World Citizen: The Lessons of War That Forged Israel’s Ariel Sharon

World Citizen: The Lessons of War That Forged Israel’s Ariel Sharon
Photo: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Washington D.C., May 6, 2002 (Department of Defense photo).
TEL AVIV, Israel—Before he became the leader of his country, Ariel Sharon, the recently deceased former Israeli prime minister, spent most of his life as a military man. The formative events for the late general took place on the battlefield. The experiences proved so powerful that they shaped Sharon as a political actor, gradually chiseling the profile of a political leader with such strong and unexpected views that he managed to antagonize even his closest allies and surprisingly satisfy some of his harshest critics. By the time he became Israel’s most powerful man, the lessons of war led the older Sharon to take actions that the younger Sharon would have fiercely opposed. Had his health permitted, he would have recast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even today, the legacy of Sharon’s experience plays a role in Israel’s reaction to the war on its Syrian border. In particular, four defining battles in Sharon’s life forged his strategic mind and created his political thinking. In 1948, just as Israel declared its independence, neighboring Arab countries attacked the nascent state. Like all able-bodied Israelis, 20-year-old Ariel Sharon took to the battlefield. It was at the battle for Latrun, along the road to Jerusalem, that Sharon suffered his most severe physical injuries and his most powerful emotional experience. In a letter he wrote his parents from the battlefield, he recalled watching a truckload of emaciated new soldiers, just out of Europe’s concentration and displaced persons camps, brought to join the fight. Sharon was his battalion’s leader in a catastrophic rout. He recalled hearing what became a familiar call in Arabic from the enemy: “Itbah al-Yahud,” kill the Jews. His rear guard had retreated and his soldiers were being butchered. He was severely wounded in the abdomen, close to death. He gave the order for those who could to retreat and leave the wounded behind to a near-certain death. One soldier asked, Sharon later recalled, “Should we leave you here, too?” He said yes. Miraculously, he survived, dragging himself through the muck. But he vowed never to leave a fellow soldier behind and developed a set of tactical views. In 1967, as Israeli leaders saw their neighbors preparing to attack, Sharon was made commander of a southern division, near the Egyptian border. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just expelled U.N. peacekeepers and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Sharon drew detailed plans, shelling Egyptian forces with 6,000 mortars in 20 minutes, followed by an infantry assault, a massive drop of paratroopers and the use of armored forces to block the arrival of reinforcements. Israel won the war in six days, and Sharon played a pivotal role in a victory over Egypt that included the capture of the Sinai Peninsula, larger than the entirety of the Israeli territory. Sharon learned that the bold use of force and creative deployment of resources could produce overwhelming victories and radically redefine borders. He eventually became a major architect of the Israeli right’s plan to establish settlements in the territories captured in 1967. Unlike other right-wingers, he was driven more by the need to establish “strategic depth” than by religious or nationalistic views. The 1973 war was the one that turned Sharon into an iconic military leader. His performance during that war, when Israelis thought they were about to lose their country, has led many to call him the country’s top military mind. That year, Israel was caught unprepared during the annual day of fasting, Yom Kippur, by an invasion from Egypt and Syria. Egyptian forces had crossed into Israeli-held territory and were barreling northward. Israelis were scrambling for a response. Sharon, who had retired from the military, was called back into service. He had his men throw a bridge across the Suez Canal into Egyptian territory and cut off the invading Egyptian Third Army in Sinai, severing it from its supply lines and reinforcements and encircling it. Meanwhile, his men advanced into Egypt, not far from Cairo. Sharon had disobeyed orders, but a military tribunal cleared him because of his success. He became a national hero. He learned that despite the 1967 victory, the country could become vulnerable again. He learned that breaking the rules could bring victory and that success could win forgiveness as well. Later, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, it was Sharon, as defense minister, who forcibly removed Israeli settlers from Sinai, an experience that would later prove pivotal. His successes abruptly ended in 1982, with disastrous moves in Lebanon. Israel had endured constant shelling from Lebanon, where the Palestinian Liberation Organization had taken root, becoming stronger than the central government in Beirut. Israeli forces made limited incursions, with limited effectiveness. In 1982, still as defense minister, Sharon received Cabinet approval for a larger, still limited invasion of southern Lebanon. Perhaps without Begin’s consent, his forces pushed all the way to Beirut. His plan was to empower the Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel to become president. But Gemayel was assassinated, and Israeli plans started to unravel. When Israeli forces allowed Phalangist fighters into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatilla, the Christian Phalange committed horrific massacres that became a moral stain on Israel. A commission of inquiry in Israel found Sharon indirectly responsible for not foreseeing how the Lebanese militias would act. He became the target of hatred not only from Arabs but also from many Israelis. His meteoric career appeared finished. Eventually, though, he rose again to become prime minister in 2001 under the party he co-founded, the Likud. While previous wars had taught him the power of military force, Lebanon taught him the risks of trying to control political realities in other systems. He crushed a Palestinian uprising but decided Israel should not rule over Palestinians. He launched a major political war against his own party with an announcement that it was time for all Israelis to leave Gaza. In 2005, he gave up on Likud and formed a new party. He had learned how to think outside convention, how to take on the establishment, how to find a circuitous route to his objectives. He forcibly withdrew Israeli settlers from Gaza, just as he had done in Sinai. And he said he was ready to make peace with Palestinians. Even without peace, he was preparing for a major withdrawal from the West Bank. Now Israel’s new leaders have also learned Sharon’s lessons from Lebanon, keeping a hands-off approach to the war in Syria. And as discussions with Palestinians continue with no signs of progress, there’s even some talk of a Sharon-style disengagement from the West Bank. Sharon’s war experiences have become a lesson for all of Israel. Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.

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