By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff (Palgrave Macmillian, 2009)
By Ariel Sharon (Simon and Schuster, 2001)
Reviewed by Jared Feldschreiber
Warrior: An Autobiograph of Ariel Sharon and 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah and the War in Lebanon chronicle divergent approaches to leadership in Israel, arguably the oldest true democracy in the Middle East. In his memoirs, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon describes himself as a decisive leader with admirers who see him as a lionhearted war general. The chronicle of the 2006 Lebanon War, by the defense and Arab affairs correspondents of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, describes a passive, indecisive, and reluctant Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, mistrusted by his military establishment. These two works present sharply contrary perspectives on significant turning points in the modern military history of Israel and appear at a critical moment—when Israel is poised, once again, on the brink of an armed conflict and possibly existential challenge to its borders.
In his 592-page account, Sharon details his personal and military travails. He joined the paratroopers in the Israeli Defense Forces at a young age. In his early adult life, his first wife Margalit was killed in an automobile accident. With Margalit, he had his first son Gur, who also died tragically. Gur was accidentally shot by a friend who was playing with his father's loaded antique shotgun. He died in his father's arms on the way to the hospital. He was only 11 years old. After Margalit's death, Sharon married her sister, Lily, and they were married until her death in 2000. Their two sons are Omri and Gilad, the latter of whom is now a controversial figure in his own right.
Numerous Arab-Israeli wars put Sharon's military leadership skills to the test. He was instrumental in leading Israel to victory in four major conflicts—1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982—each time returned to a leadership role to help Israel defeat its Arab enemies. At times, he argued with his generals over military strategy, but few ever questioned his knowledge of the region. Between 1967 and 1970, a professional conflict developed between Sharon and then military general Chaim Bar-Lev as to the appropriate strategy of defending the Suez Canal. Bar-Lev was in favor of establishing control over the eastern embankment of the Canal by building a series of manned strongholds, later named the Bar-Lev Line. Sharon believed the best way to defend the area was with mobile armored forces which would respond to any attempt by the Egyptians to cross the strategic waterway. After this disagreement, Sharon became the Head of the Southern Command where he would conduct the last stages of the War of Attrition against Egypt, leading incursions deep into enemy territory and mounting air battles. In Warrior, Sharon details every centimeter of land within Israel proper and in the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sharon was always known for stalwart leadership, and though he may have butted heads with the military and political apparatus, he was hailed—for better or for worse—as a strong leader.
Strong, but controversial. During his time in power in the 1970s, he greatly expanded settlement activity. His detractors—both within Israel and abroad—contend he is a war criminal, largely due to his turning his back on the killings at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the Lebanon War. Israel invaded Lebanon because these and similar camps had been used by the PLO as launching sites for salvos that attacked and killed Israelis living in northern Israel, similar to moves that precipitated Israel's war with Hezbollah 20 years later. During the latter stages of Israel’s 1982 incursion into southern Lebanon in 1982, Sharon, who then served as Defense Minister, is said to have been told that Christian Phalangists were going to kill Muslims at Sabra and Shatilla. These acts of revenge had little to do with Israel’s avowed purpose in the war, though Phalangists and Israelis were allies of convenience along the lines of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Moreover, while Sharon might have stopped it, critics say that he should be blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Muslim civilians. Sharon resigned after a military investigation. In February 1983, the Kahan Commission, the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut, determined that “the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla was carried out by a Phalangist unit, acting on its own but its entry was known to Israel. No Israeli was directly responsible for the events in the camps. But the Commission asserted that Israel had indirect responsibility for the massacre since the IDF held the area. Sharon was found responsible for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge when he approved the entry of the Phalangists into the camps as well as not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.” It was recommended that Sharon be dismissed as Defense Minister, and though he initially refused he ultimately resigned his duties. At the time, Sharon also sued Time magazine for libel in their assertion that he was responsible for the massacre. Although the jury concluded false allegations were made toward him, it also concluded that the magazine had not acted with “actual malice,” and thus was not guilty of libel. Nonetheless, it would virtually crush his political and military career for years.
It was not until late 2000, as Israel experienced the onslaught of the Second Intifada, that Sharon became prime minster for the first time. With an increase in suicide bombings, Sharon instituted Operation Defensive Shield, in which the Israeli Defense Force led an incursion into the six largest cities in the West Bank. Its mission was to identify and remove key terrorists. Sharon also approved the controversial wall between Israel and the West Bank, which eventually proved highly effective in curbing suicide bombers from entering Israel. Sharon's political courage in creating the Kadima Party (seen as the moderate, centrist party) revealed his true character—a defiant leader devoting his life to Israel's security. (Sharon published Warrior in 1989, so these details merely highlight his bold moves as prime minister years later).
34 Days spells out quite clearly the view that the summer 2006 war in Lebanon would have gone much differently had Sharon been prime minister, rather than Ehud Olmert. Second in line to be prime minister (after serving as Jerusalem's mayor, and, ironically, as Sharon's protégé), the book holds that Olmert had no business serving as prime minister in the first place. The two Ha’aretz commentators spell out his view of the nasty division in command, and most importantly, a lack of respect between then Israeli Defense Force's Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and Prime Minister Olmert when Israel's war with Hezbollah broke out in July, 2006. Olmert became prime minister after Sharon fell into a coma in early 2006.
At the same time, 34 Days, which is billed as simply a chronicle of the Second Lebanon War shows how Olmert's feckless leadership created a palpable sense of uncertainty within Israel’s internal military chain of command. Arguments over military strategy are common, but a lack of leadership can destroy basic engagement and tactics in battle. Olmert waffled, was hesitant, and often times was pressured by the media or other forces. His military strategy lacked any sense of coherence, and its purpose was ultimately lost. He did not send in ground troops until the late stages of the war, only days before the UN ceasefire was signed, when he felt pressured to wrap up the war quickly. Olmert, who had no real strategic military experience, felt the growing pressure from a skeptical defense apparatus, which resented his judgment, and, above all, his leadership.
For Israelis, including Olmert, the goals in the early stages of the Second Lebanon War were clear: knock out Hezbollah’s rocket launchers and kill the militants who fired them. But as the weeks dragged on, things became murkier and Olmert did not send direct signals, especially to his top military brass. Olmert's indecision during this time—catering to pressure from the United Nations and a media blitz—were criticized by many people. Israel, accused of disproportionate use of force by critics, also made tactical errors that Sharon is unlikely ever to have made. As Israel sought to destroy many of Hezbollah’s weapon caches, it fought a limited air campaign, rather than executing total war, which would have required ground troops—engaging in what military strategists call a “low intensity conflict.”
A six-month Israeli investigation into the war, by what was called the Winograd Committee, criticized Israel’s military strategy, saying it was “not fought with a well-thought-out plan, reflecting severe failure in judgment, responsibility and caution.” The Second Lebanon War was considered a huge failure for Israel at the time. The aims of the war—to crush Hezbollah and force it to hand back two Israeli soldiers taken hostage were “overly ambitious and impossible to achieve,” the report concluded.
Olmert himself admitted later that mistakes were made during the war, but that “it brought about a deterrence that had never previously existed on the Lebanon border.” Halutz conceded that “the decision to go to war was correct, justified, and proper” even as Hezbollah has since regrouped and restocked the weaponry that Israel’s Air Force sought to destroy. After the war, Olmert was roundly criticized by Israelis and the press—a majority believing no one won. Some 63 percent of Israelis polled wanted Olmert to resign due to his handling of the war, and The Jerusalem Post wrote, "if you fail to win, you lose," and “Hezbollah survived [thus] it won the war.” The bottom line was that the military apparatus was not only skeptical of Olmert's strategy, it questioned his leadership.
Israelis often pine for the sort of strong decision-making exhibited by Sharon since in the Middle East increasingly dangerous threats cross Israel’s borders. Southern towns, like Sderot, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, have been bombarded for years by Hamas. Operation Pillar of Defense, which began in mid-November, has sent a clear message—not anymore. Over the past few years, several hundred rockets have been fired by Hamas, and groups like Islamic Jihad and Ansar al-Islam continue to try and infiltrate Israel to commit terrorist acts.
In the first stages of this operation, Israel eliminated Hamas' military commander Ahmed al-Jabari, responsible for a host of terror attacks on Israelis and orchestrating the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But Hamas’s rockets continue to rain down on Israeli towns, and now have struck central Israel, including Gush Etzion, outside Jerusalem. Hamas is still smuggling weapons into Gaza, while routinely digging tunnels to facilitate terrorist operations. In response, Israel created the mobile defense system known as Iron Dome, which deters short-range missiles up to 70 kilometers away. Just this week, sirens sounded several times in Tel Aviv for the first time since Scud missiles were launched by Iraq during the First Gulf War 20 years ago.
As the current conflict in Gaza continues, Sharon and Olmert’s histories have shown that Israel needs clear and achievable goals. Weak leadership or air attacks with no obvious objectives will bring international condemnation and only strengthen Israel’s enemies.
Jared Feldschreiber is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal and holds an MA in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University.