Reflecting on Sharon's Legacy

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fights to recover from a serious stroke, many Israelis are now reflecting on his legacy. They're coming to some surprising conclusions.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today doctors at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital are continuing to bring Prime Minister Ariel Sharon out of sedation. A week ago the Israeli premier suffered a severe stroke. His doctors say he's making small movements on both sides of his body. While this is a good sign, the extent of brain damage will not be known until the sedatives have left his system. Since his stroke, there has been a lot of reflection on Sharon's legacy as Israel's leader. For most of his career, Sharon was lionized on the Israeli right, and vilified on the left. But that's changed as we hear from NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Outside Hadassah Hospital, where doctors still battle to save Ariel Sharon's life, the international media camps out.

(Soundbite of reporters)

AMOS: CNN, next to Al-Jazeera, next to Turkish Television--Israel and the world waits for health updates as commentators consider prospects for Middle East peace without Ariel Sharon, an irony that even Sharon might enjoy. Not long ago, he was called an obstacle to peace by many in the international community. A defender of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, he was the godfather of the settler movement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But in the last year, Sharon convinced even his harshest critics he had changed, including analyst Uron Israhi(ph).

Mr. URON ISRAHI (Analyst): Sharon appeared to be driven by a sense of urgency and responsibility the like of which we haven't seen here for years, that he personally has to correct the mistakes for which he was responsible.

AMOS: What caused that sense of urgency? Sharon didn't really say. His retreat from Gaza, facing down Israeli settlers, the pledge for more withdrawals from parts of the West Bank, Uron Israhi says it was a stunning reversal for the lifelong hawk.

Mr. ISRAHI: For many of the people on the left, this was a gradual process. Starting with extreme disbelief, and then the more they observed his conduct, maybe he means what he is saying.

AMOS: Sharon was doing more to end Israel's 38-year occupation than any other politician, says Ruben Kaminer, founder of a Web site for peace activists.

Mr. RUBEN KAMINER: Many people felt that it's much better to take a ride with him than to be left standing in the dust.

AMOS: The rest of the country took the ride, too, says Israhi.

Mr. ISRAHI: He was the symbol of the most extreme right-wing commitment to use force to bring the Arabs to their knees. If he came to the conclusion that we have to withdraw, then we have to withdraw.

AMOS: But withdrawal cost him support from the right. The man they called the Bulldozer was no longer the hero of the settlers' movement. Forced out of his Gaza home, Etan Brown(ph) says the Bulldozer turned on him, and he is angry.

Mr. ETAN BROWN: Yeah, of course, of course, because he was, you know, on my side all the time. He ruined my life!

AMOS: Why did Ariel Sharon change his lifelong views? Akeeva Eldar, a journalist for the liberal newspaper Ha'Aretz, says the important factor was demographics, the high Palestinian birthrate, dwindling Jewish immigration. If Israel continued to claim Gaza and all of the West Bank, soon Jews would be a minority in their own country.

Mr. AKEEVA ELDAR (Journalist, Ha'Aretz): He realized that if we don't divide the country, and give away territories which are heavily inhabited by Palestinians, then we will lose our Jewish identity, which was very important to him.

AMOS: And to the country. Polls showed the vast majority of Israelis agree and are ready to end the occupation. But they do not believe peace with the Palestinians is possible, at least for now. Neither did Sharon, says Eldar.

Mr. ELDAR: Now when Sharon woke up in the morning, he didn't ask himself `What am I going to do for peace today?' No. Because he didn't believe that it's possible. Sharon actually wanted to dictate to the Palestinians the final settlement. He really didn't care about them.

AMOS: Sharon's solution: separation. Build a barrier between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. In Gaza, dismantle the settlements, remove the army, decisions that made him one of the most popular politicians in Israeli history. Now those policies are in doubt because of his illness, says Israhi.

Mr. ISRAHI: However, the fact that he did that may empower lesser political figures because they can come to the realization now that also a lot of political rewards in following this path.

AMOS: Will his allies follow his path? Will Israeli voters accept dramatic steps without Sharon? It is a crucial question for the Middle East and why the world's media is staked out at a Jerusalem hospital. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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