O Captain! My Captain!

Eleven years have passed since the earthly wanderings of Ariel Sharon were terminated by the April 2006 stroke that put him hors de combat. For eight long years after that he lingered. Tied to life support apparatus, occasionally moving an eyelid, but never once regaining consciousness. As time goes on, fewer and fewer people even remember his name. Where did he come from, what role did he play in Israeli history, and how is he likely to be remembered?

*

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928, the son of a farmer who worked the land to the northeast of Tel Aviv. During the first weeks of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence the young Sharon found himself defending his very home against Iraqi troops who had come all the way from Baghdad. So well did he do that he was given a platoon to command even though he had never attended officer school.

In May 1948, during an attack on a fortified police station near Jerusalem, Sharon commanded the lead platoon. Wounded in the groin and unable to walk, he was carried back to friendly lines on the shoulders of a comrade who had gone blind. Many years later, visiting the battlefield to explain the episode to me and about a hundred of my students, he added, with a wink, that he had not always been as big as he later became.

Soon after the war he left the army to study law. However, in 1953 he was brought back by the then deputy chief of staff, General Moshe Dayan who charged him with organizing and command a newly-established commando unit. The task of 101, as it was known, was to strike into the neighboring countries, principally Jordan and Egypt but occasionally Syria as well, from which terrorists crossed into Israel, robbing and murdering civilians living close to the borders. Later it was merged with a paratrooper battalion that carried on in a similar way. Sharon quickly proved an effective, if headstrong and brutal, commander. Repeatedly exceeding his orders and killing far more few Arabs than his superiors had expected (or so they claimed), his raids caused an international furor that reached all the way to the United Nations.

In the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian War he commanded an elite paratroop brigade. First he drove into the Sinai Peninsula to link up with one of his battalions that had been dropped near the strategic Mitlah Pass. Next, violating explicit orders, he sent another battalion to enter the Pass itself. Later, to justify himself, he argued that the move had been necessitated by reports about an armored Egyptian brigade which was coming at his paratroopers from the north. Perhaps so; the ensuing battle led to his brigade suffering one quarter of all Israeli casualties in that campaign.

Following this episode Sharon’s progress up the military hierarchy was brought to a halt Only in 1963 did he return to favor; the man who promoted him was then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin. In the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War Sharon commanded a division. Leading it in a model operation he captured Abu Agheila, the most important Egyptian fortified perimeter in the Sinai. Later, while serving as Commander, Southern Command, from 1969 to the summer of 1973, he waged the so-called War of Attrition against the Egyptians on the Suez. He also brutally put down a Palestinian Uprising in Gaza, killing hundreds and tearing down thousands of homes in the process.

By the time the October 1973 War broke out Sharon was no longer in uniform. However, he was called back to command a reserve division against the Egyptians. With it he crossed the Suez Canal, all but encircling the Egyptian Third Army making a decisive contribution to the outcome of the war. The men who fought with him gratefully remember the steadying effect of his voice as it came through on the radio amidst the chaos of burning tanks, exploding shells, and the screams of the wounded. Perhaps it was to reassure them that, during the war, he always had a vase with flowers standing on his desk.

By 1974 Sharon was out of the army for good. When Likud came to power in 1977 he became minister of agriculture under Menachem Begin. With Begin’s backing, used his position to increase the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank from 15,000 to 100,000 within just four years.

In June 1981 he became minister of defense. In June 1982 he launched the enormous war machine now under his command into Lebanon, Israel’s weak neighbor to the north. The declared objective was to end terrorism which had been coming from that country for over a decade past. The undeclared and much larger one, to help the Lebanese Christians set up a government that would turn it into an Israeli protectorate. But victory proved elusive; the outcome was a terrorist campaign fought first by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, then by a militia known as Amal, and finally by Hezbollah.

In March 1983, held responsible for failing to prevent his Christian Lebanese allies from massacring as many as 3,000 men, women and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, he lost his post. By that time so unpopular had he and the war become that the troops, adapting a well-known children’s ditty, were chanting the following rhymes:

Aircraft come down from the clouds

Take us far to Lebanon 

We shall fight for Mr. Sharon

And come back, wrapped in shrouds.

He did, however, remain in parliament. As Likud’s political fortunes rose, fell, and rose again, now he carried a ministerial portfolio, now was left out in the cold. As before, he strongly opposed all concessions to the Arabs. Including the 1993 Oslo Agreements with the Palestinians which were signed by his former commander and then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. In September 2000, following the failure of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO chief Yasser Arafat to reach agreement at Camp David, Sharon, by demonstratively visiting the Temple Mount, helped trigger off the Second Palestinian Uprising. Early in 2001 he took over as prime minister. In 2002 he consolidated his power by winning the elections. Meanwhile his efforts to suppress the uprising involved quite a bit of brutality, culminating in the attack on the West Bank City of Jenin in April-May 2002.

Whether Sharon was already thinking of giving up at least some of the occupied territories will never be known. At the time, he repeatedly said he was no de Gaulle. However this may have been, his hand was forced. To put an end to terrorism, the Israeli public demanded that a fence be built between themselves and the Palestinians. A fence did in fact go up around the Gaza Strip, and over the years has proved very effective in stopping the suicide-bombers who, at the time, formed the most serious threat of all.

From that point on there was no turning back. Israel evacuated the Strip, and Sharon made no secret of his intention to evacuate parts of the West Bank as well. When this led to a revolt among the members of his own Likud Party he left it, founded a new one of his own, and prepared for new elections. The rest, as they say, is history.  

*

Looking back on Sharon eleven years after his political demise, what can one say? Like most Israelis, he spent his entire life in a country that seldom knew anything like peace. Between the ages of twenty and forty-five he was almost always in uniform. Rising from the ranks, he was a highly aggressive and original commander who was constantly in the thick of battle. At least one of his operations, the attack on Abu Agheila, is widely regarded as a classic. None of this could prevent him from being disliked by his superiors, colleagues, and immediate subordinates some of whom accused him of dishonesty and undependability. He was, however, liked by his men and well-known for the way he took care of them.

Sharon’s role in 1973 War and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre, will forever remain the subject of debate in Israel. It is, however, overshadowed by his record as prime minister which is even more controversial. At the time when he first proposed, then carried out, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip Israel’s hawkish right, including many of his fellow Likud members, launched vicious attacks on him. So vicious that they may well have helped bring about the stroke that finally killed him. Later the wind shifted. By now, even some of his greatest opponents see the withdrawal for what it was. To wit, a smashing success—even though the occasional rocket is still coming in.

No other man could have done it. Had he lived, almost certainly he would have withdrawn form parts of the West Bank as well, or at least tried to do so. Not because he liked Palestinians. But because he believed, quite rightly in this author’s view, that stationing Israeli troops and civilian amidst a hostile population could only lead to an endless waste of lives and treasure. He would also have completed the security fence around the West Bank—something his successors Olmert and Netanyahu, for various reasons, never did.

To Sharon, the following lines apply:

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

                   But O heart! Heart! Heart!

                   O the bleeding drops of red

                   Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                   Fallen Cold and dead.

What to Do?

While tensions in Korea have gone down, those in the Middle East, specifically along Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, are going up. As a flurry of consultations in Tel Aviv, Washington DC, and Sochi shows, they are higher today than at any time since Israel invaded Lebanon back in 2006.

That round, let me remind you, got underway when Hezbollah, apparently in the hope of freeing some of its prisoners who were being held by Israel, kidnapped some Israeli soldiers and killed several others. This led to what the Israelis call the Second Lebanese War, which ended with a smashing Israeli victory. Not because Hezbollah was finished—it was not—but because, for what is now more than a decade, it lost its will to take on Israel. And not because Israel’s forces performed particularly well—especially on the ground, they did not. But because their sheer firepower, mercilessly delivered over a period of some six weeks, taught Sheikh Nasrallah, his Hezbollah organization, and Lebanon’s population in general a lesson they did not quickly forget.

Now, with the Syrian civil war perhaps—perhaps, I say—finally starting to wind down, the situation is changing. Hezbollah’s recent victories against Daesh and other anti-Assad organizations have raised its morale and made it feel more confident in its own capabilities. Behind Hezbollah is Iran, which is intent on gaining some kind of presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and is using its anti-Israeli policy as a sort of battering ram to enter the Arab world. And behind Iran there is Russia. Like Iran, Russia wants a presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unlike Iran, it has no particular reason to oppose Israel, let alone engage in hostilities with it. Especially because doing so may very well cause complications with the U.S. On the other hand, it also has no particular reason to restrain Iran or Iran’s client, Hezbollah.

In my post of last week, My Meeting with Mr. X, I argued that never since 1945 have two nuclear powers engaged each other in earnest. Instead calm—albeit often a tense one—has prevailed. So, first of all, between the superpowers. So, later on, between the Soviet Union and China. So between China and India, and so, since at least the 1999 “Kargil War” (which in reality, was not a war at all, only a skirmish between minuscule forces over impossibly difficult terrain along an impossibly difficult border), between India and Pakistan. In all those cases, to quote Winston Churchill, some form of peace has become the sturdy child of terror. Hence the idea, presented to me in a half-joking, half serious, manner, of periodically assembling the world’s heads of state so as to show them the damage nuclear weapons can really cause.

So what to do? I am not worried about an Iranian nuclear arsenal. As I have argued before, there is excellent reason to believe that such an arsenal, far from leading to war between Israel and Iran, will force both sides to behave more responsibly than they do now. Not to speak of preventing Benjamin Netanyahu from ever realizing his threat to attack. Rather, the real crux of the problem is formed by the fact that Hezbollah, unlike Israel, does not possess a nuclear arsenal. Paradoxically, but as also happened during the October 1973 War (and, some say, the 1982 Argentinian invasion of the Falklands), it is precisely this fact which, in a certain sense, gives it a free hand and enables it to confront the Israelis without fear of nuclear retaliation and escalation.

So following the logic of my friend, Mr. X, here is what I propose. Let Israel, or anyone else who is feeling generous, hand Nasrallah a few bombs. Big or small, old or new, as long as they have the word NUCLEAR written on them in giant letters it does not really matter. Complete with their safety devices, so as to put responsibility for anything that may happen squarely on his shoulders. Without ifs and without buts.

And then, as the Jewish prayer has it, there will be peace upon Israel.