Few contemporary figures inspire the kind of debate, hate and adoration that he attracts.
His life has been wrapped in media mythmaking on all sides.
This is a challenge to the news world that always has to navigate through the minefields of misinformation, myth and memory. Say something negative, and you can be labeled insensitive to a dying man or, worse, a hater, even an anti-semite. Say something positive, and you can be accused of being blind to what many say are war crimes, some of which he admitted in moments of macho bravado and unexpected candor.
In the White House and among Sharon's many supporters, including today's TV cheerleaders he is viewed as pro-peace moderate who outgrew his reputation as "the Butcher of Beirut" for his role in l982 in the slaughter of Palestinians in Beirut, crimes acknowledged by Israeli investigators on the Kahan Commission who held him "personally responsible."
He is a survivor but not in the Holocaust sense. He has come back from many crises and attacks for everything from persistent excessive brutality to corruption in his family and political campaigns. "As a soldier and a statesman, he was loved and hated, promoted and demoted," waxes Yoel Marcus nostalgically in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "One day he was 'king of Israel' and the next he was 'a danger to the state.' The man who was deemed unfit to be defense minister went on to become the 'father of the nation.'"
But like the character Avner, the Israeli hit-man pictured in Steven Spielberg's Munich, he was more complicated as is the situation in Israel which is so often pictured in our media only as a monolithic nation with a government that represents all of its people and acts on its behalf.
Many in other parts of the world see the United States that same way as if President Bush fully represents our deeply divided nation even as public opinion turns against the war and his policies.
There are many Americas just as there is more than one Israel but our media reduces conflicts there, Bush-like, into a black and white, good guys v bad guys paradigm, as in 'you are either with the terrorists or us.' The TV networks usually only report on the personalities who hold political power paying little attention to who and what they really represent. In Sharon's case, he has been more consistent in his agenda over the years than not.
The media focus on the "Great Men" (and occasionally "Great Women") of politics leads to less reporting on institutions and interests: civil society and even corporate power gets ignored. In the Middle East, that means only rare attention paid to Israeli peace movements and joint Israeli-Palestinian peace projects. A truth that is rarely explained is that Israel, and for that matter Palestinian politics, are fragmented into competing factions and ideological postures. There are more than two sides on both sides.
WHAT IS HIS LEGACY?
So how should Sharon be regarded? As a warlord or a statesman? As a fanatic or visionary leader? Or should we just be silent about his life now that it is at risk?
To listen to Pat Robertson and many on the far right, Sharon sold out his own holy cause. In his view, God struck him down for giving back Gaza, a territory illegally occupied and often terrorized by the Israeli military for decades.
My former colleague, Jeannette Friedman a fervent supporter of Israel who disliked Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza is more generous, writing: "His life and the history and the land of Israel arc intertwined, each having a lasting effect on the other. No matter what side of the fence you are on Labor or Likud, Peace Now or a member of a religious party, Ariel "Arik" Sharon's dedication and love for Israel is unquestioned."
That may be true from a nationalistic perspective, but that is certainly not the way the Arab world and many in Europe -- sees it -and not in small part because of the apartheid-like fence Sharon insisted on building to separate Israel and Palestinians. Why is there constant references by "experts" and pundits to a "peace process" that has, in truth, been stalled if not moving in reverse.?
Critical perspective on Sharon are mostly absent in mainstream media discourse except in the writings of veteran British journalist Robert Fisk who covered the Middle East for a quarter of a century.
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