During the past several weeks I have watched the gathering storm over Gaza. There was a column in me, but it would not come out. I wanted to analyze the future, not reiterate the old hatreds on both sides.
I suspected Ariel Sharon’s motives-still do-and was suspicious of the Israeli "settlers"-still am. Now, as we approach the end game in Gaza I think the settlers have seen the future. Their vision of what is coming to pass, and what will come to pass, is the correct one. The Israeli Empire, and their own dreams, are being sacrificed on the alter of Ariel Sharon’s mortality, and reality. Let me explain.
I worked for Illinois U.S. Senator Paul Douglas forty years ago. Because I was the low man on the totem pole I got to drive the senator; he liked to tell stories. One of his favorite expressions was "When I was a young man, I wanted to save the world. When I was middle aged, in World War II, I wanted to save the United States. Now (at age 74) I would be happy to Save the [Indiana] Dunes."
Ariel Sharon, meet Senator Douglas
In the past few months there has been a mountain of psychobabble over Sharon’s intentions, state of mind and personality of Ariel Sharon. I hesitate to add to the pile, but here are my thoughts.
Mortality. People act differently when they see the potential for death. It doesn’t have to be imminent, or even reasonable. But people know. Otherwise, we would not have "death bed" confessions, utterances and the like.
Several weeks ago I set out to write a column on the high water mark of the Israeli Empire. That high water mark was 1967. Israel was omnipotent. Israeli soldiers had been welcomed as liberators in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel had a historic opportunity to empower the Palestinian people, and fumbled. Abba Eban used to say, "Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." It is also true that Israelis have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
1967 was a historic missed opportunity. Liberation turned to occupation (sound familiar?). The consequences have been disastrous. Slowly the fabric of Israeli society has been corrupted. Sharon has come to see what I saw when I began my column on the high water mark of the empire: Young Israelis were no longer willing to die for Gaza. Soon they would not be willing to die for the West Bank or Jerusalem. Sharon was forced to betray the settlers because he felt betrayed by history.
I am not an admirer of Mr. Sharon. On my radio program I once put him on trial for crimes against humanity, and convicted him. But Sharon’s actions may reflect an awareness that even he approaches only with fear. Israel’s loss of empire, slow though it has been, may portend a failure of the entire state unless he rectifies matters.
There is more. Sharon has been portrayed as a mountebank, a psychopath, even a vampire. Zev Chafets recently portrayed the Israeli strongman in the New York Times as a mama’s boy. All that was missing was a glass of milk and a few cookies. Chafets suggested Ariel listed to his inner mom, and she told him as a boy, and still tells him as a senescent man, "Never trust them [the Arabs]." Well, Sharon is also a solider.
I know a little bit about soldiering. Sharon may have lived as his mama’s boy; he has chosen to face death as a solider.
Soldiers can fight and kill, but they can also reflect on their adversary. They can also come to respect their enemy. They can grieve. All his life Sharon was bred to have contempt for Arabs. But in the twilight of his life, after he unleashed unspeakable evil against the helpless Palestinian population, Arabs stood firm. Palestinians did not budge. They did not flinch.
To the point of suicide bombing
The morality of suicide bombing is a story for another day, and a forthcoming book. But no one who has seen the sacrifice of Arab life, and is aware of the potential sacrifices to come, can continue to have contempt for Palestinians or Arabs as military adversaries. Ironically, Sharon and his military clique/cabal over the past sixty years created a new Arab tradition of bravery and sacrifice.
The Egyptian humiliation of 1967 led to the counterattack in 1973. The humiliations of Oslo, which were known to Palestinians while being concealed from the rest of the world, led to the Second Intifada.
Sharon suddenly realized he faced a very stark world; Palestinians were prepared to die for their cause; Israelis increasingly were not. And so he began the first of what will be a continuing series of evacuations. Unlike Chafets, I do not believe Sharon made a deal with George Bush. I believe he made a deal with his own death. People on the brink of death often recant, barter, bargain, and pray.
Sharon will not live to see the promised land of milk and honey, peace between Palestinians and Israelis. That day will probably not come in his lifetime. But by dismantling, however slowly and however grudgingly, the evil cantonments he created over the past several decades, Sharon has finally opened the door to peace.
Sharon has lived with a grand plan most of his life: an Israeli Empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. It will not come to pass.
Ironically, putting militarism and conquest aside, Israel is not a failed state. It is a highly successful state. Most Israelis would live in peace with Palestinians. Sharing is part of the Jewish tradition. People who want peace want to make deals, not create or extend empires.
And so Sharon realizes his dream of an empire has died. It died first in Gaza. It will die next on the Jordan River. The final blow will come on the West Bank, when Jerusalem becomes a shared city.
But the slow Death of the State of Israel, which began in 1967, and of which I have written so often, is also a cause for celebration. For both my Israeli and Palestinian friends there is cause for joy. Not joy that the end of war is near. It is not. Sharon will yield, but not willingly. More senseless killing probably lies ahead, on both sides. Sharon will continue to strut and posture and demand that "terrorists" and others be "disarmed."
Military adversaries do not disarm until a war is over. Period. Sharon knows that. He now knows his huffing and puffing will never blow down the Palestinian people. He will give as little as he can get away with. But he will have to continue to give, and he will. Ultimately, Sharon has seen the future. And surrendered.
One of the great Easter metaphors concerns those seeking Jesus in the tomb. A guard says "Why do you seek him among the dead? He is among the living." Today, both sides grieve for the dead of the decades, the innocent, the soldiers, the accidental and the inevitable, the senseless and the intentional.
Those who hope for the end of the Israeli state will not see that day come. The dream of Israel will never die. But the equally valid dreams of Palestinians will not die either. Men, women and children have been martyred on both sides for a senseless conflict.
But if you seek the martyrs on either side, they are not among the dead. They are among the living. Perhaps they were called as martyrs to this senseless, and sometimes seemingly endless, conflict.
And while Sharon lives, his dream of a Greater Israel is slowly dying. He killed it. Sharon has slowly come to accept his own death, and the inevitable death of his dreams. Only such a stark awareness could compel him to betray his settlers. That is why I believe he has seen and accepted the death of his dreams, and that is why he withdrew from Gaza.
Young Israelis who would not sacrifice their lives, and young Palestinians who would, have broken the spirit of Sharon the old soldier. Peace is at hand. Not soon, perhaps. But eventually, certainly.
Senator Douglas was defeated for reelection. But he had saved the Indiana Dunes, today a national park.