There was no escaping the news of Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke last week. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the Internet — all were chock full of breaking stories; backgrounders on Sharon’s life; sound bites from doctors, Israelis, Arabs, Jews in New York, and various Jewish organizational types desperately trying — without much success — to seem even a little bit relevant.
There were talking heads and prognosticators and analysts — whose knowledge of the Middle East in all too many cases, it rather quickly became apparent, consisted of whatever they were able to cram from that day’s issue of The New York Times or web edition of the Jerusalem Post.
If the coverage of Sharon’s condition was unrelentingly grim, the assessments of his accomplishments and place in history were almost without exception giddy — though even that may be too weak a word; adulatory is probably a better description of the encomiums heaped on a man who just a few years ago was viewed in European capitals and on college campuses everywhere as a mass-murdering war criminal.
Whatever one thinks of Sharon’s Gaza policy and his political migration from right to center, it’s instructive that the only way an Israeli prime minister can gain plaudits from world leaders, diplomats and journalists is by territorial retreat. Sharon’s elevation to greatness, after all, was strikingly similar to that of another former Israeli general credited with assuming the mantle of peacemaker late in life.
The truth is that before he signed the Oslo accords, Yitzhak Rabin was widely considered an uninteresting politician of middling capabilities whose prior term in office had been a melange of corruption and malaise; but when he was buried two years after Oslo — even as the false hopes generated by that agreement were already fading fast — the consensus among opinion-makers was that a giant had walked among us.
Sharon’s new popularity among some of Israel’s harshest critics was visible in the pages of newspapers in England and France, two countries where, if editorial cartoonists are an accurate measure of public opinion, he only recently was considered a villain on the level of bin Laden and Hitler.
Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Colin Coughlin described the Gaza withdrawal as “an act that persuaded even his intractable critics that the old warrior had undergone a Damascus conversion. The hawk truly had begat the dove.”
An editorial in France’s liberal Le Monde praised Sharon’s “conversion to realism — so aptly illustrated in the Israeli pullout from Gaza,” which, the paper charmingly continued, “finally gave a chance for Palestine, which had until then been undermined by the Israeli colonization.”
The editorial then provided a revealing glimpse of just why Sharon had won such newfound admiration among those who prefer to put the onus for the Israeli-Arab conflict squarely on Israel: “Both in Europe and the United States [the hope was] that with such a man in power, withdrawal from the occupied territories would not end there.”
The Washington Post echoed Le Monde’s conviction that future Israeli withdrawals are the key to a brighter Middle East, though the editorial writer wondered whether even Sharon would have made enough concessions to satisfy Mahmoud Abbas and, well, the Post itself: “It was never clear whether [Sharon] was willing to give up enough, in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, to make possible an enduring settlement.”
That Sharon couldn’t do enough to sate the hostility of some of his longtime critics was evident in a column in the Guardian by the aging boy wonder of Israel’s peace brigades, the novelist Amos Oz. After complimenting Sharon for “smash[ing] the settlers in Gaza in the same blitzkrieg style in which he won his many wars,” Oz complained about the “One thing … Sharon never succeeded in doing, not even when he evacuated Gaza to the last inch. He never really sat down with the Palestinians to try to talk with them the way one neighbor speaks to the other neighbor.”