of statecraft.
Thinking about my student’s pique that day, there is a final set of questions we need to ask. Which of the many substrata of identities propping up the foundation of any society prevail in matters of war and peace? Which leaders represent the true essence of their country’s mission? And which aspects of a given leader -- their more hawkish or dovish tendencies (think of Yitzhak Rabin’s “break their bones” comment - probably more accurately “lash and beat” - during the first Intifada versus his handshake, though tentative, with Yasser Arafat on the White House Lawn only five years later) - win out at any given moment, both at the polling booth and in the chambers of power?
Reflecting on Sharon’s image, I can’t but picture how Israelis have refracted him back through the prism of popular culture. Ari Folman’s unforgettable depiction of Sharon in his animated film “Waltz with Bashir,” based on the Lebanon War, shows the defense minister dining gluttonously on five eggs and a juicy steak coddled in a shady spot on his ranch while the war rages to the north. Israeli creative portrait artist Hanoch Piven’s rendering of Sharon’s face out of raw meat is seared into my memory. And Israeli sculptor Noam Braslavsky fashioned a lifelike installation of Sharon in his hospital bed, which was displayed in 2010 in a Tel Aviv gallery. Sharon’s popular image was at times carnivorous, at other times flesh incarnate, and later, inert but ever-present: a wax bulldozer.
Sharon the mortal fell into a coma too soon after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal to know whether that decision would have given way to more robust peacemaking measures or whether it was a calculated endpoint. The question now is how Sharon’s legacy will be interpreted by those remaining: whether they shall seek to honor it, challenge it, mock it, or drape it in irony, and how wide-ranging the conversation in Israel and Palestine will actually be about opportunities and obstacles, policies and possibilities.