Former prime minister Ariel Sharon had been comatose for eight years before he died Saturday, but world leaders seized the opportunity to eulogize the late leader to send a not-so-subtle message to current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Just as Arik, the “father of the settlement movement,” turned a new leaf and withdrew from Jewish settlements, so can you — or so you must, they seemed to say.
Reading through the various statements made by presidents and prime ministers in the aftermath of Sharon’s death, one could get the impression that Sharon, in his 32 years in the Knesset and two terms as prime minister, did nothing but remove settlers from Palestinian territories in the pursuit of peace. Only statements coming from the Arab world — and Iran — focused on Sharon’s earlier days, when he was not yet the champion of the two-state solution, but rather a tough military man and later a political hawk. (And that of Human Rights Watch, which lamented that he “died without facing justice” for the 1982 “massacres” in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon and the “war crime” of expanding Israeli settlements.)
Western politicians, with almost no exception, looked only at Sharon’s life after he broke away from Likud and created the centrist Kadima party in late 2005, soon after he had overseen the dismantling of the Gaza settlements and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for instance, focused his statement on the one action that the world appears to want to remember about Ariel Sharon: the “painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.” Sharon’s successor, Ban continued, without naming any names, now “faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. The Secretary-General calls on Israel to build on the late Prime Minister’s legacy of pragmatism to work towards the long overdue achievement of an independent and viable Palestinian state, next to a secure Israel.”
A statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry also came off as less a personal tribute to Sharon and more a plea addressed to Netanyahu, imploring him to muster the courage to make the concessions necessary for the peace process to advance.
Kerry called Sharon a “big bear of a man,” who, after he became prime minister, “sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process.”
“He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace,” Kerry said of Sharon.
Tough decisions and difficult choices — that’s exactly what Kerry is asking of Netanyahu (and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, conspicuously silent in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s passing). “We are now at a point where the choices narrow down and the choices are obviously real and difficult,” Kerry said on January 5, during his last visit in Jerusalem. As he prepared to present the two sides with a “framework agreement,” a position paper trying to help the two sides find some common ground, it was becoming “much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are and what the options are with respect to those choices,” he said.
The Kerry message to Netanyahu in his statement on Sharon could not have been clearer, or more similar to his recent peace-related remarks. Sharon “surprised many in his pursuit of peace,” Kerry stated, “and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger.”
Exactly 10 days ago, speaking at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Kerry had said: “We know that Israel has to be strong to make peace. And we also know that peace will make Israel stronger not just with its near neighbors, but throughout the world.”
Other world leaders also used the opportunity of eulogizing Sharon to talk about Netanyahu — or rather, talk to Netanyahu.
In a rather formulaic statement, US President Barack Obama paid tribute to a leader “who dedicated his life to the State of Israel,” and then went on to reaffirm America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. “We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s implied message to Israel’s current prime minister was blunt, as he praised Sharon as a leader who “took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, through a spokesman, applauded Sharon’s “courageous decision” to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip, during the Disengagement, a “historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.”
Netanyahu is 21 years younger than Sharon and in good health. But as world leaders chorused their warm praise for a former Likud hawk who turned into a champion of the two-state solution, willing to take on the settlers, they were plainly hoping the prime ministerial incumbent, too, will want to be remembered this way.