1982 Memo Shows Israel Learned Little From First Lebanon War

Largely unpublished document reveals the IDF imposed a siege on Beirut while waiting for a policy decision.

Sunday is the third anniversary of the start of the Second Lebanon War. When you go into a second war, it is tempting to believe that something has been learned from the first, and you try to avoid the same mistakes.

A document from 1982, of which large portions have not been published until now, confirms the suspicion that this is an illusion. The date at the top, July 12, is the same date the war began three years ago. In 1982, however, the war began on June 6 and was followed by more than a month of very murderous stomping around. The Israel Defense Forces imposed a siege on Beirut, waiting for a policy decision.

The prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, like prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2006, was working with a sympathetic Republican administration in the United States, by and large. But by mid-1982 Begin had used up his bag of surprises.

Begin had surprised president Ronald Reagan with the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, and six months later with the annexation of the Golan Heights. In both cases Reagan (mainly under pressure from his defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger) retaliated with harsh but temporary punishment. Six months later came Operation Pines, which morphed into the Lebanon war. Israel's defense minister, Ariel Sharon, didn't really coordinate the justification for the war with the American secretary of state, Alexander Haig, who was dismissed two weeks later.

In a discussion on July 12, Begin expressed bitterness toward Reagan's envoy, ambassador Philip Habib - "He really drives me crazy, he's a sick man." These are words Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might use today to refer to special envoy George Mitchell, who like Habib is of Lebanese origin.

Begin had a particularly shrewd chief of staff, Rafael (Raful) Eitan, who saw the escalation in Lebanon as an asset, not a burden. "All the prophets who prophesized that they would get us out of Lebanon said we would stay there for four days," scoffed Eitan. "The biggest optimists said a week to a week and a half, and we've already been there for five weeks. No one is talking about leaving Lebanon."

Begin hastened to award himself a citation of valor: "This is because we have conducted a diplomatic campaign, not only a military campaign. That's the reason." Eitan, to whom Begin had forced Sharon to give another year as chief of staff, hastened to nod: "Therefore we have time."

These hallucinatory statements were uttered at the end of a long speech by Begin, which began with his announcement that "after due consideration, after having heard the arguments, the chief of staff's plan looks best to me, for the most part. Since he is the commander, he will decide on the plan, which will be brought to the cabinet for a decision that will obligate the army to implement it. Different opinions have been heard here, but it is the commander who decides."

A swift achievement was needed, said Begin, not temporary treatments without curing the disease. He explained how time was a factor, "and there has been a huge international outcry, especially this matter of hearts going soft at the expense of the Jewish people .... And what is this business of keeping water from a civilian population? Jews are also joining the calls. A siege is a very lengthy business and we won't be able to withstand the time factor. It is best to take the path proposed by the chief of staff."

Begin preferred "that if the shooting starts up again, the cabinet will take a decision on the entire plan, not only the air force's bombing of selective targets. The proposal to have the air force bomb and destroy artillery and Katyushas that are shooting at us is justified, and it is possible to destroy them without harming the civilian population. This is completely legitimate, [though] ... we have not solved the whole problem."

He said that maybe other means were necessary, including a siege. "How much time do you estimate would be needed for this entire operation?" he asked.

Eitan: "Two days."

Begin: "Forty-eight hours - we fight for 48 hours and we're done. The Americans will want to take revenge on us. In my opinion we have to withstand this. They can't keep materiel and food from us in the coming months. They can threaten in the future - we'll withstand it. We have ways of protecting ourselves."

Begin also planned to manipulate his fellow cabinet members. "If you want us to put the air force into action tomorrow morning," he told Eitan, "if the shooting starts up again today, I would have to convene the cabinet tonight. So tomorrow there will be an action, it will stir a big outcry and afterward they'll say it caused an even bigger conflagration. It's better to suffer for three days and return artillery fire until Wednesday night.

"This is my plan: On Wednesday at 8 I want to convene a cabinet meeting at my home to inform the cabinet at the last minute, so the news won't become common knowledge. That night, we'll take the decision - I hope it will have a majority ... and then on Thursday we start to act. By Saturday we can be finished. A concentrated action ... is preferable to a strike by the air force on the terrorist infrastructure, after which nothing decisive would be done."

Begin, who had still not learned the lesson of the failure of the previous promise that the operation would end within two or three days, said he was stating things "very cruelly, because we would be cruel to ourselves if the situation were to continue - that is the worst war of all for us. The public, too, will not withstand it. If there is a real truce and people aren't getting killed and hurt, the people can wait for a few weeks. But if there are 30 casualties a day, the way there were yesterday, two killed and 28 wounded, some of whom will be cripples for life - our people will not stand for this."

Reagan's aides, among them his bureau chief James Baker, who eventually became secretary of state, had taken the trouble to leak harsh things the president told Begin. According to Begin, "It is true that in a certain sentence the president spoke to me in terms of an ultimatum, apart from the date .... If I conclude that there is no other way apart from taking control of West Beirut all at once, what does this mean? Declaring an arms embargo, stopping the economic aid? An arms embargo is a transient thing and postponing economic aid - the Jewish people lives. If we enter into a conflict with the United States, we will have to eat bread and margarine. We can't take orders from anyone. But we need to take this into account."

This is Begin at his best: a statement and its opposite, boastful staunchness alongside acceptance of the judgment, seemingly with Eitan, actually with Reagan. Sharon, who was already bruised, made do with the statement: "The plan the chief of staff has presented is acceptable to me." At the meeting Begin convened later that week, most cabinet members believed Begin the statesman, not Begin the military man, and voted no. Until the approval of the entry into West Beirut, and after that the massacre at Sabra and Chatila, two months and one assassination (of president-elect Bashir Gemayel) would go by.

Within slightly more than a year, all the other fomenters of the Lebanon War - Haig, Eitan, Sharon and Begin - had managed to knock themselves off their pedestals, as is usually the case in Israel and Lebanon.