Who’s on life support: Sharon or Israel?
The response to Ariel Sharon's stroke suggests that some think a nation is dying rather than its leader.
Is Ariel Sharon on life support, or is Israel itself? Judging from some of the coverage of the Israeli prime minister’s stroke you would think that a nation was dying rather than its leader. Some have asked whether his demise will damage the Middle Eastern economy and perhaps lead to fresh violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post went so far as to claim that Sharon’s stroke was ‘A Calamity for Israel’, which could prove to be ‘one of the great disasters in that country’s nearly 60-year history’ (1). Never mind the violent struggle to found Israel or the numerous wars the Israeli state has fought since; apparently it has never been so tried as it is by its prime minister falling seriously ill.
The reaction and overreaction to Sharon’s stroke are a reminder that the Middle East is indeed in a mess but also that its problems tend to be viewed through doom-tinted spectacles. There is a profound political crisis in the region, but it seems there is no crisis so bad that it cannot be made worse by the dire predictions of terror and doom by commentators and politicians in the West. If the response to Sharon’s stroke tells us anything, it is not that the Middle East is on the precipice of all-out war or calamity but rather is in a state of stasis. Sharon’s demise has exposed a crisis of legitimacy and leadership in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps, and a Middle East not so much at permanent war as in a permanent political stalemate going nowhere fast.
In Israel itself, all the talk is of a ‘vacuum’ and it seems there are few who want to fill it. Newspapers feature pictures of ‘Sharon’s empty chair’ during the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, while some Israelis seem to hope against hope that Sharon might pull through and return to politics. As one report put it: ‘…Israelis squeeze their eyes shut and strain to make [their] daydream come true.’ (2) With the morbid fixation on Sharon’s bodily functions over the past week – we’ve been told that he twitched his left arm and has started breathing on his own – it is almost as if Israel and the world are waiting for a King to die rather than an elected politician who was due to stand for re-election in two months’ time anyway.
It is revealing of the sense of crisis in Israel that Sharon’s stroke has had not only a political impact but, in the words of one report, a ‘personal and psychological impact’ (3). On one level this is understandable. Sharon’s political career is bound up with the history of the Israeli state: he was part of the armed Zionist movement that founded Israel in 1948; he was a key military figure during Israel’s role as a US-supported buffer against Arab nationalism in the 1960s and 70s; and more recently, as prime minister since 2001, he has been at the forefront of negotiating the post-Cold War shifts in Israeli politics. As one commentator puts it, Sharon’s passing is seen by many as ‘not merely the final fade-out of a politician’, but ‘the demise of a direct link to the nation’s founding that leaves many Israelis at a loss’ (4).
Yet if the response to his stroke shows that Israelis feel increasingly distant from their past, it also suggests they are deeply uncertain about the present and future. If Sharon previously personified the founding of Israel and its military struggle for survival, then more recently he has personified its profound identity crisis. At the time of his stroke he was bound up in political and personal crises. He was being investigated over various financial shenanigans. He had resigned from Likud (the party he helped to found in 1973) over his controversial decision to evict Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip (whom he and others had encouraged to move there in the 1970s). He dissolved parliament, formed a new centre-right party called Kadima, and called a General Election for March 2006. If the Sharon of ’48 embodied a confident programme of Zionism, and the Sharon of ’67 and ’73 captured a belligerent desire to defeat hostile neighbours, then the Sharon of more recent times summed up the lack of vision in post-Zionism Israeli politics.
The vacuum after Sharon – which apparently ‘will not soon, if ever, be filled’ (5) – is more than an empty chair in the Cabinet office missing a leader. It is a vacuum of vision and values and of any idea about what Israel stands for today; it represents an uncertainty about how Israel should be led and where it should be led to. This was captured in the name of Sharon’s new party Kadima, which means ‘Forward’. Forward to what? And why? It was as meaningless as that New Labour slogan, ‘Forwards, not back’. Since the 1980s, Israel has been rocked by a series of crisis periods. Following the end of the Cold War in particular, when Israel was robbed of its key role as a Western-supported block on Soviet influence, Israeli leaders have struggled to find a contemporary mission for Zionism. Sharon’s stroke has brought to the surface this sense of self-doubt.
Things are not much better on the Palestinian side. Indeed, The Economist reckons that ‘politics in the Palestinian camp is, if anything, in even greater disarray’ (6). Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, has failed to assert much authority over large parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian politics, too, is in a state of stasis. It is testament to a sense of uncertainty and fear of the future among various Palestinian leaders that, where they once would have condemned Sharon as the Butcher of Sabra and Shatila (in reference to his role in the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanese camps in 1982), today they seem to regret his demise. One Palestinian interviewed by Channel 4 News said Sharon was a ‘bad man’, but also worried about what will happen next: ‘We might get someone worse than him.’ It summed up both the Palestinians’ fear of change and their sense of events being beyond their control.
Those who claim that Sharon’s demise will lead to an ‘abrupt escalation of violence’ are missing the point. Of course the Middle East is unstable, but violence tends to be a minority pursuit these days. Palestinian violence consists largely of occasional suicide attacks, which mostly are executed by small numbers of middle-class Palestinians: they are better understood as isolated screams of rage against Israel rather than as shots in a war. Hamas is often discussed as a terrible threat, yet it seems it will do well in the forthcoming Palestinian elections less on the basis of having declared war on Israel than on having become a helpful community outfit in the absence of the Palestinian Authority getting its act together. Even Israel’s violent tactics tend to be aimed at taking out certain individuals, such as Hamas leaders, rather than punishing entire Palestinian communities (although its security measures and wall continue to do that). What kind of war could Israelis and Palestinians descend into post-Sharon, considering that neither side seems to know what it stands for anymore, much less have the grit to fight for it?
The aftermath of Sharon’s stroke shows that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians have been disenfranchised; they have been reduced to spectators in a process they feel they have no control over. Both sides are reduced to watching TV coverage of Sharon’s health and wondering who they will get next: Israelis wonder if their new prime minister can live up to Sharon, and Palestinians wonder if he will target them with new security measures. The peace process has made politics in the Middle East into an elite pursuit, something for leaders to bother themselves with in meetings behind closed doors, preferably with a neutral negotiator keeping a watchful eye. This means that when one of those leaders dies, crisis can easily take hold, while both the Israeli and Palestinian masses can only stand back and watch.
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spiked-issue: Middle East
(1) A calamity for Israel, Washington Post, 5 January 2006
(2) As Sharon fades, an era passes, Austin American-Statesman, 9 January 2006
(3) As Sharon fades, an era passes, Austin American-Statesman, 9 January 2006
(4) As Sharon fades, an era passes, Austin American-Statesman, 9 January 2006
(5) As Sharon fades, an era passes, Austin American-Statesman, 9 January 2006
(6) After Sharon, The Economist, 7 January 2006