The Arab world hates Ariel Sharon so much not because he is responsible for the death of so many Arabs but because he is essentially the mirror image of the Arab leaders that have ruled us for decades. He is the better and improved mirror image.
If hatred for Sharon was based solely on the number of Arabs he has killed, then he would probably lose out to those responsible for the thousands killed in the fighting of Black September and the thousands more killed in Hama.
And when it comes to the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, with which Sharon’s name is synonymous, it is important to remember that an Israeli state inquiry in 1983 found Sharon, then defense minister, indirectly responsible for the killings of hundreds of men, women and children at the refugee camps during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. An Arab inquiry has yet to hold directly responsible members of the Lebanese militias who actually slaughtered those men, women and children with their guns and knives.
The Israeli inquiry forced Sharon’s resignation and hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated their horror and disgust at his role in the massacre. I won’t ask where are the Arab demonstrations against the massacres of Arabs by fellow Arabs. The answer is evident in every Arab news story that holds only Sharon responsible for the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila. It is an answer that reminds us again that Arab victimhood makes sense only when we are being victimized by Israel. The horrors we visit upon each other are irrelevant.
Sharon is the better and improved mirror image of an Arab leader because we have held what he does to us in much higher regard than anything we have done to each other.
Furthermore, Sharon is the typical military-man-turned-politician that so many Arab leaders are. But unlike so many of these military men whose paths to power in the Arab world have been paved with forged elections, Sharon was actually democratically elected.
The resemblance between Sharon and Arab leaders was most closely brought home to me by these passages from former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami’s recently published book “Scars of War, Wound of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy”.
“The wide national support (Sharon) managed to elicit at different crossroads in his controversial career as a military man and politician was born out of his ability to manoeuvre through periods of despair that he himself had often been instrumental in generating in the first place” Ben-Ami writes.
“The support for Sharon was always the result of the hopelessness and despair he himself had generated. Somehow the national consensus around him invariably looked like a collective voyage into the abyss. Sharon’s career has frequently defied Napoleon’s definition of the leader as ‘a dealer in hope’. He dealt with despair, hopelessness and fear,” Ben-Ami concludes.
While the names of many Arab leaders could easily be substituted for Sharon’s in the above passage, he continues to outdo and outpace them with a move that Ben-Ami’s book has not included because it occurred after the book’s publication.
Shortly before his latest and most debilitating stroke, Sharon split with Likud to launch the centrist Kadima party as a centrist alternative to the traditional left and right wing poles of Israeli politics. At a time when politics in the Middle East has been stuck – between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, between Fatah and Hamas in Palestine and between Labour and Likud in Israel – Sharon introduced the tantalizing prospect of a third way.
Whether Sharon survives his latest stroke or not, he is unlikely to ever resume the post of prime minister. So while many write his political obituary if not his actual obituary, it is pertinent to ponder this ultimate irony of Sharon’s legacy to both Israel and to the Arab world.
During the Egyptian parliamentary elections, an Egyptian commentator who has his own television show actually asked an Egyptian politician why someone couldn’t launch a new party in Egypt in the way that Sharon just had with Kadima in Israel.
Is it possible that Sharon the general, the bulldozer, the butcher of Beirut, and owner of all those other names that the Arab world suffixes to his real name, is now the role model of how a military man turns into a politician who turns into an innovator of a new brand of politics?
Sharon’s departure from politics is another sign of the passing away of the old men who have stood as giants on the shoulders of politics in this part of the world for so long. But by launching Kadima he has also initiated a debate in Israel that is exactly the one we need in the Arab world.
Can Kadima the party survive without Sharon the icon? Can Israel move beyond the politics of charisma and strong-arm tactics? Which direction will Israeli politics head as one by one the old guard that has dominated its politics passes away?
Just as with the Ben-Ami passage above, these same questions and concerns are equally relevant to the Arab world.
If Hamas takes advantage of this transitional phase in Israeli politics to attack, it will make Kadima and the above questions irrelevant. Hamas must not be allowed to drive Israelis – who are worried enough about Hamas’ expected strong showing in the Palestinian elections, if they are held – away from the centre and into the arms of the waiting Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just like Arab world – is it the party that’s important or its leader?