The cautious condolences for Ariel Sharon
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
January 11, 2014 11:30 AM EST
Faced with the intense difficulty of what to say about Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who died early Saturday after eight years in a coma, President Barack Obama didn’t say much.
The statement from Obama — who never met Sharon, and wasn’t yet even running for president when he fell into a coma, mentioned nothing about the Israeli leader’s own complicated history with war and peace, remarking only in sending “our deepest condolences” that he was a leader who “dedicated his life to the State of Israel.”
In diplomacy, there’s no such thing as a simple eulogy. For some, it’s a lot easier — not a lot of people struggled over what to say about Nelson Mandela last month, for example. But Sharon is a different case.
The U.S. has been drawn more into the Middle East in recent months due to negotiations over Syria and Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the general stance the government has toward the Arab world. That means every word could reverberate much longer and much farther than the next few days.
Obama’s statement looked forward, without Sharon.
“We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples,” Obama said. “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. As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”
Key audiences among Americans, Israelis and Palestinians are watching carefully how Obama and other leaders grapple with it over the next few days. A military funeral for Sharon is planned for Monday afternoon, following a state memorial service held at the Knesset.
Vice President Joe Biden released a statement with his own condolences, saying he’ll lead the American delegation to the memorial service. Secretary of State John Kerry is also expected to attend.
There was also Israeli politics to deal with, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu, who since returning as Israel’s prime minister in 2008 has often been seen as sensitive about comparisons to his old rival. With Kerry in the next few weeks preparing to deliver a peace “framework” he’s been haggling over for almost a year with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, the American approach to Sharon could matter to Netanyahu, and thus the fledgling peace efforts most of all.
Sharon’s the man who was the great Israeli military hero, the defense minister forced to resign, the Israeli prime minister whose return many despised and later embraced. The last, along with Israeli President Shimon Peres, of the founding generation of Israeli politicians, there at the creation of the state in 1948 and throughout the 65 years since.
He’s the man who’ll forever be associated in the minds of many Palestinians, as well as Israelis and Americans, with the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, which left, by some counts, 3,500 civilians dead. He’s also the man who 20 years later surprised many by making the most substantial steps toward peace since Yitzhak Rabin, including withdrawing from Gaza in 2005. He’s a man who embodied a swaggering Jewish nationalism more than even most Israelis, yet he’s also a man who struck many as more sensitive than most to the idea of equal political rights for Arabs.
Behind every American politician’s statement that comes out over the course of the day—from the White House on down to individual members of Congress — is likely a lot of hemming and hawing over what to say, what not to say, and how to say any of it.
Whatever is said in statements or afterward about Sharon has to be “tactful about using words like ‘bold’ and ‘courageous,’ so that nobody gets the feeling that this is a too-clever-by-half insinuation that we wish he were here today,” said Washington Institute for Near East Studies senior fellow David Pollock. “If they really want to thread the needle, they might say, ‘this was a man who went through some major changes in his lifetime and he became a man of peace — he wasn’t always that, but that was implied.”
Kerry’s statement was much longer than Obama’s, and deeper, reflecting on a relationship that started when he met Sharon as a young lawyer in Boston to talking with “this big bear of a man.” The United States had differences with Sharon, but despite those, Kerry said “you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish State.”
“In his final years as Prime Minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger,” Kerry said. “We honor Arik’s legacy and those of Israel’s founding generation by working to achieve that goal.”
Neither the White House nor the State Department immediately rushed statements out Saturday morning while waiting for the official Israeli government announcement.
Some arrived earlier, including from former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a joint statement on Sharon “honoring his memory and offering our condolences.”
“Ariel Sharon gave his life to Israel — to bring it into being, to sustain and preserve it, and at the end of his long service, to create a new political party committed to both a just peace and lasting security,” the statement read. “It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country.”
Back during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, Sharon worked for him, eventually as his foreign minister. When Netanyahu began staging his return after a 1999 defeat at the polls, Sharon was also looking to complete his own political resurgence with a turn as prime minister, and ultimately beat out Netanyahu, who eventually became one of his ministers.
Netanyahu quit the government over the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and not long after, Sharon quit his own political party, abandoning the right-wing Likud that he’d been part of for decades to start a new one — Kadima, which translates to “forward.” When Sharon collapsed, they were preparing to run against each other as open rivals, and Sharon was expected to win more seats in the Israeli Knesset but have to deal with internal opposition from Netanyahu.
In his statement, Netanyahu said, “the State of Israel bows its head over the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon,” adding, “His memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation.”
At the same time, the hatred for Sharon among Palestinians hasn’t dissipated, said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiators who’s now a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute.
“It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, Palestinians or others in the Arab world say about him, since eulogies tend to be neutral, if not positive,” Elgindy said, as word of Sharon’s death circulated Saturday morning. “Obviously, no Palestinian, no Arab, would have anything good to say about Ariel Sharon. He is sort of in a class by himself when it comes to Palestinians, because he has such a brutal history: He is associated with massacres. He’s not simply seen as someone who’s tough or hardnosed or ideological — he is seen as a cold-hearted killer.”
A Hamas spokesman released a statement saying “We have become more confident in victory with the departure of this tyrant,” adding, “Our people today feel extreme happiness at the death and departure of this criminal whose hands were smeared with the blood of our people and the blood of our leaders here and in exile.”