The Limits of Brute Force - Learning From Ariel Sharon for Today's Israel

Nimrod Hurvitz
Nimrod Hurvitz
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Nimrod Hurvitz
Nimrod Hurvitz

On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon toured the Temple Mount, ignited the second intifada and assured the Israeli public that he would subdue the Palestinian popular uprising by force, if they elected him as Prime Minister. Four months later, Israel held elections and the veteran general won. The tour that began on the Temple Mount landed him the job of Israel's Prime Minister.

Although Sharon was able to convince the voters that he could quell the Intifada, he was not actually able to fulfill his election promises. The intifada raged – roughly 3000 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Gaza; approximately a dozen Israelis were killed as bombs fell around Gaza, settlers were murdered in Gaza, and scores of soldiers were killed defending the settlers. After more than four years of battling Gazan resistance, he ordered the dismantling of the Jewish settlements in Gaza and withdrew unilaterally.

These days Netanyahu and Lieberman are going through a similar experience.

After criticizing ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for stopping short of destroying Hamas in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, after signing a coalition agreement stating that their government would topple the Hamas regime, and after announcing that they would bring Hamas to its knees, Netanyahu and Lieberman stopped short of sending the IDF into Gaza. Now Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is busy explaining the government's decision, arguing that they did not undertake a ground operation because the elections are two months away. Apparently he conveniently forgot that Operation Cast Lead also ended less than two months before the 2009 elections.

At the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas is still standing, and although it endured heavy military blows, it is still determined to continue its struggle.

Netanyahu and Lieberman learned the hard way that the IDF can defeat the Hamas in the battle-field but it cannot break its spirit – sooner or later it will strike back and with a vengeance. It is common knowledge that armies cannot defeat peoples that are determined to fight for their independence. America learnt this lesson in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and France in Algeria. Yet it seems that this knowledge was not common enough, since Netanyahu and Lieberman needed a private lesson.

However, judging by the statements that they made in presenting the Operation Pillar of Defense ceasefire, Netanyahu and Lieberman did learn a thing or two during this operation. In his statement Netanyahu spoke of the growing complexities of the Middle East and the need to navigate these new waters cautiously, indicating that he understands that Israel must make special efforts to improve its relations with its neighbors. Netanyahu's statement was followed by Lieberman's words of gratitude to Muhammad Morsi, Egypt's President and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, thanking him for his mediation between Israel and the Hamas, suggesting that he now understands that it is possible to co-exist alongside the Brotherhood. 

Although Netanyahu and Lieberman are undergoing changes, it remains to be seen whether they comprehend that if Israel does not negotiate a painful compromise with the Palestinians, the children who have been running to safety-shelters in the autumn of 2012, will be running with their children and grandchildren to the same shelters in the autumn of 2042. 

To their credit, Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak ran Operation Pillar of Defense responsibly. But it is precisely this mature approach that highlights the inadequacy of their stated political vision, which hinges on the use of force. Their cautious decision to keep Israeli soldiers outside of Gaza simply reinforces the understanding that every ground invasion of Gaza will incur heavy casualties, and will never put an end to the rockets and missiles landing in Israel. In a nutshell, Israel must learn to live with missiles or must begin to negotiate with the Palestinians, including Hamas. This is not an easy choice for politicians who relied on bellicose rhetoric to win the elections.

Difficult as it may be, it has been done before. When Sharon, whose belligerent announcements won him the Prime Minister's position, understood that it was against Israel's best interest to stay in Gaza, he had the integrity to admit his failure and leave. The latest conflict in Gaza may have had a similar effect on Netanyahu and Lieberman, who seem to have realized that brute force is not a substitute for diplomacy. Eventually this may even lead them to follow in Sharon's footsteps and change their policies. If they do, their Churchillian moment will not be in Fordow, Iran, but in Gaza, Palestine. 

Dr. Nimrod Hurvitz teaches in the Department of Middle East History at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and is content manager and an author at

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