Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s death, though hardly unexpected after eight years in a coma, unleashed a storm of commentary from around the world, reflecting on his controversial life, inextricably tied to the tumultuous history of his young nation.
His most steadfast supporters believed him to be a brave patriot who took hard decisions to protect Israel, while his harshest detractors saw nothing more or less than a war criminal, in particular for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Others tried to make sense of an apparent late-in-life transformation from controversial military and political hawk to the would-be moderate leader ready to complete the peace process with the Palestinians.
Since his death Saturday at the age of 85, we’ve scanned media sources across the globe, collecting just a sampling of reactions about Sharon’s legacy.
Among Israel media, the consensus seemed to be that Sharon was as divisive a figure as he was influential. Conservative daily tabloid Maariv dedicated seven of its 25 pages to Sharon — most of them commentary — and even published an extra evening edition.
The lead commentary, written by the newspaper’s senior correspondent Shalom Yerushalmi, briefly reviews Sharon’s career as a heroic soldier, a political acrobat who was accused of war crimes, and publicly saved by his unique personal popularity. Yerushalmi characterized him as “ingenious, generous and cruel.”
Similarly, Israel Hayom,a pro-government free daily, and the country’s highest circulation newspaper,dedicated its front page (along with 15 more of its 64 pages) to Sharon, with a headline “Israel bids a farewell salute to a prime minister, an admired warrior — and a divisive leader.”
“Ariel Sharon died the same way he had lived — never usual, never predictable, always defeating any expectation,” wrote the paper’s Dan Margalit. “Historians will calculate if his privileges outweigh his debts. I believe that what he did for Israel’s security prevails over his personal and national injustices.”
The extensive coverage in center-right tabloid daily Yedioth Ahronothtook a more nostalgic, uncritical tone, portray Sharon as a kind of mythical statesman.
At the same time, the editorial in liberal broadsheet Haaretz described Sharon as someone who “personified, more than anyone else, Israeli aggressiveness and bullying,” but changed and became a careful and responsible leader once he was elected prime minister.
“Since Sharon’s departure,” the Haaretz editorial concluded, “Israel has lacked leadership that acknowledges the limits of power, maintains its alliance with the United States, displays political courage in the territories and won’t be deterred by the settlers.”
In a particularly concise column, Channel 2 News senior commentator Amnon Abramovich wrote: “Former prime minister Sharon was a non-ideological leader. But he was a practical and pragmatic leader, like his late predecessors Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin.”
It was Abramovich who, ahead of Sharon’s pullout from the Gaza Strip, called on journalists to avoid challenging the then-prime minister, despite corruption allegations that began emerging against him.
With Sharon’s death, it seems the Israeli media has largely internalized this approach.
It was unlikely anyone in official Iranian circles was upset by Ariel Sharon’s death, given the country’s vocal, oft-repeated execration of Israel and its sympathies for the Palestinian cause.
The government-run newspaperIran seemed to make efforts to keep the tone of its “obituary” as factual as possible. Sharon “attacked” the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982, it stated, provoking a “calamitous massacre” condemned by the entire world. The massacre was the work of Lebanese militiamen allied then with Israel, though certainly Sharon, who led Israel’s invasion of Lebanon then, could have stopped it.
The official IRNA news agency reported how the “murderer’s death” provoked jubilation among Palestinians living in the two camps, who had been “counting the moments” until this day.
The conservative Fars news agency observed that while Western governments and personalities sent their condolences to Israel, “even” they had “no words of praise” for Sharon. U.S President Barack Obama’s statements “were no exception,” it added, as he largely just described Sharon as someone who had devoted himself to Israel.
An editorial in the reformist Shargh newspaper recalled Sharon’s interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who had asked him if he believed in God after showing him pictures of murdered children in Sabra and Shatila. The victims of the tragedy “have already judged him,” the columnist wrote, but “perhaps the best judgement is if we say, Mr. Sharon, we know all about your wars but nothing about what you believed. Did you believe in God?”
Another Shargh columnist observed that people would remember Sharon’s “arrogance,” an “infuriating manner” Sharon bequeathed to his successor Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon’s diplomatic legacy, the columnist added, was to “take refuge” in “the policy of demonizing Iran” to make Israel “seem a victim,” even as it built West Bank settlements.
The conservative daily Jomhuri-e Eslami kept its coverage factual, citing reports from the Fars news agency and referring to Sharon as the “butcher of Sabra and Shatila,” in quote marks. It did not devote any commentary to the subject, preferring to dedicate its editorial to the increasing lack of cooperation between Iran’s conservative parliament and the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
The hardlineKayhan newspaper reported that Sharon had “gone to hell” from his hospital bed. Sharon, it said, “was considered one of the worst Israeli rulers.”
“Can leaders like Sharon, whose special talents flourish only in periods of instability and war, have a vision of peace?” Shehadeh wrote. “During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Sharon proved a master at breaking ceasefires that the United States and others brokered. He used these same skills in his fight against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The pattern of Israeli assassinations and invasions of Palestinian territories suggests that whenever Sharon felt cornered into making a political concession for peace, his government would take an action that was bound to provoke Hamas or other militant Palestinian groups, thus ensuring the premature demise of any efforts at a political resolution to the conflict.”
One Tunisian journalist took to Twitter and no doubt reflected the thoughts of many others with this comment reacting to Sharon’s death: “The coma lasted for eight years, as he, in his state, clung to the fraying rope of life; today Sharon has departed, leaving behind him other Sharons. #death of Sharon.”
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— tounsiahourra (@tounsiahourra) January 11, 2014
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Fromthe Gulf states came this scathing cartoon posted on Twitter of Sharon standing over the population (and children) of Gaza. “You spilled blood without restraint,” it reads.
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American coverage of Sharon’s death was generally balanced, at least in the news pages, as illustrated by The New York Times headline, “Praise and Criticism as Sharon’s Body Lies in State.”
But political activists and opinion writers were prolific. “It’s a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatila and other abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer.”
Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg asserted that Sharon never changed, though he had tried to make people believe he had.
“What changed was not his heart, not his life’s aim, but his understanding of reality,” Goldberg wrote. “In his heart, he understood Israel’s enemies to be implacable. His objective was unaltered: to defend the existence of the Jewish state by any means necessary. For many years, he believed that the existence of the Jewish state was dependent on the occupation of Gaza. But he then ‘occupation’ of Gaza was undermining Israel’s democracy, international standing and security. And so he left. He left Gaza for the same reason he invaded Lebanon: He thought it would make Israel safer.”
Spain's El País called Ariel Sharon the “fierce general who became a pragmatist,” citing his military-style comment that the situation looked different “from where he stood.” It added that this perspective assured him years of misunderstanding and hostility from critics, first from the Left when Sharon was an Israeli general, then from the Israeli Right when he took such pragmatic decisions as evacuating Gaza.
Yet such changing postures, it added, made Sharon’s an “intrinsically Israeli” story —not unlike that of his predecessor Menachem Begin, the militant who signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1977.
Radio France Internationale observed that after a lifetime as “leader” of the Israeli Right, Sharon’s more pragmatist legacy was apparently fading, as “many Israelis have today turned their back on the ‘Sharonian’ idea that Israel needs to make unilateral retreats from certain territories to avoid having this imposed on it in future negotiations.” The broadcaster suggested that his political heirs, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert seemed headed for oblivion.
France’s Le Figarocharacterized him as Israel’s “most controversial man” and “the only Israeli politician who managed simultaneously to become the bête noire of the Palestinians, the settlers, hardliners on the Israeli Right and the liberal Left. A paradox that resumes this personality’s multiple facets.”
There was less reaction in Latin American media, though newspapers such as Chile's El Mercurio and Mexico’s La Jornada reported straightforwardly about Sharon’s death and the ensuing public ceremonies in Israel.
On websites where readers could react, however — El Mercurio's, for example — comments left no doubt that Sharon provoked strong feelings, even on the other side of the world.
*With contributions from Ido Liven, Ahmad Shayegan, Laura Thompson, and other Worldcrunch staff.