When Ariel Sharon slipped into a coma in January 2006, The Spectator was just beginning to rather like him. Days after his stroke, the magazine ran a piece arguing that Sharon’s legacy would be ‘not his military exploits but his final major political act: unilateral withdrawal from Gaza’. Douglas Davis described Gaza as a lawless gangland where terrorism was the major growth industry. Yasser Arafat had sown the seeds of anarchy and Mahmoud Abbas was too weak to do anything about it. ‘The terror war appears to be on the verge of entering a new, more dangerous, phase,’ he wrote. ‘Israelis have cause to be grateful that Sharon dragged them out when he did.’
Before 2006, The Spectator would have often made less comfortable reading for Ariel Sharon. Discussing the very same policy in 2004, the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman took a hard line. ‘Almost exactly two years ago in the House of Commons I described Ariel Sharon as a “war criminal”. I added that, even worse, he was a fool. That verdict has been emphasised by the Dead Sea fruit that he bore away from Washington with such triumphalism.’ Sharon, he said, was paying lip service to a peace settlement while undermining it at every turn by continuing mass settlement on the West Bank.
Christopher Hitchens, with his usual exhilarating indignation, also complained in the early ‘80s about Israeli hypocrisy and lack of accountability. ‘It is said officially that the West judges Israel by higher standards than it applies elsewhere. Through this ingenious logic, the whole expropriation of Palestinian land and life seems, in a way, to confirm Israeli propaganda.’ Sharon was an enthusiastic proponent of Israeli expansion – when he was foreign minister in 1998, he told Israeli radio that ‘Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours… Everything we don’t grab will go to them.’ But even Israeli soldiers didn’t seem to approve when Ian Buruma visited Gaza in 1991:
‘I asked the commander of the Israeli Defence Forces battalion what he thought of Sharon’s building programmes in the occupied territories. We were driving in a jeep through the Jabalya refugee camp, very slowly, avoiding schools and mosques to minimise provocation. People watched us carefully, as we rolled by. I have never seen faces filled with such hate. “Sharon,” said the commander, who was an engineer in daily life, “is crazy!” The IDF spokesman, a nervous public-relations type, told his superior officer that soldiers were not allowed to make political statements. The commander said nothing for a bit, then leaned over to me with a broad smile: “OK, OK, my mother thinks Sharon is crazy!”’
The 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut was perhaps the most damaging incident in Sharon’s career. Up to 3,500 Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites were killed by a Christian militia after the Israeli army let them in to the area. Spectator writers were divided on how much Sharon was to blame. Sharon and his chief of staff had allowed 150 Phalangist militiamen to enter the camps, but they said they couldn’t have predicted what happened next. Alexander Chancellor described how the deputy prime minister David Levy had tried to alert the Israeli cabinet to the risks. Levy had said in a cabinet meeting: ‘I hear that the Phalangists are already entering a certain neighbourhood — and I know what the meaning of revenge is for them, what kind of slaughter. Then no one will believe we went in to create order there, and we will bear the blame.’ They did bear the blame. A commission of inquiry highlighted callousness and irresponsibility and called for the dismissal of Sharon. Paul Johnson took a gentler tone in his press review soon after the massacre, scolding the press for a rather hysterical tone. ‘Haste and lack of foresight, compounded by military muddle, seem to be the villains of the piece so far as Israeli responsibility is concerned,’ he said. ‘It is all a very long way from Auschwitz and I wish Fleet Street would stop making this grotesquely misleading comparison.’
Sharon’s later political career was strongly coloured by memories of the massacre and of his early enthusiasm for settlements. In 2002, when he went to visit the Temple Mount (the holiest place in the world to Jews and the third holiest site in Islam), it triggered a second intifada. Why? Emma Williams quoted her Palestinian neighbour: ‘You don’t understand the significance of Sharon. If it had been any other politician it would have been different, but this man has the blood of so many thousands of Palestinians on his hands. We could not ignore his provocation.’
By 2000, Sharon’s attempts for peace were being constantly undermined by Yasser Arafat. An editorial in 2001 cautioned against a popular view that Sharon and Arafat were equally and symmetrically culpable. ‘It cannot be stressed too often that there is a political difference between Israel and her Arab aggressors,’ it argued. ‘She is the only democracy in the region, and has survived half a century of attempted extermination.’ The problem for Sharon was that Arafat made political capital out of Israeli bombs. If Arafat wouldn’t lock up bombers, Sharon would have to bomb. ‘The final tragedy is that this, of course, may be exactly what Arafat wants.’
Ariel Sharon pictured in 1948 as a commander in the Alexandroni Brigade of the fledging Israeli army during the War of Independence. (Photo by Ministry of Defense via Getty Images)Arafat’s refusal to rein in terrorists meant that negotiations between Arafat and Sharon became a charade, Mark Steyn argued in 2002, describing ‘a deranged exercise in unrealpolitik, with all parties negotiating fictions. The vice-president wanted Saudi Arabia to pretend to be his friend, the Arab League to pretend that the peace plan is for real, Ariel Sharon to pretend that Yasser Arafat is cracking down on terrorism, and Arafat to pretend that he wants to crack down on terrorism.’ The culprit, he said, was Arafat whose basement filled with counterfeit dollars and RPGs spoke of a government where the best career opportunities lay in ‘blowing the legs off Jews’.
At the end of his career, Sharon, the uncompromising military strategist and champion of the settlements, came to the conclusion that unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was the only way out of a deadlock. Praising him for the new policy, a Spectator editorial in April 2006 said, ‘only a man of Mr Sharon’s military stature and unimpeachable patriotism could have pulled off such a feat’. The reputation may have come at a price – only Sharon could spark riots by visiting a temple – but, The Spectator argued, it left his successors and other governments with a job on their hands. ‘The Israeli people have shown, with characteristic courage, that they understand what Sharon was trying to achieve. It is for others now to follow his lead, and theirs.’
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.