On 7 February 2001, the day after Ariel Sharon won his first landslide election victory, this is what I wrote in the Guardian. "It's as shocking as if Jean-Marie Le Pen had become president of France, or Ian Paisley ruled over Northern Ireland. Last night Israel, by a massive landslide, turned to a man who has spent two decades as an international byword for extremism - a global hate-figure - and elevated him to the country's top job. Ariel Sharon, who once seemed destined only for exile into disgrace, is now the prime minister of Israel. For anyone who wishes peace for that nation and its neighbours, today is among the darkest of days."
So why did my heart plummet at the realisation that this man was about to vanish from Israeli politics? The answer is far away from the idealism, the Oslo dreams of peace, that were dashed when Rabin fell. It is altogether less romantic. It is simply that Sharon was beginning to do what needed to be done: he was acting for the sake of Israel, of course, but his actions would ultimately have benefited the Palestinians and those who desperately crave some respite from this desperate conflict.
And there is a wider lesson here for the left, which watches the Israel-Palestine conflict so closely. We can keep demanding absolute justice for the Palestinians and a complete resolution of the conflict, but the result will be that the Palestinians get nothing. We can demand a full, final peace treaty, but we will find ourselves in the same camp as Binyamin Netanyahu, who also says nothing should be resolved until everything is resolved. He, too, demands perfection, knowing it will never happen.
Outsiders may treat this as an arena in which to strike a pose, to show their lefter-than-thou credentials. But for Israelis and Palestinians, and also for many Jews and Palestinians around the world, this is not a slogan on a T-shirt. It is a matter of life and death. If Sharon was going to reduce the occupation even a bit, then that was progress. Not perfect, but progress. And if the chance of even that small advance has gone, then it's not just me who should feel glum.
Jan 17, 2006
Hell freezes over
Jonathan Freedland writing in the New Stateman: "We were wrong about Sharon."