Both were born in mandatory Palestine in 1928 to parents who came from Poland. Both were greater-than-life actors on the Israeli political and social scene. Both had flocks of admiring followers, and flocks of bitter opponents. Both – Ariel Sharon and Shulamit Aloni – passed away in January 2014. Each had three sons (Sharon’s eldest was killed in a tragic accident) who were endlessly devoted to them.
Despite the similarities between these two very Israeli personalities, who were both products of the prestate Jewish Yishuv, and the early years of Israel’s independence, an ocean separated them.
While Sharon was an unconventional and maverick military commander, one of the most prominent protagonists of Greater Israel and a leader who dared go against his own previous convictions when this was what realpolitik seemed to dictate, Aloni was a tireless advocate and fighter for human and civil rights in a society where such rights had initially not been placed high on the list of national priorities. A strong protagonist of Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state, Aloni was also a true patron of the arts.
Both had established their own political parties in the course of the 1970s, but Aloni was more persistent than Sharon in preserving her political independence.
On numerous occasions Shulamit Aloni went on record saying the most vicious things about Sharon, refusing to give him credit for anything.
In July 2005, several weeks before the implementation of Sharon’s disengagement plan in the Gaza Strip, involving the abandonment of all the Jewish settlements and the complete Israeli withdrawal from the region, and six months before he suffered his second stroke and went into an eight-year coma from which he never woke up, she said to an Arab newspaper published in Nazareth: “Sharon is a great chauvinist and an arrogant man. He suffers from megalomania and does not mind sacrificing the lives of others, as occurred in the invasion of Lebanon.
“He was the man who sowed all the settlements in the territories, out of the aspiration to establish the Greater Israel. Sharon and the Israeli leadership always try to present to the Israelis the lie that the Palestinians wish to throw us into the sea. In fact, it is we who perform war crimes against humanity, and I hope that Sharon will stand trial.”
Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, never expressed publicly any opinions about Aloni, mainly because he was not in the habit of publicly badmouthing his political rivals. Others – from among the extreme Israeli Right, the haredim and national religious camp – badmouthed her like there was no tomorrow.
The religious groups hated her for her extreme secularism, for her placing human and civil rights above any religious command, for her insistence on teaching Darwinism in Israeli schools when she was Education Minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s second government, and perhaps also because she spoke from a place of deep knowledge of Jewish sources, rather than ignorance as is frequently the case with secular spokesmen.
The “Greater Israel” people detested her for her empathy with the plight of the Palestinians, her criticism of what she regarded as Israel’s chauvinism and militarism, but most of all for her unequivocal opposition to all Jewish settlement endeavors in the occupied territories.
Ideologically I was close to Aloni’s positions on most issues, and very far away from Sharon’s. However, I never voted for Aloni, because I couldn’t stand her holier-than-thou attitude, or her very selective approach to pluralism.
On August 30, 1988, two months before the elections to the 12th Knesset, I wrote an article in The Jerusalem Post explaining why the Labor Party was right to distinguish itself from the more radical Mapam and Civil Rights Movement.
I had the following to say about Aloni, who was the founder and head of the CRM: “Shulamit Aloni’s anti-religious forays make one wonder whether she really understands the meaning of pluralism and coexistence, while her referring to the Jewish settlers of the administered territories as lunatics (as she did at a recent political debate held in Tel Aviv) raises the thought that while Aloni deplores the fact that the Palestinians have been demonized in Israeli public opinion, she has quite a few demons of her own, mostly Jewish.”
Aloni reacted with a letter to the editor that not only defended her record, but badmouthed me personally in terms that would not have shamed some of today’s extreme right-wing talk-backers. She was simply unable to accept criticism, even and perhaps especially from someone close to her ideologically.
Regarding Sharon, I must admit that the only demonstration I ever attended was the famous Sabra and Shatila demonstration in Tel Aviv in September 1982, which called for Sharon’s resignation as defense minister. Furthermore, the only one of his policy moves that I supported and admired was the withdrawal from Gush Katif, since I had always maintained that the Gush Katif settlements should never have been constructed in the first place.
I also noted that Sharon was the first Israeli leading personality who already in 1970 recognized that there is a Palestinian nation, that its leadership is the PLO, and that Israel should negotiate with it. What I disagreed with was that we ought to talk to the PLO about “Jordan is Palestine.”
However, one personal encounter with Sharon irreversibly influenced my feelings about him. In May 1989, in the midst of the first intifada, while the Israeli government was busy drafting what came to be known as the Shamir-Rabin Peace Initiative, which inter alia included a proposal to hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the establishment of a non-PLO Palestinian representation with whom Israel could negotiate, the leadership of the Danish Social Democratic Party arrived in Israel as guests of the Labor Party.
Since all the Labor leaders were busy with the drafting of the peace proposal, I was asked to attend to the guests, and my first task, after welcoming them, was to inform them that their planned meeting with prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had been canceled.
Instead, I offered them a meeting with industry and trade minister Ariel Sharon.
“We refuse to meet this fascist,” the head of the Danish party said.
“Forgive me,” I protested, “but since you recently met PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunis, and he, to say the least, is no great social democrat or liberal, you can meet anyone in Israel, including Meir Kahane.”
I prevailed, and the meeting with Sharon took place.
The meeting was a grand success. Sharon oozed charm, indefatigably explained his positions, and the meeting ran over an hour beyond the scheduled time, resulting in the guests being late to an official dinner with the Labor leadership.
The guests were not converted to Sharon’s ideology, but they were intrigued. I later related to Sharon the background to the meeting, adding that though I was certainly not one of his supporters, I believed that pluralism meant, among other things, that Labor’s foreign guests should be exposed to all legitimate Israeli points of view (that was, in fact, the official policy of the Labor Party International Department at the time).
Sharon gave me one of his winning smiles, and expressed his appreciation for my efforts.
What all this demonstrates is that human beings, including political leaders, are not made up only of their ideologies, beliefs and political dispositions, but also of their personal dispositions and nature. For this reason, no matter where one stands ideologically, one should judge neither Sharon nor Aloni in black-and-white terms. A palette full of colors would be much more appropriate.
May they both rest in peace.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.