It did appear that that mountainous bulk of murder and corruption, Ariel Sharon, was about to leave politics. Much as with Al Capone, authorities only caught up with him through a trail of crooked money.
But we have heard less of his retirement lately and rather more about his plan to leave Gaza. Apparently, after killing hundreds of its occupants, including scores of innocent bystanders as Israeli helicopters fired missiles into city streets, Sharon thinks he’ll get some good press about leaving Gaza.
Of course, what Sharon truly is leaving is an impossible situation. Gaza is a small, fenced-in enclave of nearly a million Palestinians where only the most mentally unbalanced Israeli settlers insist on living a life of guard towers, razor wire, patrols, and spies. Sharon’s army is tired of protecting a few machinegun-toting fanatics, not to mention the small fortune it can save by ending the protection.
The army will be able to do a more efficient job by policing only the perimeter of the world’s largest open-air detention center. Access by land, air, and sea are tightly controlled, although inmates are permitted on selected days to pass through fences and checkpoints for jobs in Israel that Israelis will not take.
America’s court-appointed President, the remarkable man who spent a hundred billion dollars to set Iraq in flames, characterized Sharon’s initiative as "historic" and "courageous," two words whose meanings there is no objective evidence he even understands.
During the carefully-staged ceremony in Washington, Bush suggested the U.S. will support Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank. How is Bush entitled to grant land he neither owns nor occupies to a third party without so much as consulting those who lived there for centuries and still often hold deeds? Apparently, through no principle more dignified than might makes right.
The de facto border of Israel keeps shifting eastward as new settlements sprawl out like Florida land developments. The Palestinians are not to be permitted even their miserable 22% of what once was called Palestine. Sharon’s gang has always wanted the West Bank, minus its inhabitants, carefully dressing up its language in biblical terms that strike a special chord in the backwaters of America. Of course, one just as reasonably could make a case for Greece claiming parts of Turkey on the authority of the Iliad. The biblical claim really is just that silly, but it carries weight in parts where children’s books are scrutinized for dire signs of witchcraft.
Sharon’s government has been a disaster both for the Palestinians and Israel. The world’s reaction to his behavior has been waves of severe criticism, but there also has been ugly new expressions of anti-Semitism. A number of Israel’s defenders work to blur the distinction between these two things, hoping to silence criticism. Reasonable people are driven to despair at being treated so mindlessly.
I believe the extreme sensitivity of many Jews to criticism of Israel’s behavior actually reflects the fact that it disturbs them too, although public expressions of their distress are rare. Fierce pressure is felt by Jews who join criticism of Israel, perhaps the most notable case being the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom who not long ago spoke out quite forcefully on the subject and has not been heard from since.
"It’s easy to see which side you support," was one of the more temperate negative responses I received once to a piece about Israel and the Palestinians. Why must Israel’s critics be put in the position of supporting them or us? This kind of stuff – them or us – is the wisdom proffered by the most pathetic President in American history.
Critics emphasize grievances against Israel because those grievances never receive the same airing as those against the Palestinians. Indeed, there are many prominent columnists, apologists for Israel’s excesses, who frequently suggest Palestinians are irrational, Thomas Friedman being only the most well-known of them. Apart from the imbalance of voices in the press, there is simply a great moral and ethical disproportion between the acts of desperate people opposing occupation and organized suppression by a heavily-armed state. Israel holds almost all the cards, so when nothing in the situation changes, indeed when it grows far worse, how is Israel not responsible?
My original intention was to write a piece about the departure of Sharon offering a fresh opportunity for peace. Why not a peace initiative as inspired as the late President Sadat’s trip to Israel? But such things never do come from Israel, and what we have now is almost its polar opposite.
It is difficult to understand how Jews, consistently leaders in many struggles for human rights and progress, continue to accept the circumstances of the West Bank and Gaza. Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, figures of unquestionable moral authority and heroic resistance to tyranny, have both said that what they see there is what they knew in apartheid South Africa. Only Sharon’s admirers, Bush’s war-loving loonies, and Jerry Falwell’s strange flock awaiting the end of time are blind to this truth.
The suicide bombings that have terrified Israelis come from utter despair. First came Barak’s contemptuous offer to Palestinians of a perpetual Bantustan at Camp David after years of work over the Oslo Accords. This was followed by Sharon’s ugly behavior, including his provocative trip to the Temple Mount, seeking to exploit fear. Sharon, a man directly responsible for war-time atrocities, a man who always held the Oslo Accords in contempt, was elected Prime Minister. Arafat, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been virtually imprisoned, denied a voice in Washington, and threatened several times publicly with murder. Now we have Bush hugging Sharon as though he had found a long-sought father substitute. From the Palestinian perspective, it must appear an Iron Curtain has descended.
Millions of people throughout the world understand the necessary elements of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. The proposals of Israel’s Gush Shalom – a group dedicated to genuine peace, a group so often treated by Sharon’s thugs as a criminal or subversive organization – contains the key elements. A return to the Green Line as Israel’s border and Jerusalem’s becoming capital for both states are rational conditions for a stable peace. What is so difficult about accepting them?
Instead, we have Sharon, a man who has killed thousands of people, almost all civilians, hailed as courageous. And he is hailed by a President fresh from killing women and children in Fallujah.