Ariel Sharon's long goodbye provided ample time for reflection on his legacy at home and abroad. In his death, as much as in his life, Sharon remained a person often depicted around the world as divisive, complex and controversial. In the Middle East, a vast gulf stands between those who revered him and those who reviled him. In Israel many saw him as a military hero and a brave political leader. Elsewhere in the region, he was commonly regarded as a warmonger and frequently referred to him as a "butcher." In Europe and the United States the responses to his passing were more subtle.
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World leaders were at pain to express their condolences without endorsing either his policies or legacy. President Obama honoured Sharon’s "commitment to his country" but went no further than that. At a time when his Secretary of State John Kerry is shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in an almost a desperate attempt to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement, praising the person largely responsible for the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank may well have been counterproductive. Vice President Joe Biden, standing in front of Sharon’s coffin on Monday, found a way to express - with some grace and much tact - the complicated nature of eulogizing such a polarizing figure, calling him a complex character in a complex neighbourhood.
To be sure, even his critics in the West agree that he was an Israeli patriot and courageous military man, who set Israel's security and her survival as his top priorities. He also gained considerable respect in Washington and in the European capitals for being a doer who could convert a policy into a reality. However, in their eyes, these positive attributes could not atone for his aggressive policies and actions – not least the masterminding of the war in Lebanon in 1982 with its disastrous consequences; his role as architect of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories; or his provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem which preceded the Second Intifada.
The international media and global civil society, as well as many politicians, never forgave Ariel Sharon in particular for his role in the war in Lebanon, and especially in the massacre at Sabra and Chatila. The time that has elapsed since then has not diminished the feeling among many that he should have faced the international criminal court and not only an Israeli inquest, even if the Kahane Commission led to his resignation from government.
This was expressed forcefully by Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, who said this week: “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Chatila and other abuses.” She was not a lone voice; a similar stance was taken by Robert Fisk, whose piece in the U.K.'s Independent newspaper was headlined "Ariel Sharon: Profile of a butcher", and went on to excoriate the U.S. press coverage: "How speedily did today's journalists in Washington and New York patch up this brutal man's image."
The skepticism and suspicion that met his decision to remove Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, and his acknowledgment of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an occupation, could not be attributed solely to his checkered past. His contradictory policies provided one source of cynicism about his true intentions. On the one hand, he removed the Gaza settlements, while at the same time approving the building of new ones and expanding old ones in the West Bank. This action left the prospect of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state a remote possibility, irking the international community, who suspected that Sharon’s concessions in Gaza aimed to reinforce Israel’s stronghold on the West Bank. Moreover, the disengagement from Gaza was heavily criticised in Europe and the United Nationas because it was not negotiated with the Palestinians. The unilateral nature of the disengagement undermined the PLO as potential partners for a lasting peace.
The eight years that have elapsed since Ariel Sharon slipped into coma have probably mellowed some of the criticism that could have been levelled at him in his death. Even the traits for which his admirers celebrate - courage, determination and patriotism - nevertheless led him on many occasions to opt for flawed and aggressive policies. These policies not only inflicted pain on Israel’s neighbors; they did nothing to guarantee Israel’s long term security, a position that can only be achieved by distinctly un-Sharonlike behaviour - negotiating in good faith and with the clear intention of ending conflict with her adversaries.
Professor Yossi Mekelberg is associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House and Program Director of International Relations and Social Sciences at Regent's College, London. Follow him on Twitter @ymekelberg.