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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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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.” 

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