Open season on Ariel Sharon and Israel

'Whether the world likes you depends on who is winning the public relations war'

David Guttenfelder/AP

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s second stroke in 2006 left him in a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. There had been anecdotal reports these past few years that his brain was showing signs of activity, contrary to medical reports. His son, Gilad, told reporters that his father’s eyes opened to visitors and that his fingers could flutter some responses. “It would be a crime to cut him down,” he said, justifying the family’s decision not to terminate life support as his father lay unable to speak or move for eight years. One can only hope this was wishful thinking on Gilad’s part. For a man so intellectually and physically vigorous in his life as Sharon, to be trapped inside his body that long doesn’t bear thinking about.

The plaudits Sharon deserved would have been more forthcoming had he had the courtesy to die promptly. At that point Israel had briefly been readmitted to polite circles. In 2005 prime minister Sharon had unilaterally withdrawn Israel from the Gaza Strip and forcibly removed Jewish settlers from some West Bank settlements. The sight of the Israel Defense Force dragging Orthodox Jews out of Netzarim and destroying their homes sent his international popularity soaring.

At the time of the devastating stroke, when I was no longer associated with the newspaper, London’s Sunday Telegraph nevertheless asked me to write his obituary—a clear sign that Sharon was rehabilitated. Eight years later the temperature had changed. The Telegraph obit emphasized Sharon’s ruthlessness and quoted the late prime minister Menachem Begin as saying, “He’s a brilliant general but a vicious man.” For good measure, he was blamed for the second intifada after his 20-minute walk on Temple Mount “wearing dark glasses and escorted by more than 1,000 police officers.” This old chestnut has been put to rest by the Palestinians themselves but it remains a fundamental plank in the media battle against Israel.

As in all things, only more so in the case of Israel, whether the world likes you depends on who is winning the public relations war. Israel was the world’s darling in 1968 and nothing fundamental has changed, only the light in which the same facts are viewed. In the BBC’s 2012 opinion poll, Israel tied for unpopularity with North Korea. My guess is that about 99 per cent of Canadians rarely worry about Israel or Jews but that the remaining one per cent can easily be located in two exclusive areas—the media and academia. This is the battleground of the culture wars where Israel lies hacked to pieces on the zeitgeist’s field. Except, one is proud to say, in Canada and specifically in Stephen Harper’s government.

Canadian media (with the exception of virulent sectarians like the Toronto Star) have more gentle reasons for their anti-Israeli stance than the old-fashioned anti-Semitism of European public broadcasters. Last week’s announcement of Vivian Bercovici as the new Canadian ambassador to Israel, for example, was met with aggressive naïveté by the CBC’s Evan Solomon in an interview with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “Vivian Bercovici is Jewish,” Solomon announced with apparent astonishment. And, ominously, “there are going to be questions.” Baird replied that he thought she was Italian and chose her because her views on Israel were compatible with the policies of the Conservative government. Solomon was nonplussed: “Why not appoint someone who doesn’t have the perception of any kind of bias?” After remarking that it was illegal in Canada to inquire about religion when hiring, Baird tactfully let Solomon’s recycled received wisdom slip by.

Solomon’s questions were not anti-Semitic in intention, only tread-worn. It may be that the average CBC interviewer doesn’t understand “nepotism” and thinks the word means something akin to the appointment of a Catholic ambassador to the Vatican. Given that three of Canada’s previous ambassadors to Israel have been Jewish, Solomon’s discomfort—spontaneous or encouraged by his producers—could not be with Bercovici’s religion but her pro-Israel views. Amusingly, Bercovici, by profession a lawyer, had also been a columnist for the dreaded Toronto Star. Being the token pro-Israel columnist for a year allows the Star to claim it gives space to all shades of opinion while knowing that a once-a-month contribution can do no harm to core readers who will not believe her for a second.

Israel has flourished economically and culturally. Inside the country, though, there is growing recognition that demography is inexorable. Whatever wars you win, if you can’t win the battle of the bedroom—be fruitful and multiply—in the long run victory will elude. This has always been known, but knowing something that has come home is different. The coin has dropped. The Arab population will reach a critical point where the Jewish presence will not amount to a hill of beans—unless it establishes a typical Middle East society where one small tribe dominates all others. This would require a ruthless despotism that is anathema to Israel. The nation that hoped to be in the vanguard leading Middle East societies toward more tolerant Westernization may find its only hope lies in becoming Easternized itself. That is why peace is Israel’s only hope of survival.

Sharon’s home critics saw his withdrawals as part of a growing spiritual malaise. His actions, they said, would be played in the Arab world as confirmation of Israel’s weakness rather than its search for a just peace. And so they were. Last week Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated the Arab refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Squaring the Jewish circle of decency with the Arab square of demography will take more than a Jewish Euclid. “My whole life has passed in this conflict,” Sharon told Haaretz in 2001. “This is the only place in the world where the Jews have the right and ability and the strength to defend themselves. And that is a gift of God. That is what we must defend.” All I can say is that God has a macabre sense of humour when it comes to his Jews.

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