It was only once I understood Ariel Sharon that I understood Israel.
It was 2001 and he had recently been elected as prime minister of Israel. Some commentators in the British media were comparing him to Pol Pot.
I was horrified but I was also confused. I didn’t know much about Israel but I knew that no Jewish person I had ever met would elect a man worthy of comparison with Pol Pot. So I asked a Jewish colleague of mine to explain Sharon, and Israel, to me. He did so, helping me understand both man and nation’s darkest and finest hours.
It was a pivotal conversation that inspired me to visit Israel and then to start this blog.
The years since that conversation include Sharon’s painful decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. It was the final meaningful act of his life. As with the great Menachem Begin before him, a ‘right-wing hardliner’ had taken a painful step for peace.
Well, that’s my view of the disengagement anyway. Critics of Sharon claim it was a sneaky trick, designed to cement Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Indeed, after Sharon announced the withdrawal, some said it would never happen. ‘Wait and see,’ said B’Tselem founder Anat Biletski. ‘Something will come up. There will be an emergency. The withdrawal will never happen.’
But it did happen. Sharon said he had come to the conclusion that Israel’s presence in the contested territories could not ‘continue endlessly’. He argued: ‘To keep 3.5 million people under occupation is bad for us and bad for them. I want to say clearly that I have come to the conclusion that we have to reach an agreement.’
He was also, reportedly, planning a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
Then the man they called ‘Arik Melech Yisrael’ suffered a stroke and fell into a coma, before losing his life today. It’s a sad moment.
Above is the dedication page of the book Julie Burchill and I wrote together. I’m sure many of you will know that the ‘Arik’ is Ariel Sharon, and the ‘Bibi’ Benjamin Netanyahu.