A legacy of contradictions evident in eulogies

Ariel Sharon left not one legacy, but many; some of them contradictory, and it is possible – as was evident at the Knesset memorial service – to use various parts of that legacy to further various goals.

By
January 14, 2014 02:45
4 minute read.
Biden

Prime Minister Netanyahu and US Vice President Biden at a Knesset memorial service for Ariel Sharon, January 13, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)

In the nearly 60 years during which Ariel Sharon strutted on Israel’s public stage – as soldier, commander, Knesset member, minister and, finally, prime minister – he gave thousands of speeches and interviews.

It was telling, therefore, to note which of his comments over the years were underlined by two of the keynote speakers at his memorial service on Monday: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Joseph Biden.

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Sharon left not one legacy, but many; some of them contradictory, and it is possible – as was evident Monday – to use various parts of that legacy to further various goals.

Ever since Sharon passed away on Saturday, Netanyahu – who had sharp political differences with Sharon over the years, especially regarding the disengagement from Gaza – stressed Sharon the daring military commander, Sharon the embodiment of the rebirth of the Jewish warrior. Nary a word about his diplomatic legacy, his unilateralism or his disengagement from Gaza.

And then on Monday, with Sharon’s casket in front of him and Biden in the audience, Netanyahu did channel Sharon the diplomat, but it was Sharon the diplomat who was not afraid to stand up to Israel’s closest friends, even the US.

Citing Sharon’s memorable “Czechoslovakia Speech” from October 2001, Netanyahu said, “When the international reaction to one of the terror attacks against us seemed too conciliatory to him, he appealed to the international community and said the following: ‘Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when enlightened democracies in Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient temporary solution. Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. We will not tolerate it.’”

Those remarks, which infuriated the US administration at the time, were made by Sharon at the height of the second intifada, hours after a terrorist attack in Afula killed three Israelis, and a day after two other Israelis were murdered in a terrorist attack in Alei Sinai in Gush Katif.

The background to his comments was a sense that, following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York less then a month earlier, the US was going to press Israel to make concessions to Yasser Arafat – “sacrifice Israel” – in order to get Arab countries to join the anti-terrorist coalition then-president George W. Bush was trying to cobble together.

“Israel is not Czechoslovakia,” Sharon said. “Israel will fight terrorism.”

After quoting from this speech, Netanyahu said Monday that “Arik understood that when it came to our existence and our security, we must stand firm. These are principles that we continue to safeguard. The State of Israel will continue to fight terrorism; the State of Israel will continue to strive for peace while preserving its security; and the State of Israel will make every effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu could have picked from dozens of different speeches to quote right there and then, in the presence of the US vice president and with the world’s diplomats watching.

That he chose the Czechoslovakia Speech was not by accident, and his dual message was clear: Don’t over romanticize Sharon’s relationship with the US, when he felt the need to stand up to Washington, he did so; and Israel will not allow itself to be “sacrificed” for the interests of others, not when it comes to concessions to the Palestinians, and not with regard to Iran.

Netanyahu intentionally sent this message now, a week before the scheduled implementation of the interim agreement between the world powers and Iran, an agreement Netanyahu vehemently opposed, and in the midst of the talks with the Palestinians, as US Secretary of State John Kerry continues to push forward and say that the time for critical decisions has come.

Biden, too, had many Sharon quotes he could have drawn from when writing his eulogy.

He picked two. The first was a comment Biden said Sharon made in an interview in the 1990s, before he became prime minister.

“Before and above all else, I am a Jew,” Biden quoted Sharon as saying. “My thinking is dominated by the Jews’ future in 30 years, in 300 years, in a thousand years. That’s what preoccupies and interests me first and foremost.”

That Biden chose precisely that quote provides a peek into what Biden, and so many Americans of his generation after World War II, found so attractive in Israel. Sharon’s unabashed pride in who he was, and what he represented.

Biden then spoke of the iconic picture of Sharon from the Yom Kippur war, his head bandaged, leading his men. That picture, he said, symbolized an Israel “that reclaimed its roots of standing up and fighting, needing no help, standing on its own.”

For many Americans like Biden, this was the Israel they respected; indeed, the Israel they romanticized.

The other quote Biden drew from Sharon was one that reflected where Biden – and the administration he represents – would like to see Israel go now.

This quote came from an interview Sharon gave the Guardian in November 2001.

“I’ve been everywhere. I’ve met kings, queens, presidents,” Sharon said, “I’ve been around the world. I have one thing that I would like to do: to try to reach peace.”

Biden’s message was clear – this was Sharon’s legacy, the one that should live on. Netanyahu’s message was equally clear.

Those dueling messages, both drawn from Sharon’s legacy and his words, reflect well the different mindsets now extant in Washington and Jerusalem.


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