The Whitewashing of Ariel Sharon

By Yousef Munayyer

It was inevitable, I suppose. The legacy of Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli Prime Minister who died recently after years in a coma, was the subject of much debate and conversation in the Israel/Palestine discourse this week. Some mainstream American media outlets did a particularly poor job, however, in characterizing the life of the man.

My thoughts on Ariel Sharon, for those who might not have already guessed, are here. It is fair to say that in general, Palestinians view Ariel Sharon negatively and, frankly, as a war criminal. But it would be unfair to say that only Palestinians view him in this way, as if Ariel Sharon’s legacy was just some other endless point of debate between irreconcilable Israeli and Palestinian narratives. In fact, anyone characterizing points of debate in this way is probably just to afraid to take an objective stance.

In reality, those authoring critical pieces of Sharon’s legacy have come from a variety of different backgrounds. The New Yorker carried a post by Raja Shahada and another by Bernard Avishai. Max Blumenthal’s piece in the Nation was also stellar, as was Rashid Khalidi’s piece for Foreign Policy andDaniel Levy’s piece for Al Jazeera America. Sara Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch made an important contribution as well. There were many more that got it right. The bottom line is Sharon was responsible for some pretty heinous things in his life that included massacres of civilians and the massacre of the peace process through settlement expansion.

Unfortunately, many others failed to get the story right and among them are some of the most mainstream outlets for what is considered serious conversation in the United States. Two particularly egregious examples are The New York Times and The Charlie Rose Show.

The New York Times ran an obituary on Ariel Sharon and a number of opinion pieces all by Israelis (as of now I am not aware that they have run a Palestinian voice on Sharon). Here are a few key gems from the obituary and some notes:

“he stunned Israel and the world in 2005 with a Nixon-to-China reversal and withdrew all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. He then abandoned his Likud Party and formed a centrist movement called Kadima focused on further territorial withdrawal and a Palestinian state next door.” 

The problem with this narrative is that there is no objective evidence proving that Sharon’s intention with the unilateral disengagement of Gaza was benevolent. We do however, thanks to the very same New York Times, have this tidbit that Mr. Bronner chose not to include in his obituary from Mr. Sharon’s key aide:

”The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process,” Mr. Weisglass was quoted as saying in Haaretz, a liberal daily often critical of Mr. Sharon’s government. ”It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians.”  

 ”When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Mr. Weisglass added. ”Effectively, this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.”

Why wouldn’t Bronner include that? Also, there is that other inconvenient truth for Bronner’s narrative. Sharon was perhaps the most pro-colonization Israeli leader ever. I am not only talking about the 1970s and 1980s but all the way through Sharon’s premiership. He presided over the single largest period of expansion in the Israeli settler population, some 75,000, since the Menachem Begin era. That bit of info also didn’t make it into Bronner’s obit. Of course, if it did, it would be hard to reconcile with the unsubstantiated claim that Sharon intended to leave the West Bank to create a Palestinian state.  It gets worse in the obit (emphasis added):

 “The massacre provoked international outrage, and many Israelis, already despondent that the “48-hour” Lebanon incursion had turned into a lengthy military and geopolitical adventure, were outraged. There were furious calls for Mr. Sharon’s resignation. 

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Begin said this was intolerable slander. As Mr. Begin said, using the Hebrew word for non-Jews, “Goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews.” Nonetheless, even Mr. Begin started to distance himself from Mr. Sharon, whose political demise began to seem inevitable. 

The government established an official investigation of the massacre, led by Israel’s chief justice, Yitzhak Kahan. The investigating committee absolved Mr. Sharon of direct responsibility, but said he should have anticipated that sending enraged militiamen of the Phalange into Palestinian neighborhoods right after the assassination of the group’s leader amounted to an invitation to carnage. The committee recommended his resignation. 

Time magazine reported that Mr. Sharon had actually urged the Gemayel family to have its troops take revenge on the Palestinians for the death of Mr. Gemayel. The magazine said Mr. Sharon made this point during his condolence visit to the family. It claimed further that a secret appendix to the Kahan Commission report made this clear. 

Mr. Sharon sued Time for libel and won a partial victory in Federal District Court in New York. The court found that the secret appendix, which contained names of Israeli intelligence officers, included no assertion by Mr. Sharon of the need for Phalangist revenge. But it ruled that Mr. Sharon had not been libeled because he could not prove “malice” on the magazine’s part.” 

Bronner tells us about Sabra and Shatila toward the very end of a 4,000+ word piece. He presents it in a way where the facts, and Sharon’s role in the events are disputed. He sets up a dichotomy between an official Israeli Government investigation and a US libel lawsuit, as if those two could ever be on equal standing as authorities on actions taken by the Israeli military. He also says that “the investigating committee absolved Mr. Sharon of direct responsibility”, which is very odd since the actual committee’s report says (emphasis added):

We have found, as has been detailed in this report, that the Minister of Defense [Sharon] bears personal responsibility. In our opinion, it is fitting that the Minister of Defense draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office – and if necessary, that the Prime Minister consider whether he should exercise his authority under Section 21-A(a) of the Basic Law: the Government, according to which “the Prime Minister may, after informing the Cabinet of his intention to do so, remove a minister from office.

Why does Bronner tell us that the committee report says one thing when it fact it said the opposite? The entire treatment of Ariel Sharon’s history of war crimes in his obituary in the New York Times is poorly done, to say the least, and there are several signs suggesting that the reporter intentionally downplays Sharon’s war crimes.

It is important to remember that many questions have been raised about Bronner’s objectivity, in part because his son was serving in the Israeli military as he was reporting about it. That and the public editor of the New York Times saw fit to argue that this conflict of interest should have led editors to take Bronner off the Israel beat. Why editors today saw fit to have him write the obituary is another question all together.

Still another question is what is going through the minds of the bookers and producers at the Charlie Rose show when they were putting together their “appreciation of Ariel Sharon“? Of course, who does Charlie Rose have on to discuss Sharon’s legacy? Ethan Bronner. Who else? Jeffrey Goldberg, the journalist who left for Israel after college in the US to volunteer in the Israeli military as a prison guard during the first intifada.

Is there no one out there without connections to the Israeli military, the very same military that Ariel Sharon committed war crimes while working for, that can objectively discuss the man’s legacy? ANYONE?

The discussion that ensues is everything you’d expect and less. Our helpful interns have transcribed the segment from last night.

Goldberg calls Sharon “Israel’s greatest warrior hero” , “the sort of tank commander that any Prime Minister would want to have in his corner at a really stressful moment”, “the greatest reckless general Israel had” , “the boldest” , “he was all energy and that energy was always moved forward” , “he wanted to make sure that you were comfortable, that you were happy” . Then, and this is the kicker,in the rare moment of describing Sharon’s barbarism, Goldberg descends into some orientalist drivel. “Ariel Sharon was very Middle Eastern” Goldberg said as he likened the trait of ruthlessness to region, “and I don’t mean that in sort of an enlightened way. “

Yeah, no kidding.

Bronner, for his part, calls Sharon “ruthlessly pragmatic” , “Charming certainly, but a difficult guy who wanted to do it his way” and “a funny guy”.

Funny? I’m sure the victims at Sabra and Shatila didn’t find him funny. Of course Sabra and Shatila was not mentioned at all in the discussion around Charlie Rose’s table. And, even though Bronner mentioned Sharon’s involvement in the Commando Unit 101, whose members he described as “very bright, very capable young people doing these very daring acts” , he never mentions Sharon’s likely earliest war crime as a leader of that unit, the massacre at Qibya. After the Goldberg & Bronner Sharon love fest, the rest of the show featured old interviews with Sharon himself.

What kind of war criminals get this lionizing treatment? The kind, it seems, that get away with it.


Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.