The Height of Ariel Sharon's Folly

Like all military attempts to create a new world order, Israel's first war in Lebanon was doomed to fail.

Thirty years ago, Ariel Sharon started the first Lebanon war in order to create a new order in the Middle East that matched his world view. In other words, he tried to instigate a revolution.

Looking back three decades, if any new order was created, it was to the detriment of Israel in general and, in particular, to the ideological right wing led by Sharon.

The first Lebanon war had three consequences with long-term strategic outcomes. Lebanon, which was supposed to be our great ally, the one that would lead the reconciliation between the State of Israel and the Arab world, gave rise to Hezbollah.

Now our greatest adversary, Hezbollah, is also the most powerful force in Lebanon. The Palestinians, whose national leadership Sharon tried to crush in order to make them renounce their aspirations for independence, are now closer to Hezbollah than ever before. Israelis, most of whom opposed a Palestinian state in 1982, would be willing to accept such a state today if only its leaders would promise to end the conflict.

The idea of a new order was not Sharon’s invention. It is ingrained in human consciousness. In Judaism, it is embodied in the ideas of the final redemption and the end of days. In Plato, it takes the form of the state ruled by a philosopher-king, and in communism it is the Marxist utopia.

In the State of Israel, Sharon is not the only one who espoused it. So did Shimon Peres with his own vision of New Middle East, which he reiterated repeatedly with the signing of the Oslo Accords 19 years ago.

Unlike the approaches of Plato, Marx and our own two politicians, Judaism’s idea of the new order is much more practical. It requires a long and difficult process of cultural transformation rather than one that relies on political or military solutions. The others sought to shorten the process by imposing changes on the people.

Sharon reached the height of folly when he tried to impose a new order in the region through a three-day military operation in which he envisioned Israel Defense Forces crushing the Palestinians, driving out the Syrians and allying with Christian political parties that would do the rest of the work.

Sharon and his supporters were wrong to believe that they could impose the miracle of the Six Day War upon Lebanon - that just as they had defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in six days in June 1967, they would be able to overthrow the PLO and drive out the Syrians in three days in June 1982.

The enthusiastic instigators of the war used a nonexistent model: In 1967, the war ended after three hours. All the rest was mere pursuit, using live ammunition, of a fleeing enemy. But the war was not really won. For all practical purposes, it resumed soon after in the fighting between Israeli and Egyptian troops at Ras el-’Ish at the Suez Canal – the incident that began the War of Attrition, in 1969. There were also terror attacks and guerrilla incursions, mainly from Jordan, which we tried to prevent with a failed raid on the terrorist base at Karameh in March 1968.

Changes occur all the time, and war accelerates them. In World War II, Hitler tried to impose a new world order and failed, even if it looked at first like he would accomplish his objective. After the war the Allies imposed a new order in Germany and Japan, but then they had not been the ones to start the war. The war did not last three days, but rather five years and the Allies paid a terrible price from which the Soviet Union never recovered, until finally it dissolved entirely.

And following that war, Britain ceased to be an empire.

An instigator of a war who hopes to change the existing order must understand that the chances of accomplishing such an ambitious goal through a military operation are infinitesimal.

Instigators of wars must lower their expectations and be willing to pay a high price. They must become very familiar with the forces at their disposal and learn, fundamentally, the factors that they seek to change.

Israel started the first Lebanon war without having met any of these necessary conditions. Sharon and his supporters believed that the job was a relatively easy one. They set themselves extremely ambitious goals, underestimated the IDF’s limitations, and did not learn the various factors that they would have to deal with in Lebanon. As if that were not enough, Israeli society was hardly willing to pay any price at all. To paraphrase Voltaire in his novella Candide, “It was the worst of all possible wars.”

Ariel Sharon official portrait - April 2001