News & Politics

Ariel Sharon Was a 'Brutal Killer' Whose Life Goal Was 'as Few Palestinians as Possible' Says Noam Chomsky

Chomsky pulls no punches in this interview with Goodman, joined by scholar Rashid Khalidi.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died Saturday at the age of 85 after eight years in a coma. Sharon was one of the most dominant political figures in Israel’s history, involved in each of Israel’s major wars dating back to its founding in 1948. Among Palestinians, Sharon was one of the most reviled political figures in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is seen as father of the settlement movement and an architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed a reported 20,000 Palestinian and Lebanese. We discuss Sharon’s legacy with three guests: Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author and Institute Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University; and Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars on the Israeli-Arab conflict. "There is a convention that you’re not supposed to speak ill of the recently dead, which unfortunately imposes a kind of vow of silence, because there is nothing good to say," Chomsky says. "He was a brutal killer; he had one fixed idea in mind which drove him all his life: a greater Israel, as powerful as possible, as few Palestinians as possible. ... He doubtless showed courage and commitment to pursuing this ideal, which is an ugly and horrific one.

Amy Goodman:We begin in Israel, where a state funeral was held today in front of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He died Saturday after eight years in a coma. He was 85 years old. He’ll be buried in a state funeral today at his home in southern Israel.

The U.S. was among eight countries — 18 countries to send delegations to attend Sharon’s funeral, along with Middle East international envoy Tony Blair and the Russian and German foreign ministers. At a state memorial in Jerusalem, Vice President Joe Biden remembered Sharon as a controversial, but bold military leader and statesman.

Vice President Joseph Biden: When he told 10,000 Israelis to leave their homes in Gaza in order, from his perspective, to strengthen Israel, I can’t think of a much more controversial — as a student of the Jewish state, I can’t think of a much more difficult and controversial decision been made. But he believed it, and he did it. The security of his people was always Arik’s unwavering mission, a non-breakable commitment to the future of Jews, whether 30 years or 300 years from now.

AG: That was Vice President Joe Biden speaking during Ariel Sharon’s memorial. Thousands of Israelis came to pay their respects as his coffin lay in state outside the parliament building in Jerusalem. Ministers held a minute’s silence at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting to remember their former leader. This is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: [translated] In all of his latest roles as minister of defense, as minister of housing, minister of infrastructures, minister of foreign affairs, Arik has contributed to the state of Israel and, as much as he could, to the security of Israel, and that’s what he did as Israel’s prime minister. I believe he represents a generation of Jewish leaders who rose from our people with the resumption of our independence. He was tied to the land. He knew the need to protect the land, and he understood that, above all that, our independence is our ability to protect ourselves by ourselves. I believe he will be remembered as one of the prominent leaders and one of the bravest commanders in the heart of Israel forever.

AG: Ariel Sharon has been one of the most dominant political figures in Israel’s history, involved in each of Israel’s major wars dating back to its founding in 1948. As prime minister, he oversaw Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The Gaza withdrawal caused a serious rift in Sharon’s Likud Party, which led to his departure. He formed a new party, Kadima, which maintained the Gaza disengagement while expanding Israeli control over the major settlement blocks in the occupied West Bank.

Among Palestinians, Sharon was one of the most reviled political figures in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He’s seen as father of the settlement movement, an architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which killed a reported 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon had indirect responsibility for the massacre of over a thousand Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon in 1982.

To talk about Ariel Sharon’s life and legacy, we’re joined now by three guests. In New York, we’re joined by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, author of a number of books, including "Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East" and, just reissued, "Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War."

Joining us from his home in Massachusetts by phone, Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, Institute Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than 50 years. His 1983 book, "The Fateful Triangle," is known as one of the definitive works on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

And we are also joined from Oxford by Avi Shlaim, an Emeritus Professor of International Studies at Oxford University, the author of "Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations." He served in the Israeli army in the mid-'60s and is widely regarded as one of the world's leading scholars on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s go first to the Israeli historian, Avi Shlaim. Your response to the death of Ariel Sharon, what you feel he should be remembered for?

Avi Shlaim: Ariel Sharon is one of the most iconic and controversial figures in Israel’s history. He had deep — he was a deeply flawed character, renowned for his brutality, mendacity and corruption. Despite these character flaws, he is a major figure in shaping Israel’s modern history.

He was one of the five most influential figures who left a deep mark on modern Israel. The first was David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, who in 1949 concluded the armistice agreements with the neighboring Arab states, the only internationally recognized borders that Israel has ever had. Second was Levi Eshkol, who, in the aftermath of the June 1967 War, presided over the transformation of Israel from a plucky little democracy into a brutal colonial power. The third was the Likud leader, Menachem Begin, who signed the first peace treaty with an Arab country. He signed the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. The fourth was Yitzhak Rabin, the only Israeli prime minister who went forward on the political front towards the Palestinians, and he did this by signing the Oslo Accord in 1939 and clinching the historic compromise between the two nations with the iconic handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.

And finally, there is Ariel Sharon, who always rejected the Oslo peace process, who as prime minister tried to sweep away the remnants of Oslo and forge a new strategy of unilateralism, of giving up on the Palestinians and redrawing unilaterally the borders of greater Israel. So, his legacy can be summed up in one word — unilateralism — acting in defiance of U.N. resolutions, international law and international public opinion. The real question is: How was Ariel Sharon, and how is Israel today under his successors, able to defy the entire international community? And the answer to that is that Israel could not have done it on its own, but it has a little friend, and the friend is the United States of America. But that is a different story.

AG: We’re talking about the death of the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday after eight years in a coma. He was 85 years old. We are joined by Professor Noam Chomsky in Massachusetts, by Avi Shlaim, the Israeli historian at Oxford University in Britain, and we’re joined here in New York by Rashid Khalidi. Among his books are "Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East." He’s the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. You’re also Palestinian. Your response to the death of Ariel Sharon?

Rashid Khalidi: Well, for me, the most important emotion is a sense of, finally, the man who carried out a war in which 20,000 people were killed, the Lebanon War of 1982, who besieged Beirut, who destroyed building after building, killing scores of civilians in a search to destroy the PLO leadership, has finally left the world. I was in Beirut that summer of 1982. And I — to me, it’s horrific to watch the hagiographies that are being produced by people like Vice President Biden, by The New York Times, by much of the media, about a man who really should have ended his days at The Hague before the International Criminal Court. He was a man who, from the very beginning of his career, started out killing people. As the commander of Unit 101, he was the man who ordered the Qibya massacre.

AG: Explain. What is Unit 101?

RK: Unit 101 was a military unit of the Israeli army formed at the orders of the Israeli leadership of the time to carry out savage reprisal raids. But we’re talking about dozens of victims. In retaliation for, in this case, two or three people being killed, 69 people had their homes blown up over their heads.

AG: When was this?

RK: This was 1953 in a small village in the — what is today the West Bank. This was the first condemnation of Israel by a Security Council resolution. This was something that the United States at the time was willing to say was a horrible, horrible crime. And this is a man who, since then, really, has only acted on the basis of a belief that force is the only thing the Arabs understand. The idea that he is now considered by some to be a peacemaker is grotesque, frankly.

AG: Noam Chomsky, you wrote "The Fateful Triangle" in response to what happened in Lebanon. It changed the discourse for many in this country. First, explain your reaction to the death of Ariel Sharon and what we should understand about him.

Noam Chomsky: Well, you know, there is a convention that you’re not supposed to speak ill of the recently dead, which unfortunately imposes a kind of vow of silence because there’s nothing else to say — there’s nothing good to say. What both Rashid and Avi Shlaim have said is exactly accurate. He was a brutal killer. He had one fixed idea in mind, which drove him all his life: a greater Israel, as powerful as possible, as few Palestinians as possible — they should somehow disappear — and an Israel which could be powerful enough to dominate the region. The Lebanon War then, which was his worst crime, also had a goal of imposing a client state in Lebanon, a Maronite client state. And these were the driving forces of his life.

The idea that the Gaza evacuation was a controversial step for peace is almost farcical. By 2005, Gaza had been devastated, and he played a large role in that. The Israeli hawks could understand easily that it made no sense to keep a few thousand Israeli settlers in Gaza using a very large percentage of its land and scarce water with a huge IDF, Israeli army, contingent to protect them. What made more sense was to take them out and place them in the West Bank or the Golan Heights — illegal. It could have been done very simply. They could have — the Israeli army could have announced that on August 1st they’re leaving Gaza, in which case the settlers would have piled into the trucks that were provided to them, which would take them from their subsidized homes in Gaza to illegal subsidized homes in other territories that Israel intended to keep, and that would have been the end of it. But instead, a — what Israeli sociologists call, Baruch Kimmerling called an "absurd theater" was constructed to try to demonstrate to the world that there cannot be any further evacuations.

The farce was a successful public relations effort. Joseph Biden’s comments illustrate that. It was particularly farcical when you recognize that it was a virtual replay of what happened in 1982 when Israel was compelled to withdraw from the Egyptian Sinai and carried out an operation that the Israeli press ridiculed as Operation National Trauma 1982: We have to show the world how much we’re suffering by carrying out an action that will benefit our power and our security. And that was the peacemaking effort.

But his career is one of unremitting brutality, dedication to the fixed idea of his life. He doubtless showed courage and commitment to pursuing this ideal, which is an ugly and horrific one.

AG: Why does — Professor Avi Shlaim, why does Ariel Sharon hold the special place he does in the annals of Israeli history?

AS: Noam Chomsky reminded us that one shouldn’t speak ill of the recently dead, so I would like to say something positive about Ariel Sharon, which explains both his popularity with one segment of the Israeli population and the reviling of Sharon by another segment of the Israeli population. And the point is that towards the end of his active life, Sharon finally understood the limits of military power. He had always been a proponent of greater Israel, but he understood that the facts of democracy worked against Israel, so he didn’t — he did not jettison the dream of greater Israel, but he scaled it down to what he thought was realistic for Israel to maintain in the long run.

So he had a strategy of redrawing the borders of greater Israel unilaterally. Stage one was building the wall on the West Bank, and stage two was the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. Now, the withdrawal from Gaza was not part of any negotiations or overall peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. It was a unilateral move undertaken in Israel’s interests. So, Sharon withdrew from Gaza, but he wanted to consolidate Israel’s presence on the West Bank. And this got him into trouble with the right wing of his own party, the Likud Party, and with the settler community, so he quit the Likud, and he set up a new center party, Kadima. But Kadima did not survive Sharon’s political demise. Today, Kadima has two seats in the 120-member Knesset. So Sharon’s last-minute effort to realign Israeli politics ended in total failure.

His enduring legacy in Israel’s history is that he empowered and emboldened some of the most xenophobic, aggressive, racist, expansionist and intransigent elements in Israel’s dysfunctional political system.

AG: Professor Khalidi?

RK: Another thing that might be mentioned about Gaza is that there’s a huge debate in Israel about whether the withdrawal was a good thing or a bad thing. The withdrawal did not change the situation of Gaza as being completely under Israeli control, which it is to this day. So Israel withdrew its settlers and withdrew its troops from within the Gaza Strip, but it completely controls the Strip from without. It is the largest open-air prison in the world. Sharon also had a notorious period as commander of the Southern Command in which he participated in the savage repression of resistance inside Gaza, killing thousands of — hundreds — well, many hundreds of Palestinian militants, destroying thousands of homes, as part of a huge repression of the resistance.

AG: Noam Chomsky, Dov Weissglass, a top aide to Ariel Sharon, described the withdrawal from Gaza by saying, quote, "The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians." Explain what he meant and how that translates today to the so-called peace process that’s going on.

NC: Well, Dov Weissglass understood the situation very well. The Oslo Accords in 1993 determined that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are a single territorial entity which cannot be divided. Immediately, the United States and Israel set about separating the two and making sure that they would not be united. And this is extremely significant, not only for the people of Gaza, but for the prospect of any viable Palestinian entity. The West Bank is essentially imprisoned. Its one access to the outside world would be through Gaza — access through the sea, through the air, if there was an airport, and so on. By breaking Gaza from — separating Gaza from the West Bank, that undercuts whatever limited possibility there might be for a meaningful Palestinian self-determination.

Dov Weissglas pointed out that — what he meant is — in fact, as he said, Israel will keep the people in Gaza on a diet. We won’t let them starve to death; that won’t look good in the international world. We’ll just give them just enough to stay barely alive in this open-air prison, as Rashid Khalidi correctly described it, and they’ll be separated from the West Bank. Meanwhile, both the wall, the separation wall — actually an annexation wall — that Sharon initiated and other development and settlement projects, including in the Jordan Valley, will effectively cantonize whatever is left of — to Palestinian administration and surround it so that it has — so that it is another kind of prison, surrounded completely by Israel and its Jordanian ally.

Actually, Professor Shlaim said something very important in his last — his first comment at the very end. All of this can happen because of what he called Israel — ironically, Israel’s little friend, because the United States authorizes — it supports it, provides the requisite diplomatic, economic, military support, and also ideological support — namely, by a false — by the process of reshaping and falsifying what is underway. This is quite reminiscent; this is not novel, unfortunately. If you look at the history of South Africa, it was pretty similar. By 1960, the South Africans knew that they were becoming a pariah state. The South African foreign minister called in the American ambassador and told him, "Look, we know everyone is going to vote against us in the United Nations. We’re going to have all kinds of problems. But as long as you support us, it doesn’t make any difference." And that’s the principle that they had here, too, right to the end of the Reagan years, 1988, the U.S., along with Britain, was still vetoing and blocking resolutions which would call for any kind of sanctions, and supporting South African atrocities and crimes. This is a kind of a replay of it. As long as the United States, the most powerful state in the world, continues to play its crucially supportive role, unfortunately, these developments will continue.

And this is of prime significance for people like us, for American citizens. It’s our responsibility. I mean, Sharon may have had indirect — as the Kahan Commission in its whitewash claimed, indirect responsibility for Sabra-Shatila — actually direct responsibility. And we have direct responsibility for the fact that our own government is crucially facilitating all of this.

AG: What could Kerry do right now?

NC: What should we do?

AG: And what should — what do you feel John Kerry should do?

NC: What John Kerry should do is insist on implementing a very broad international consensus, virtually universal, calling for a two-state settlement on the internationally recognized border, which is, as was said before, the 1949 ceasefire line, possibly with minor and mutual adjustments, which was a U.S. policy —

AG: We have five seconds.

NC: Yeah. And this is supported by the entire world. It’s been blocked by the United States for 35 years. We should shift that policy, join the world, and carry out the measures which might conceivably bring a semi-decent peace.

AG: We have to leave it there. I want to thank Professor Noam Chomsky in Massachusetts; Avi Shlaim, Israeli historian at Oxford; and Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian professor, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times best-seller.

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