Israel: End of Sharon era brings regional instability

Military hard-man remade as “peacemaker”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke and brain haemorrhage on 4 January has brought widespread political instability to Israel. It is likely to completely change the nature of the Israeli general election due on 28 March and will have repercussions throughout the Middle East.

But this latest development has only been one of a series which has seen Israel and Palestine travelling a roller coaster of political events over the last few months.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has witnessed growing political chaos as the planned end-of-January general elections draw closer. The PA, made up of the leaders of the Fatah organisation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is almost powerless, its politicians regarded as corrupt and weak. By contrast, the Islamic Hamas, made sweeping local electoral gains throughout the year. Frictions within Fatah and between it and split-away militias have led to serious armed clashes in the southern part of the Gaza strip in the last few weeks. Here a nascent civil war already exists. It seems as if Abbas, President of the PA, may move to postpone the elections and instead put in place an “emergency” government with the participation of Hamas.

Society teeters on the edge of complete disintegration as a result of the combined effect of years of corrupt leadership by the PA and decades of occupation and oppression at the hands of the Israeli Defence forces. Despite the withdrawal of settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protected them from the Gaza strip in August, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) continues to bombard the area.

In recent years, pressure has built up on the Israeli ruling class from different quarters. It has come from US imperialism, the impossibility of crushing the Palestinians militarily and from the social instability caused within the Israeli Jewish population by the IDF occupation of Palestinian territory. Another important factor is a demographic one – the Palestinian population is growing faster than the Israeli Jewish one and as a result will overtake it in the area covered by Israel and the PA. This has led Sharon and the majority of the Israeli ruling class to change their historic position on the building of a Greater Israel (involving the annexation of the Gaza strip and West Bank).

US imperialism, despite the disaster they have created in Iraq, is desperate to make the region more stable so that its strategic interests are protected. It has withdrawn its opposition to the building of the Separation Wall and accepted that the major Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank will remain. However the Bush administration has pressed for some appearance of concessions from above to attempt to prevent an explosion from below.

Despite this, Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza has not alleviated the poverty and oppression of the Palestinian masses. What has never been on offer from this so-called “peacemaker” is genuine national liberation and statehood for the Palestinian people.

Israel’s De Gaulle

Sharon has been portrayed as an Israeli De Gaulle, the military hard-liner and French President who withdrew from French Occupied Algeria, after a vicious attempt to crush the mass struggle for national liberation against their colonial occupier.

However, the Gaza withdrawal has been used as camouflage for stepping up the oppression of the Palestinians in other areas. At the same time the Sharon government speeded up the building of the 620 km long Separation Wall surrounding and dividing the West Bank. This wall has isolated 242 000 Palestinians or ten percent of the population, in the closed military zone between Israel’s border and the western side of the wall. Thousands more hectares of Palestinian land have been confiscated. In the month following the Gaza withdrawal, the IDF carried out 30 assassinations and 1000 raids in the West Bank. While 8 500 settlers were moved out of Gaza, room was made for 30 000 more in the West Bank. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of Sharon’s advisers Dov Weisglass said the Gaza Disengagement plan was to freeze or put in “formaldehyde”, US president Bush’s “road map” plan for “peace”.

Political earthquake

Sharon’s authority was strengthened nationally and internationally by the withdrawal from Gaza. However, this “diplomatic triumph” was overshadowed by a major political earthquake which rocked the country in November: Amir Peretz, leader of the Histadruth trade union federation, won the contest for Labour Party leader. Peretz narrowly defeated Shimon Perez, the favourite, and one of the dinosaurs of the Israeli political elite. Peretz is the first Sephardic Jew from a working class background ever to win such high office in the Labour Party. He won on the basis of a campaign of extremely radical rhetoric by Israeli standards, promising major increases in the minimum wage and the introduction of a universal state pension.

These events, and the change in tactics by the ruling class, influenced the decision by Sharon to set off what was known as the “big bang” in Israeli politics. He resigned as leader of the right-wing Likud, created a new political party called Kadima (Forward) which attracted MP’s from other parties, and called new elections for the end of March. Opinion polls predicted that Sharon would win the elections comfortably.

Over the last few weeks Sharon had hinted that if he won the elections a further unilateral withdrawal from more isolated Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank would take place, leading to a final imposed settlement on the Palestinians. Up to now Sharon has never been willing to give up control of Jerusalem. Yet recent opinion polls have shown that a majority of Israelis would be prepared to make concessions on this issue, if this led to a lasting peace settlement.

But all this has changed. Sharon has suffered severe brain damage. It is unclear how long he will live, having already suffered a minor stroke on 18 December. But what is clear is that his political career is over. Commentators and capitalist and imperialist politicians the world over have showered him with wishes for a speedy recovery but this is done in the tones of the funeral parlour. Most of all they have praised his role as a “peacemaker” while the Israeli media have painted him as a war hero.

But what has been the actual record of Sharon as a political and military leader? What are the possible developments in Israel as a result of his removal from the political scene?

Sharon’s record

Even the briefest look at his role shows that far from being a “peacemaker”, Ariel Sharon comes from the most reactionary section of the Israeli ruling class, always proposing the most brutal military tactics to achieve his gains and personally being responsible for what have been described as war crimes in the pursuit of his goals. His tactics when in power have led to war and conflict. He is notorious for being prepared to lie in order to achieve his goals. Ben Gurion, Israel’s famous first Prime Minister said of Sharon: “If he could overcome his bad habit of not telling the truth, he could be an exemplary military leader”.

Over more recent years there have been recurring rumours of his involvement in corruption scandals. In fact the day before his stroke, Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily, carried with a front page article which incriminated him in $3 million worth of bribes in previous Likud primaries. All this has been forgotten and instead the Israeli press is filled with pages glorifying Sharon’s military and political career.

But in fact from his youth, he, like many others in the Israeli ruling class advocated military might as a response to all opposition by the Palestinian and Arab masses.

At the age of 14 Sharon joined the Haganah (the underground Jewish militia which operated at the time of the British occupation of Palestine) and became a platoon commander of the IDF during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. His rise in the Israeli military continued and by 1953 he was made commander of the new elite Unit 101, responsible for undercover and retaliatory actions against the Palestinians. Later on in that year he was responsible for attacking the Palestinian village of Qibiya, in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli Jewish woman and two children. His unit blew up 45 houses and killed 69 Palestinian civilians, over half of them women and children.

During the 1956 Israeli – Arab war over the Suez Canal, Sharon commanded a different unit. Years later rumours began to circulate that troops under his command were ordered to execute 270 Arab prisoners of war (including Sudanese civilian road workers) in three separate incidents. One of the soldiers involved in these actions commented “Six survived the initial bursts of gunfire…they later went to sleep with the rest. Blood was coming out of every hole in the flatbed truck and in huge quantities.”

In 1969 Sharon was made head of the Southern Command of the IDF which had responsibility for the newly occupied Gaza Strip. He once again achieved notoriety for his brutality towards Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In August 1971, troops under his command were responsible for the demolition of 2000 homes and the driving out of 12 000 Palestinians in an area that ironically was called “Wreckage Street”.

Sharon’s military career helped his election to the Knesset for the first time in 1973, the same year in which he helped found the right-wing reactionary Likud party. It was only following the Yom Kippur 1973 Israeli-Arab war that Sharon achieved high political office. In 1981 Menachem Begin, the Likud leader, appointed him as Defence Minister. Begin won his second election just prior to this, partially on the basis of war propaganda following the Israeli Air Force raids on Iraq to destroy their nuclear facilities.

Both Begin and Sharon wanted to destroy the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon, crush Syrian influence and install a right-wing Christian Maronite Lebanese Forces administration there. Another aim was to provoke a mass expulsion of Palestinians into Jordan from the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. They hoped this would lead to the setting up of a “Palestinian state” in Jordan, thus making it easier for the Israeli state to annex the territory it had occupied in the 1967 war.

On June 3 1982 the Israeli ambassador to Britain was assassinated by members of the Abu-Nidal Palestinian organisation who at the time were condemned by Western imperialism for “terrorist” activity. Abu-Nidal was a big opponent of the PLO leadership. Yet Sharon proposed an invasion of Lebanon to crush the PLO three days later in retaliation for the assassination. Sharon in launching Operation Peace for Galilee, promised that the IDF would not go more than 40 kilometres into Lebanese territory.

This was laughable since in the months previous he had presented the same plan to the Israeli cabinet but its final aim was the occupation of Beirut and the installation of a regime headed by Gemayel’s Lebanese Forces. From July to August 29 500 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were either killed or wounded, 40% of them children. During the Lebanese invasion it is rumoured that Sharon attempted to persuade Begin to give him control of the codes for Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Sabra and Shatilla massacre

Following the assassination of Gemayel, Sharon encouraged sections of the Phalange militia to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla on 16 September 1982. The Phalange butchered somewhere in the region of 3000 men, women and children under the eyes of Israeli soldiers. The response to this massacre was the biggest ever anti-war demonstration in Israeli history with over 400 000 marching through Tel Aviv. An Israeli government commission found Sharon “personally responsible” for the massacre and he was forced to resign as Defence Minister.

However, he continued to serve in more Israeli cabinets and championed the cause of the right-wing Jewish settlers who wanted to expand the settlements in the Occupied territories. In a speech to members of the extreme right Tsomet party in 1998, Sharon is reported to have said “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours…Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”

These are just some of the instances where Sharon supported and implemented the views of the most reactionary sections of the Israeli ruling class. But there are many more: he voted against a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979; he opposed the Oslo agreement; and he condemned the way in which the IDF retreated from south Lebanon in 2000. Sharon’s highly controversial visit to the Al-Haram Ash-Sharif/ Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem acted as the catalyst for the beginning of the Second Intifada. Some commentators have said that Sharon planned this visit to ensure there was an uprising, giving the government the excuse to reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza.

Since then the impossibility of crushing the will of an entire people struggling for national liberation, has been brought home to the Israeli ruling class. The withdrawal from Gaza was one of the results.

But now the plans of the Israeli ruling class are frozen as a vacuum opens up in capitalist politics. Sharon has been portrayed as a “wonderful peacemaker” in order to whip up national unity and try to prevent damaging divisions during this precarious time for the ruling class. The fact that Sharon’s illness can evoke such fears is an indicator of the extreme tension within the region.

This is why Olmert, Sharon’s right-hand man, took over as interim Prime Minister so quickly and also why there is such pressure for Kadima to choose a new leader.

Despite previous predictions that Kadima would sweep the board with 42 seats in the March general election, it is still a party yet to be formed. Israeli capitalist politics is by nature one where individuals play a major role. However in the case of Kadima, this is taken to extremes. In the regulations agreed to by the 14 Kadima MPs, Sharon is given sole authority to decide who will be in which positions in the list of candidates to be put forward in the elections. Up until Sharon’s stroke it was clear that there would be no leadership elections in the party. Many of the Israeli politicians who have come over to Kadima did so because of their view of his ability to deliver an election victory and their seats in Parliament!

It seems for the moment that Kadima is maintaining its poll standing. But even leading Kadima figures are concerned that the party could tear itself to pieces in the process of choosing candidates and places for its list. Most are resigned to the fact that the party will lose at least some of its support. It is clear there are worries that if one well-known figure leaves the party, it could start a stampede of others wanting to save their political skins by returning to the parties they came from. One senior leader said “Should, heaven forfend, Peres lead Kadima, everything will fall apart immediately. We must choose Olmert in no more than a week, rally around him, choose an inner circle of five or six, and erase any signs of internal strife or disputes over places," (Haaretz, 5 January 2006).

Other parties could gain from these difficulties. Benjamin Netanyahu, the new leader of Likud may benefit. However, he is deeply unpopular because of the vicious neoliberal policies he has implemented over the last few years as Likud Finance minister.

The situation could open up for Peretz once again. While there was huge publicity and optimism when Peretz first won Labour’s leadership election, the setting up of Kadima stole the media show. Peretz’s toning down of his radical rhetoric after his election also lead to a fall in his support. Before Sharon’s stroke Peretz stood to only gain 18 seats (down from a high of 31 when he was first elected, and also three less than Labour has now). It is possible that these figures could increase if Kadima starts tearing itself to pieces in an ungainly scramble for list positions.

What is desperately needed on both sides of the national divide is a movement and leadership which represents the genuine interests of the working class, both Palestinian and Israeli. Such formations would have to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by democratic socialism. Sharon’s record demonstrates all that is on offer by capitalism in the Middle East today: bloodshed, brutality and war. A struggle for socialism would, by comparison, provide the conditions for peaceful co-existent and harmony.

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January 2006