By Charles Moore, November 26, 2005.
Sometimes Private Eye runs a spoof “Apology – printed in all newspapers”,
which says something like: “We used to say that X was a disgusting, brutal pig,
unworthy to hold public office. We now recognise that X is a living saint.” Such
a volte-face has just taken place about Ariel Sharon.
If you had followed the British media, particularly the BBC, with average
attention over the past 25 years, you would have concluded that Sharon was
an intransigent, murderous, semi-fascist.
So you would have been perplexed by his sudden announcement this
week that he is to leave the “Right-wing” (favoured Western terminology) Likud
party and form a “centrist” party of his own. Suddenly, Sharon becomes
visionary, peace-seeking. Little would have prepared you for it.
And that is the trouble. Little prepares the post-Christian European audience to
understand Israel. By “understand”, I partly mean sympathise with, and partly,
Sharon’s career is a good place to start, because it spans the history of the
Jewish state. He was 20 when it began in 1948, and had been serving in the
Jewish Haganah militia since the age of 14.
He fought in the War of Independence, and in 1956, and in the Six-Day
War of 1967, and in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when he crossed the Suez
Canal and, effectively disobeying orders, advanced to cut the supply lines of
the Egyptian Third Army. He became a popular hero.
Then Sharon entered full-time politics. As defence minister, he masterminded
the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which succeeded in breaking up the
PLO infrastructure there.
On his watch, Lebanese Christian Falangists entered the Sabra and
Chatila Palestinian refugee camps. There they massacred several hundred
people: Sharon was officially condemned for this, and forced to resign.
He bounced back, however. As housing minister, he built settlements. Later he
was foreign minister, then leader of Likud. In 2001, he became prime minister,
swept to power by fear of the new intifada.
He ordered the assassination of many Palestinian terrorists. He began the
security wall that divides Israel from much of the West Bank. He also ordered
Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip, the first unilateral withdrawal it has
ever made. And soon he will contest elections as leader of a party he has just invented.
If one stands back from the moral argument that rages round Israel, and just
looks at this as a story, it reminds one intensely of that of ancient Israel’s
enemy, the Roman republic. An austere nation builds its power in the face of
It does so by great feats of arms, and so its soldiers often become its
political leaders. The commitment those leaders must give to the nation is
absolute, lifelong, life-threatening. The deeds done in the nation’s defence are
frequently brave, sometimes appalling. Some would see Sharon as Milosevic,
but might he not be Caesar?
But there’s also an important difference from Rome: the purpose of victory has
been more about security than conquest for its own sake. Israeli politics for the
past dozen years has been the attempt to reconcile extrication from territory
with security. That is what Sharon thinks about all the time, as did his Labour
predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
In the history of the West, such a narrative used to command fascination and
respect. Many could apply it to their own people. British people whose convict
cousins had built Australia out of their barren exile could understand; so could
Americans, who had overcome hostile terrain and hostile inhabitants, and
forged a mighty nation.
So could any country formed in adversity, particularly, perhaps, a
Protestant one – with its idea of divinely supported national destiny and its
natural sympathy for the people first chosen by God. The sympathy was made
stronger by the fact that the new state was robust in its legal and political
institutions, free in its press and universities – a noisy democracy.
Anti-imperialists and the Left also found much to admire. They admired people
whose pioneer spirit kept them equal, who often lived communally, who fled
the persecution of old societies to build simpler, better ones.
If you read Bernard Donoughue’s diaries, just published, of his life as an
adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1970s (a much better picture of what prime
ministers are like than Sir Christopher Meyer’s self-regarding effort), one
difference between then and now that hits you hard is Donoughue’s (and
Wilson’s) firm belief that the cause of Israel is the cause of people who wish to
be free, and that its enemies are the old, repressive establishments.
As a boy, I loved this narrative. I cheered as Israeli courage swept away the
outnumbering Arabs who tried to destroy it again and again. I bought books
about the Six-Day War, many of which carried pictures of glamorous female
But then a different narrative supervened. People called “the Palestinians”
began to be mentioned. Once upon a time, the word “Palestinian” had no
national meaning; it was simply the description on any passport of a person
living in British-mandated Palestine.
During the 19 years to 1967 when Jordan governed the West Bank, the
people there had no self-rule, and no real name. UN Resolution 242, which calls
for Israel to leave territories it occupied in 1967, does not mention Palestinians;
it speaks only of “Arab refugees”.
Palestinian nationality came along, as it were, after the fact, a nationality
largely based on grievance. Since then, the story has grown and grown. Israel,
which was attacked, has come to be seen as the aggressor.
Israel, which has elections that throw governments out and independent
commissions that investigate people like Sharon and condemn him, became
regarded as the oppressive monster. In a rhetoric that tried to play back upon
Jews their own experience of suffering, supporters of the Palestinian cause
began to call Israelis Nazis. Holocaust Memorial Day is disapproved of by many
Muslims because it ignores the supposedly comparable “genocide” of the
Western children of the Sixties like this sort of talk. They look for a narrative
based on the American civil rights movement or the struggle against apartheid.
They care little for economic achievement or political pluralism. They are
suspicious of any society with a Western appearance, and in any contest
between people with differing skin colours, they prefer the darker.
They buy into the idea, now promoted by all Arab regimes and by
Muslim firebrands with a permanent interest in deflecting attention from their
own societies’ problems, that Israel is the greatest problem of all.
Well, some will say, that is the way it is: Israel has abused power, and is
reaping the whirlwind. I don’t want to argue today about the rights and wrongs
of Israel’s actions, though I think, given its difficulties, it stands up better than
most before the bar of history.
All I want to ask my fellow Europeans is this: are you happy to help direct the
world’s fury at the only country in the Middle East whose civilisation even
remotely resembles yours? And are you sure that the fate of Israel has no
bearing on your own?
In Iran, the new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes the link. The battle
over Palestine, he says, is “the prelude of the battle of Islam with the world of
arrogance”, the world of the West. He is busy building his country’s nuclear bomb.