What Ariel Sharon might have done differently

This week's Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee report avoided direct reference to Olmert's war failures.

sharon 88 (photo credit:)
sharon 88
(photo credit: )
Of all the "what ifs" surrounding last year's war with Hizbullah, perhaps the most intriguing is what if Ariel Sharon had not fallen into a coma half a year before. Although Monday's report by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee avoided direct reference to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's responsibility for the war's failures, it is clear that the lack of effective direction in the month-long conflict was not only attributable to the general staff but principally to the political leadership. The combination of a prime minister lacking significant military experience or innate strategic savvy, and a chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, who was the first, and presumably last, pilot to be given command of the ground army, proved fatal. AS PRIME MINISTER, Sharon had undergone a transformation from hawk to pragmatist. But as a war leader, it is virtually certain that he would have shown the aggressiveness he displayed throughout his military career since being given command of the 101 commando unit in 1953. He became in fact a symbol of over-aggressiveness in the retaliation raids he commanded and in the battle for the Mitla Pass in the 1956 Sinai Campaign when he defied orders not to attack and lost close to 40 paratroopers needlessly. As a division commander during the Six Day War, he planned and executed what some military analysts regard as the most brilliant setpiece battle in Israeli military history in his attack on the Egyptian fortified area at Kusseima-Abu-Ageila. He had come close to being dismissed on the eve of the war by Chief of Staff Gen. Yitzhak Rabin when he sought to circumvent an order that placed his division in defensive positions while two other divisions attacked, an order that was later rescinded. Sharon achieved his greatest fame in the Yom Kippur War when his division broke through to the Suez Canal and bridged it. But then too Sharon came close to dismissal for attempting to reach the canal with his tanks before Southern Command was prepared for a major push. In the First Lebanese War, Sharon as defense minister brought the IDF all the way to Beirut after the government had been led by him to believe that the army would stop after 40 kilometers. As prime minister, Sharon bears the blame for appointing a former air force commander as overall commander of the IDF, including ground forces, even though Halutz had never led a platoon, let alone a division. However, it is safe to assume that Sharon would have reacted very differently from Olmert in responding to the Hizbullah cross-border raid on July 12, 2006 and would have given clear operational direction to the IDF. Instead of launching a massive air attack that same evening, as Olmert did, Sharon would presumably have seen to it that a coherent plan of action was first drawn up and that a large scale mobilization of reserves was begun. He almost certainly would have launched a massive ground attack early in the war with several divisions from several directions, giving achievement of decisive battlefield victory priority over a concern to avoid casualties. As a senior officer who served in Northern Command said this week of the leadership during the Second Lebanese War, "they wanted a deluxe war without casualties." That was never Sharon's style. The writer is the author of The Yom Kippur War.