Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man.” - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden eulogizing Ariel Sharon in Israel this week.
Complex? How long did Biden and his staff deliberate over the legacy of Ariel Sharon before coming up with such a pallid verdict? Sharon was many things - chronically insubordinate, bigoted charmer, handmaiden to sectarian slaughter - but complex? On the contrary, anyone who understood Old Testament justice could easily comprehend Ariel Sharon. What’s so complicated about a human howitzer?
Certainly the man I interviewed fourteen years ago was hell and gone from complexity. It was October 12, 2000, two weeks into the second Palestinian Intifada. A few days earlier a Sharon functionary had told me to expect a call at 3 p.m. for what was budgeted as a twenty-minute phone interview - a narrow slot with much to talk about. Among other things, Sharon had been accused of provoking the Intifada by barreling through sacred Muslim sites on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a phalanx of security agents in tow, in late September.
The day of the interview arrived, and what a day it was. In the West Bank town of Ramallah, two Israeli army reservists had been set upon and brutally murdered by a crowd of Palestinians. As my driver and I headed back to Jerusalem from Nazareth, where I had spent the morning with a prominent Arab-Israeli lawmaker, I received a call from an editor in Brussels: a U.S. Navy destroyer, the Cole, had been ripped open by suicide bombers off the coast of Yemen.The Intifada appeared to be going viral. The Middle East, it seemed, was closer to regional conflict than at any time since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Just then my other phone rang. It was Arik calling.
Where to begin? Ramallah or the Temple Mount? Sharon chose Camp David, where several months earlier a high-wire peace summit between Israelis and Palestinians had collapsed. It was not Sharon’s march on the Dome of the Rock that set the stage for the Intifada, swore his apologists, but the failure of Yasser Arafat to accept a landmark deal from the Israelis.
“Arafat is trying to get through violence what he couldn’t manage to get by negotiation,” Sharon declared. Ehud Barak, Israel’s then prime minister, “made a mistake when he put all his concessions on the table and thought Arafat would kiss him immediately and that this would be the end of the conflict. Instead the Palestinians revolted. All of this was pre-planned and orchestrated by Arafat.”
The interview was interrupted several times by failed connections, prompting my driver to criss-cross parts of northern Israel in search of proper coverage. (We eventually found a patch somewhere in the Tiberian desert.) Sharon, who had patiently redialed after each dropped signal, responded to my apologies with avuncular dismissals. “I am an old man,” he said. “I have nothing to do but work on my farm. But if I were prime minister the situation would be much better. The Palestinians would know what they may have and what they may not have. They would know that ‘no’ would never become ‘yes.’”
If there was a shred of empathy, reappraisal or self-examination - the constituent parts of complexity - on the other end of the line I detected no sign of it. The interview lasted a good forty minutes, after which Sharon invited me to continue the conversation on his farm. Given the circumstances, he could not have been more gracious.
A few days later I was having lunch in Jerusalem with veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson when Sharon’s name came up. I mentioned my interview and noted somewhat sheepishly how disarmed I was by a man intimately associated with some of the Middle East’s worst atrocities, from the attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya in 1953 to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon two decades later and the subsequent massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila.
“It’s unnerving,” I said, “to find yourself charmed by an … um …,” I searched clumsily for a diplomatic way to explain myself.
“By an evil man,” interjected Simpson, who had witnessed some of Sharon’s handiwork first-hand, in Lebanon.
In February 2001 Sharon was elected prime minister. That April an international commission tasked with identifying the roots of the Intifada concluded that Sharon’s blunt Temple Mount tour helped trigger a revolt that “was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited.” The report found no evidence that the ensuing violence was planned, either by Arafat or anyone else. Four months later, the New York Review of Books published an account of the Camp David talks that would conclusively discredit the argument that Arafat had rejected an unprecedentedly generous offer of statehood. Instead, it faulted Barak for frog-marching the Palestinians prematurely to the negotiating table - with assistance from the Clinton White House - to garner popular support ahead of the very election he would lose to Sharon.
That Sharon was a liar - even Ben-Gurion noted his “habit of not telling the truth” - and committed war crimes is beyond dispute within the reality-based community. Obscured by his more grisly exploits, however, is his record as Minister of Agriculture, where he became a leader of the settler movement in occupied Palestine. Like the biblical traveler in Judges who dismembers his concubine, Sharon did as much as anyone to slash the West Bank into proliferating Jewish colonies that have rendered Palestinian statehood all but impossible. As prime minister, by unilaterally evacuating settlers from Gaza, he created a power vacuum that Hamas would fill two years later, providing Israel with the excuse to incarcerate the Gaza strip and fuel one humanitarian crisis after another.
However sympathetic I am to Simpson’s characterization of Sharon I am also aware that concepts of evil are often labored and meaningless. When competing narratives are so irreconcilable as to become mirror images, evil in one becomes good in the other. To call Sharon complex, however, is to imply a conscience and a texture that was never there. Sharon was sure of himself even as he massacred innocents in Israel’s name. If that does not betray evil it certainly suggests a studied venality. Thoughtful readers may wonder if there is a measurable difference between the two.