What Sharon Would Do

What Sharon Would DoHillel HalkinNew York Sun, January 9, 2007 

A year since Ariel Sharon had his massive stroke on January 4, 2006, one finds oneself wondering how and whether Israel might be different today had he remained healthy and in the prime minister’s office.  One can only speculate, of course. There is a natural tendency to express one’s sense of loss when a dominant figure passes suddenly from the political scene by magnifying the positive in him.


This happened in Israel after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. For years after Rabin’s death it was assumed by many that, had only he lived, things would have gone differently and the “peace process” set in motion by him at Oslo might have succeeded. Today, in retrospect, it is clear that, whatever the pluses or minuses of Rabin’s term as prime minister, the Oslo process was doomed to failure. One can only ask today whether he would have reacted to its unraveling any differently than did his successors.


Perhaps one day things will also seem clear in regard to the major event to have taken place in Israel since Mr. Sharon’s incapacitation, namely, last summer’s war in Lebanon. In the meantime, one can only ask: Would Mr. Sharon have gone to war, as Ehud Olmert did, after the kidnapping last July by Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others? Would the war have taken another course had he done so? Would Israel’s position, which has taken, both domestically and abroad, a turn for the worse because of the war, be different today?


In response to the first question, it’s very likely that Mr. Sharon would not have gone to war. In the six years that he was prime minister, there were numerous Hezbollah attacks on Israeli positions along the Lebanese border, in 13 of which 20 Israeli soldiers were killed. The first of these took place a week after Mr. Sharon’s first election victory in 2001, and the last half a year before his stroke. On none of these occasions, as far as we know, did Mr. Sharon even consider launching a full-scale attack against Hezbollah and the Lebanese south, as Mr. Olmert did last July 12.


Why didn’t he? Perhaps because, during nearly all of this period, Israel’s army was busy fighting the Palestinian war of terror that started in late 2000 and Mr. Sharon didn’t want to burden it with another, difficult objective. Perhaps because his military judgment told him that an all-out campaign against Hezbollah might not succeed. Perhaps, also, because he realized that the great build-up in Hezbollah’s rocketry, which took place almost entirely on his watch and for which he could be held responsible, would be unleashed on northern Israel if war broke out.


In any case, it is difficult to imagine that what 13 previous incidents had not been able to goad Mr. Sharon into doing would have happened because of a 14th. Perhaps he should have reacted more forcefully to these incidents and stopped Hezbollah in its tracks [earlier]—but it was precisely his renowned military past and reputation for audacity that allowed him not to. The one thing, after all, that he could never have been accused of was of being unwilling to take bold but necessary military actions.


Mr. Olmert, on the other hand, was in a much more vulnerable position in this respect. With no military record…he felt that he had to prove himself and that he could not afford to be seen as passive toward the July 12 Hezbollah attack. Nor did he have Mr. Sharon’s ability to make an independent assessment of what the results of a full-scale war might be, or to overrule his chief of staff’s initial decision to limit the fighting to an air campaign that was unable to fulfill many of its objectives.


And yet suppose Mr. Sharon had gone to war. Would he have ordered the army to fight it differently? Probably he would have. As an infantry commander who always emphasized speed and tactical surprise, he is unlikely to have agreed to a campaign based entirely on a steady pounding of predictable Hezbollah targets from the air—or, when ground troops finally were sent in, to the straightforward, slogging-ahead approach that the army adopted. Mr. Olmert, by contrast, was once again in no position to disagree with his generals even had he been disposed to.


Of course, there is no guarantee that a more imaginatively fought war against Hezbollah, involving encirclements and the leapfrogging of units in the style Mr. Sharon was known for, would have succeeded in the end any better, and the risks to Israeli troops would have been greater. Yet so would have been the chances of entrapping and destroying large Hezbollah forces on the ground instead of letting them slip away in the end as happened time after time last July.


We’ll never know. But even if Mr. Sharon had gone to war and done no better than did Mr. Olmert…the country would still be better off with him in the driver’s seat today. Unlike Mr. Olmert, Mr. Sharon had a steady hand on the wheel that inspired confidence. Under him, the country felt it had a leader who knew what he was doing and where he wanted his government to go. This is not true of the Olmert regime…


Israel is the poorer today for Mr. Sharon’s stroke. It’s not a question of sentimentally missing him. It’s simply an undeniable fact. The country was a calmer, more optimistic place a year ago.

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