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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.

I believed Weissglas’s description of what Sharon was thinking: to use his time as prime minister to change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He had begun with the withdrawal from Gaza, but he had meant it when he said this would not be “Gaza only.” What exactly did he intend? We’ll never know. Another close adviser, retired general Eival Giladi, believes Sharon intended to pull back from 42 percent of the West Bank, roughly the areas that under the Oslo Accords were designated Areas A and B (Area A was in theory under Palestinian security control and administration, Area B under Israeli military control but administered by the Palestinian Authority). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, too, was confident that Sharon would do more after Gaza: “Oh, absolutely,” she later said. Sharon’s military assistant, General Moshe Kaplinsky, agreed: “I believe that he planned to do more; that’s what I felt. He was very practical, you know? Most of the people in Israel don’t understand how pragmatic and practical he was. His solution was completely different than ‘give them the West Bank’; he believed that we have to keep control of some key points in the West Bank .  .  . for example, the Jordan Valley.”

Weissglas shared the view that Sharon would have built on expected success in Gaza. He later said Sharon had no exact plans, but there were thoughts of trying “to disengage from small, isolated, and remote settlements.” The goal was to move settlers and settlements west, behind the security fence, inducing as many as possible with financial compensation and the ability to move into the larger settlement blocks, so that those who wished to remain “settlers” could do so. But the IDF would not withdraw from the West Bank; there would be a buffer zone beyond the security fence plus control over the Jordan Valley.

It’s fair to ask if Sharon would have changed this view had he seen Hamas take over Gaza and launch repeated rocket and mortar attacks, leading to Cast Lead in 2008 (an operation he would surely have supported). It’s also fair to ask if he would have waited until December 2008 to respond in a big way to the Hamas attacks from Gaza. Logically Hamas’s conduct might have reaffirmed the view that the IDF could not leave the West Bank, but might as well have reaffirmed the idea that Israel should draw its own borders and bring its settlers within them. Waiting endlessly for the Palestinians to agree to some peace deal would not have appealed to Sharon. He had no faith at all in the Palestinian leadership, which he viewed as incapable of, well, leadership. But of course, as prime minister he dealt with only one president, George W. Bush, and the two men got along well and trusted each other. How Sharon and Barack Obama would have managed is hard to guess. Or maybe not so hard.

What about Iran? Sharon favored and strongly pushed the decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. He wrote this later: 

I did not concur with the opinion, which was expressed then by Shimon Peres, I think, that if both parties would have nuclear weapons, there would be a reciprocal deterrence. I said that I couldn’t rely on the discretion of Arab states if they had nuclear weapons. Soviet Union or the United States have a different set of considerations, and they are more responsible, even though the balance of terror always seemed dangerous to me. But I don’t trust Arab states, I have no idea how they would assess a given situation or what would bring them to use these weapons. I also explained that there was a danger that an Arab nuclear “umbrella” would lead to an escalation of smaller scale actions against Israel, because Israel would refrain from responding to such actions in fear of the nuclear threat.

Sharon pushed Prime Minister Menachem Begin to carry out the Osirak attack in 1981, and there can be little doubt that Sharon would have acted as Olmert did in 2007, bombing the Syrian nuclear reactor. Sharon’s comments about an Arab nuke indicate that, like Netanyahu, he would also have sought to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Given his track record, it is fair to assume that in the end he would give the decision to attack—if he had concluded that America would not act, and despite American urgings that Israel not do so. In a conversation with Steve Hadley and me he once said, “I am a Jew above all and feel the responsibility to the future of the Jewish people on my shoulders. After what happened in the past, I will not let the future of the Jewish people depend on anyone, even our closest friends.” 

But figuring out exactly when Sharon might have decided that he had no alternative to an attack is impossible. There are too many variables: What would his relationship have been like with Obama, if we are past January 2009; where would things stand on the Palestinian front; what was his own domestic political situation; what was his assessment of Israel’s military capabilities and Iran’s own nuclear timetable? The dangers and advantages he saw in 2005 are very different from those Israelis have been confronting or enjoying in the last year or two.

His own political situation was very weak in 2004 and 2005, when he kept losing cabinet and Knesset votes over Gaza, and ultimately lost control of his own Likud party. But that did not stop him. In the end he thought more like a general than like a politician—clever, canny, and indeed ruthless politician though he was. If Israel needed better defense lines, draw them—by creating settlements that make a return to the 1949 Armistice lines (usually called “the 1967 borders”) impossible, or by withdrawing settlements that are impossible to defend at reasonable cost. 

If there was a Sharon approach, it was to favor action over inaction and boldness over excessive calculation, and not to expect that things would get better if you did nothing. For then, you were hostage to the actions of others who might be bolder, stupider, or more dangerous but were in any event quicker. What he eventually decided to do sometimes appalled the left and sometimes, in his last years in power, the right, but he did not act out of ideological commitments. He looked at the maps and the terrain, figured out Israel’s best interests, and moved. That may be the best summary of the Sharon way: Look around, think, but then don’t stop, make your move.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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