With Ariel Sharon Gone, Israel Reveals the Truth About the 1982 Lebanon War

After 35 years, with the leading figures of the 1982 Lebanon War gone, the IDF is issuing its official history of the conflict

Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin visiting the Beaufort Crusader fortress in southern Lebanon, 1982.
Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin visiting the Beaufort Crusader fortress in southern Lebanon, 1982. IDF Spokesperson's Unit

It was a different era. Journalists roamed freely in the company of the senior officers they knew, also because both sides knew that the (pre-High Court) military censor would strictly impose one of two alternatives – erasure or preemptive banning.

When Anwar Sadat was murdered, on the eighth anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Menachem Begin hastened to annex the Golan Heights, in the hope of pushing Hosni Mubarak to freeze the Israeli-Egyptian peace and so provide Begin with a pretext for cancelling the evacuations of Yamit and Sharm al-Sheikh to which Israel was committed. In this scenario, Syria was cast as the agent of a violent response to the annexation.

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In response to the response, the Northern Command would embark on a campaign including an invasion of Lebanon, for a threefold purpose – to wipe out the PLO forces, push out the Syrian army and get as far as Beirut to help Israel’s darling, Bashir Gemayel, get elected president.

On the wall in the office of one of the commanders in the north who was hosting the journalist was a map for the planned “Oranim” mission. A long, thick arrow showed the path the commander’s troops would take into south Lebanon and onward, all the way to the capital. “It depends how it goes,” the officer said when asked to estimate the number of casualties. “Three hundred dead, without engaging the Syrians and without Beirut. Six hundred with.”

He also had a convenient moral-practical answer when asked why such a working assumption wouldn’t cause him to protest to the authorities who were plotting for so many Israelis to be killed, and lead him to refuse to comply with their plans. “First off, if I resign now, it won’t prevent the war. They’ll appoint another, less experienced commander and there will be even more casualties. My responsibility to my soldiers requires me to stay with them in battle. And second, and I’m not ashamed to say this, after the war, promotions will be based on your location [in the war].”

However, unlike some of his colleagues, he was (unjustly, in his opinion) passed over for promotion, as his performance during the war drew some professional criticism – not that those who were promoted avoided criticism altogether. The crux of the issue, though, is that such a conversation even took place more than a half-year before the official launching of the war that was mostly initiated by Israel, even more so than the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Most of the credit for that one goes to then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, who got Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion to sign on.

Much was said and written and broadcast prior to the start of the Lebanon War on June 6, 1982, and of course much more followed after that date, without finding its way into the official account of the war. It took 35 years for a study by the IDF’s History Department, entitled “Sheleg in Lebanon” and written by Shimon Golan (to be published jointly by the department, the Defense Ministry and Modan).

It’s not really a war if Shimon Golan doesn’t research it, or at least the decision-making by the high command leading up to and during the war. Lebanon completes Golan’s hat-trick, after the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War. If this were soccer, after this triple he could take the ball home with him.

As usual, the really interesting part of the history is what lies behind the writing – or shelving – of the historical account. Why did it take the IDF three and a half decades to publish a study when it had all the sources in its possession from the very beginning? Well, just imagine a roll call conducted by worried senior General Staff officers, while Dr. Golan, a major general in the reserves, waits to hear what will become of his writings: “Menachem Begin?”

“Gone.”

Ariel Sharon with Israeli soldiers in Beirut during the First Lebanon War in 1982.
AP

“Rafael Eitan?”

“Gone.”

“Ariel Sharon?” 

[Silence]

“Sharon?”

“Gone.”

Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan in Lebanon in 1982.
© David Rubinger/CORBIS

“You’re certain? Okay, Shimon, you can go ahead and publish it.”

Very high-ranking officers, not lowly privates (and in this context, even brigadier generals and colonels count as privates), have extra privileges. They get special consideration. They are given draft reports to review. People fear them, especially Sharon. As long as the prime minister of the war, Begin, the war’s chief of staff in its fifth, unnecessary year, Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and above all, the war’s defense minister, Sharon, were alive and breathing, the army was paralyzed by fear.

In 1990, more than a quarter-century before the study came out, Sharon received a historic delivery in a package deal – 1973 plus 1982. He was annoyed. For one thing, why was Ezer Weizman’s resignation from the Defense Ministry, which opened up the post for Sharon after Begin’s interim year, attributed to diplomatic and security motives, when some were saying that the resignation was really motivated by political ambition, with the aim of toppling the Begin government – the sort of calculation that would certainly never occur to Sharon.

Outdated images

So history had to wait until Sharon could no longer threaten it. But history refused to wait and continued moving forward, like a brigade in retreat, leaving behind a company to cover it. The strange result is that figures from 1982 have been frozen in images which the reader knows are outdated. Here, for example, is a young brigadier general, the commander of the General Staff’s Planning Division and one of Sharon’s protégés, also serving as a deputy corps commander. This is Ehud Barak. Eighteen years later, and 17 years before this history sees the light of day, Barak will become a prime minister and defense minister who loses the election to Sharon. Another of Sharon’s guests is Yitzhak Rabin, slightly more than a decade before Sharon sharply criticizes public fears, groundless in his authoritative opinion, that someone might assassinate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Rabin.

Unwillingly, Sharon is the main character in the History Department’s research project, since his belated return to the forefront of politics, as leader of Likud and as prime minister, as the disassembler of Likud and the founder of the Kadima party, as the person evacuating Gaza before falling at his post – all are but an amazing prologue to a play ending in research done after the second act, in which the Kahan Commission report on the 1982 massacre at Beirut’s refugee camps removed him from center stage, although not to the gallery.

Ariel Sharon, center, Rafael Eitan and Amir Drori in the First Lebanon War, 1982.

Overall, in contrast to the aftermath of the Agranat Commission that investigated the 1973 war, where the people deposed as a result of its recommendations, including chief of staff David Elazar, military intelligence chief Eli Zeira and the head of the army’s Southern Command, Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen, were not rehabilitated in the public eye, the Kahan Commission had very little impact on the future of its subjects of investigation. Raful set up a new party and became a cabinet member. Begin, in contrast, even though the commission took pity and imposed no penalty no him, resigned and secluded himself.

Along with Sharon and Raful, the commission’s legal team also advanced. Researchers Dorit Beinisch and Edna Arbel became state prosecutors and Supreme Court justices, with Beinisch ending up court president. Aharon Barak, the key figure on the Kahan Commission, became a Supreme Court justice and then its president, overlapping with Sharon’s term as prime minister.

Golan’s research doesn’t have much that is new to add regarding the Sabra and Shatila massacre, although it highlights the monstrous forces that were recognized early on by the righteous. Warnings about some of the murderous inclinations of various factions accompanied the earliest documents regarding this operation. These referred mainly to the commander of the southern Lebanese militia, Saad Haddad. It was understood that he and his men should be prevented from carrying out their intentions.

Also noted was the cruelty, adhering to entrenched Lebanese customs, of Christians in the northern part of the country, a trait commonly attributed to the Phalangists headed by Bashir Gemayel. The issue of collaborating with them was unsettled up to the conquest of Beirut. By then it was clear that their entry into refugee camps surrounded by the IDF, “in search of terrorists posing as civilians,” was an invitation to a massacre.

Just like the massacre itself, the Kahan report was a nightmare come true for Sharon. Precisely as a precaution against investigations and deposition, Sharon placed “markers” along Lebanon’s coastal routes, the mountain roads and the Beirut-Damascus highway, as well as between the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. These were meant as clues for any detective looking backwards, providing alibi after alibi. These consisted of strategic statements, reservations, brackets and asterisks, all aimed at serving as future evidence for acquittal, if needed. These attempts were messy, including a jumble of conflicting and contradictory statements.

Basis for war: Deception

There is little that is new in the authorized version. Yet there is confirmation of suspicions. The basis for that war was deception. This was not criminal fraud, since responsibility lay with those who were seduced and gave in, but it did involve duplicity and concealment of the true objectives. This applies to the war’s initiation and conduct, without elaborating on the total diplomatic fiasco and the hundreds of pointless casualties. The ramifications included the removal of a friendly secretary of state, Alexander Haig, a plan by President Reagan for peace in exchange for territories, Bashir Gemayel’s ignoring the people who bought his election as president with their blood, and the fake peace with his brother Amin, who was a Syrian puppet.

The IDF’s historical research is as dry as a tin of IDF rations from a past war. There is no juice: It describes no emotions or drives, no fear of dying, shell shock, friendly fire, blood, fire or smoke. It consists only of battle plans, orders and verbatim reports of discussions and communications. Occasionally one can get a glimpse of the unspoken pressure that arose from bringing into close quarters in the war room on Mount Canaan a defense minister, chief of staff and regional commander who shared a common background. Raful was a company commander when Sharon was his battalion commander, and a battalion commander when Sharon was his brigade commander. Amir Drori was Sharon’s head of operations in Southern Command and a brigade commander when Raful was division commander in the Yom Kippur War, and a commander of Division 36 in the Golan Heights when Eitan was head of Northern Command.

Sharon loomed over everyone, even as a paunchy figure in a civilian suit, after starting out as an intelligence officer in Northern Command in the ‘50s, becoming its chief of staff in the ‘60s.

Golan’s main finding is that Sharon consistently strived to accomplish his big plan, while trying to obtain a serial and cumulative imprimatur for expanding the smaller operations that he got approved. He took pains to obtain Begin’s signature on approval of his plans. Begin was dealing in trivial matters such as changing the operation’s former name, Oranim, to Peace for Galilee. This was explained as a reference to the attitude of Christians around the world to the Galilee, associated with Jesus.

Sharon was heeding a lesson learned from the 1956 Sinai (Kadesh) operation, when investigating officer Haim Laskov compared Sharon’s version of events to that of Rehavam Ze’evi. Sharon claimed that as a representative of the General Staff and the army’s Southern Command, Ze’evi had authorized his excursion into the Mitla Pass. A small misunderstanding that led to 38 deaths. Laskov, who believed Ze’evi, quickly implemented his conclusions and, after becoming chief of staff, froze Sharon’s promotion for years. Only when Rabin became chief of staff did this change. Rabin had also experienced the cold shoulder of a chief of staff (Dayan).

Sharon vowed never to repeat his mistake. He became a champion of documentation, a suppressor of spontaneity, a meticulous note-taker, sometimes with a carbon copy, documenting it all in a note pad; he belonged to the paper generation. In the end, all his efforts to get everything he said and wrote into the official minutes, as inoculation against enemies lurking all around him, were of no avail in the Lebanese turmoil.

In the Yom Kippur War, as a divisional commander who was also on the Likud list for the Knesset, Sharon updated Begin so as to put pressure on Dayan to approve his plans, even though these were opposed by Sharon’s direct commanders. In Lebanon, other officers bypassed him and approached other cabinet ministers, mainly Mordechai Zippori, to make the cabinet aware of the gap between what it was told and what was happening on the ground.

The cabinet had approved a 12-hour operation, 24 hours at most, or perhaps 72 hours. Now it was a bit further and no more, with no skirmishing with the Syrian army (“unless they ”) and without reaching Beirut (“nevertheless ”). The story about the PLO’s armaments having a 40-kilometer range was based on one piece of artillery it had, an elusive piece which, the army said, could be moved around. The strongest and most sophisticated army in the region could not locate one holy cannon and destroy it?

History not only repeats itself, it remembers those who were removed in earlier wars but returned. They included Dayan, Begin’s foreign minister, and Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign minister before becoming prime minister himself. When history itself has a history, it sours, even though it retains some use.

This week it turned out that Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, a knowledgable history buff unrivaled in the army, someone who likes to reminisce about his experiences as a company commander in Golani, believes for some reason that the IDF was victorious in the Lebanon War, which he conveniently defines as having ended on June 11. The battles of Ein Zhalta, Sultan Yacoub and Beirut apparently belong to another war. Eisenkot, in case he hasn’t yet made use of his access to this research, would do well to read Golan to rid himself of this illusion, since the gravest mistake made by political and military leaders in Lebanon, as in the Yom Kippur War, was not related to flawed intelligence but to erroneous assessment of our power.

The final whistle has not blown in the game of decades played by Golan. He still has the War of Attrition, the battles on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts between the end of the 1973 war and the signing of the disengagement agreements, and the sojourn of the IDF in Lebanon until it pulled back in 1985. This may be followed by the unwritten account of David’s battle with Goliath. We’re only waiting for Goliath’s comments.