Magazine article Midstream

Ariel Sharon: The Evolution of a Security Hawk

Magazine article Midstream

Ariel Sharon: The Evolution of a Security Hawk

Article excerpt

Will the real Ariel Sharon please stand up? Rarely in the history of the State of Israel has an individual appeared about whom there has been such a bitter debate. Some Israelis hail Ariel Sharon as the hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and for his continuing battle against Palestinian terrorism, including the assassinations of Hamas chiefs Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Other Israelis see him as a traitor for his willingness to give away Gaza and part of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Still other Israelis--primarily on the left of the Israeli political spectrum--as well as most Arabs, despise Sharon for his invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and for the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps there in the aftermath of the invasion. Yet other Israelis, witnessing his establishment of the Likud party in 1972 and his massive election victories in 2001 and 2003, hail him for his political acumen, while at the same time questioning some of his business practices, which have embroiled him in a quagmire that might cost him his premiership.

To understand Sharon is, first and foremost, to recognize that he is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist, very much in the model of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. Thus, unlike Effie Eitam of Mafdal (The National Religious Party), Sharon is not a religious ideologue who believes not only that God gave Israel the West Bank but also that it would be a sin against God and even a reversal of the messianic process if Israel was to give up any of the West Bank. Neither is Sharon a Likud Party ideologue like Benjamin Netanyahu, who believes the whole world is against Israel and that Israel has to hold the maximum possible territory to defend itself against its enemies. Finally, although he grew up in a Mapai (Labor Party) household, Sharon did not grow up to be a doctrinaire socialist like the late Histadrut leader Pinchas Lavon, but rather embraced the mamlachtiut (the State comes first) doctrine of Ben-Gurion.

If Sharon can be said to have been fixated on anything, it was on Israel's security. As he makes clear in his memoirs, he was dedicated to the propositions: (1) that Israel's borders had to be secure; (2) that Israel had to hold the high ground wherever possible; (3) that Arab terrorism was a major threat against Israel: and (4) that the only way the Arabs could be deterred from sending terrorists to attack Israel was by Israel's mounting major retaliatory attacks that would demonstrate to its Arab neighbors that there were serious costs involved if they encouraged or even tolerated terrorist infiltration from their borders.

The evolution of Sharon's ideas on security can be said to have stemmed from two formative experiences in his life. The first was the battle for Latrun, a Jordanian fortress on the heights commanding the road to Jerusalem during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. From Latrun, Jordanian forces were able to interdict Jewish efforts to resupply the besieged Jerusalem. As a junior officer in this battle, Sharon led a group of ill-trained and ill-equipped Jewish soldiers, some of whom were very recent immigrants from the Holocaust-devastated Jewish communities in Europe, in an attack on Latrun that proved to be a major failure. From this failure (Israel was not to capture Latrun until the 1967 Six-Day War), Sharon learned the importance of properly training and equipping his men and the need to hold the high ground whenever possible. He was to put the first lesson into practice soon after the 1948 war when he was made commander of Unit 101, the commando force he led in the early and mid-1950s on numerous retaliatory raids against Egyptian and Jordanian military positions and villages that served as jumping off points for terrorist attacks against Israel. While these raids sometimes led to civilian casualties, as in Kibyeh and Qalqilyah, Sharon felt the raids were necessary, both to raise Israeli morale (Israel was suffering hundreds of casualties per year from the terrorist attacks) and to bring home to the Arab governments the costs of their policy of fostering terrorism. …

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