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What Would Arik Do?

Fortune favors the bold

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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What would Arik have done? The death of former prime minister Ariel “Arik” Sharon last week has evoked this question for Israelis, who face chaos and jihadists in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, instability in Egypt, and above all a potential nuclear threat from Iran.

Ariel Sharon discusses plans for a West Bank wall with locals, 2005.

Ariel Sharon discusses plans for a West Bank wall with locals, 2005.

AP / Moshe Milner / GPO

This question of how Sharon would have handled a particular crisis arose for the first time just months after the stroke that incapacitated him in January 2006. For on July 12 of that year Hezbollah forces rocketed northern Israel and crossed the border to kill several soldiers and kidnap two more. Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, decided in response to launch a war. That war did not go as well, as most observers​—​Israeli, American, European, and Arab​—​had initially expected; Olmert had stated war aims that were far greater than Israel’s actual achievements. An investigating commission concluded that the conduct of the war had failed in many ways, and reviews of the war five years later (in 2011) suggested that there were at least two major problems. The IDF had spent too many years focusing on fighting PLO and Hamas terrorists and was not well prepared for this more traditional conflict; and Israel’s leadership (Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz had almost no military experience and IDF chief Dan Halutz was from the air force) had failed to make accurate assessments and timely operational decisions. What would Sharon have done had he been prime minister?

Sharon’s collaborators suggest privately that he would have bombed the hell out of Hezbollah sites for several days but not started a war. There is, of course, no way of knowing, but there is also no way to resist speculating. Sharon was an extremely aggressive military commander, but​—​the reasoning of his colleagues goes​—​he had been burned badly in 1982 in Lebanon and would have had no desire to get back in there. Moreover, the notion of him as unfailingly aggressive was wrong, they say. After his withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005, Sharon said that any attacks on Israel from there would be met with decisive force. But he didn’t do it. There were in fact rockets from Gaza, but in the fall of 2005 Sharon barely responded​—​perhaps an error of judgment that emboldened Hamas and other groups and ultimately led to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (22 days of military operations in Gaza) in December 2008. Similarly, in his suppression of the intifada in 2001 and 2002, Sharon acted with great strength but also within limits​—​never, for example, trying to kill Yasser Arafat. (President Bush thanked him for having shown that restraint when they met after Arafat’s death in November 2004. Sharon smiled and replied, “Sometimes God helps.”) Sharon used to say, after becoming prime minister, that “what you see from here is not what you see from there,” meaning that his perspective as prime minister was different from that of any other general or politician and different from his own previous positions.

So Sharon was capable of restraint, and of attack. The most interesting question now is whether there is a “Sharonian” approach to either the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate or to the problem of Iran.

As to the Palestinians, there is reason to think Sharon would have tried to move forward toward setting Israel’s borders unilaterally in the West Bank and moving settlements back toward the security fence. Several months after the Gaza withdrawal, in December 2005, his chief of staff Dov Weissglas came to Washington and explained where Sharon thought things stood. Sharon is still quite popular at that point, and the Gaza withdrawal had initially gone more smoothly than people anticipated. Sharon correctly judges that most Israelis want some kind of deal with the Palestinians​—​don’t like them or trust them but want a deal, Weissglas said. Sharon wants to move forward, wants to set the final borders. He sees a window of three more years, the time he and President Bush overlap, to get a more stable situation. He would prefer a signed agreement, under the Roadmap, and will try to get it throughout 2006, Weissglas continued. Only a signed, final agreement justifies the pain of pulling back, but Sharon is not sure Abu Mazen (Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas) is strong enough to sign anything. If that fails he will look to unilateral moves in 2007 and 2008. He thinks he’s the only person who can do it.

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