Saturday, January 07, 2006

Ariel Sharon: From muscle to mystery

Amos Oz is an internationally acclaimed Israeli author and essayist who, as a reserve soldier in a tank unit, fought on the Sinai front during the 1967 Six Day War, and on the Golan Heights in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since the 1967 war Amos Oz has published numerous articles and essays about the Israeli/Arab conflict, campaigning for an Israeli/Palestinian compromise to be based on mutual recognition and coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. As one of the leading figures in the Israeli 'Peace Now' movement since 1977, his articles, essays and political activities have made him a foremost figure in Israel. His speeches and articles also appear in translation throughout the world, including this one in The Guardian in which he reacts to Ariel Sharon's exit from Israel's political stage:

He [Sharon] was the man of muscle. We remember him in the blood-stained white bandage in the Suez Canal threatening to unleash the wrath of the legions against the politicians if they dared to make even one small concession to the Arabs. We remember him also in Beirut during his ruthless crusade into Lebanon trying to install by force a new order in the old Middle East. And we remember him planting hundreds of settlements and hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, in Sinai, in the Golan Heights. Always the man of muscle.

For all those decades I resented him. He symbolised for me everything I could not stand about my country: violent self-righteousness, a mixture of brutality and self-pity, insatiable greed for land and a mystical religious phraseology that, coming from a secular hedonistic soldier, always struck me as hypocritical. There was no other individual who personified the intoxication of many Israelis with the power of power.

And then two years ago a sudden change occurred. A mysterious metamorphosis. Sharon's rhetoric changed overnight. First his vocabulary began to sound like that of his rivals. As if he had switched overnight into speaking a different language. When Sharon said for the first time, about two years ago, that the occupation is a disaster for the occupied and the occupiers, I could not believe my ears. When he started to speak about two states for the two nations, I thought he must be joking. When he mentioned for the first time the rights of the Palestinians, I thought he was mocking the slogans of the peace movement. And when he first announced that he was going to evacuate the Jewish settlers and the Israeli army from Gaza, I thought it was no more than a cunning strategy.

However, what he did in 35 years he only had two years to begin to undo. All the settlements in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights still stand as monuments to the old Sharon. He is leaving us taking with him the answers to two great mysteries: why in the autumn of his life had he suddenly converted so radically; and what else was he going to do in the direction of peace and reconciliation?

One thing, however, 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 neighbour speaks to the other neighbour. Not even the way one godfather sits down with another godfather after a long feud. Ariel Sharon is leaving us even as he is signalling to us - I understand my mistakes. I finally tried to mend them, but life was just too short.