Israel has never lost a battle. Nor has it ever won a war. Ever since 1947, Israel has fought almost continuously: The war of independence in 1948, the 1956 war, the Six Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition in 1970, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Galilee-Lebanon War of 1982, and two Arab civil wars, the latest still raging. Between these wars, the struggle against terrorism has cost enormous casualties, too. In all battles, Israel has routed its enemies’ fighters. Through no war has it succeeded in securing its objective, to be left in peace for at least a little while.
Since losing wars normally results from battles lost rather than won, an unbroken string of wholesale defeats or frustrations in the wake of battlefield victories is interesting—especially to Americans who, since the Korean War, have overwhelmed enemy forces in Asia, Africa, and the Persian Gulf only to leave Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Somali warlords, and Saddam Hussein to determine the future of their regions. Moreover, incapacity to convert military superiority into victory seems less and less rare in Western statecraft. The case of Israel is useful for studying this incapacity because, like all phenomena, it is best understood in its most fully developed form.
In military, as in other matters, Israel exhibits the same characteristics as other modern Western states, only more so. It may be said that Israel is the advanced case of Western afflictions. The 1989 autobiography of Ariel Sharon, who is arguably Israel’s most successful battlefield commander and who has come closest to real victory, sheds the most light on the discrepancy between Israel’s military performance and political result. Sharon is particularly interesting now because of the speculation about how his election as Israel’s prime minister by the greatest margin ever might affect his country’s conduct of the latest round of its wars—an effort that Sharon is now in charge of conducting and that, at this writing, he does not seem to have a plan for winning.
Sharon was a good soldier, sprung from the orange groves of the Promised Land. As a boy in 1947 he joined the illegal Jewish defense force, the Haganah, fighting the British. Moved by his father’s admonition to protect his people, he nevertheless bridled his passions for the sake of military discipline. Throughout his career it seems that his spiritedness, his drive for victory, was always at least a step ahead of what his superiors would permit. Sharon was always “pushing the envelope.” Wounded as a young platoon leader in the war of independence, and thereafter part of the famous “Commando 101” unit, Sharon was in the mold of the Israelis who awed the world by their heroic rescue of hostages at Entebbe in 1976.
Sharon’s account of his battles shows technical proficiency, devotion to his men, an a keen eye for designating the objectives the taking of which would have the maximum effect on the enemy. Good soldier to a fault, he concludes account after account with something like “we accomplished our objective and more.” Yet when the reader considers that this book is written not by just any military man but by one who, by the time he wrote, had been a former Defense Minister and a major figure in politics, he is struck by how little the accounts of battles discuss how the objectives of the battles contributed to the achievement of the country’s purpose.
At first the reader assumes that Sharon is merely describing the thoughts of a young company commander, or even a battalion commander. We read of a 1955 raid on an Egyptian military camp in Gaza from which the Egyptians had wreaked havoc on Israeli villages. Sharon’s description, complete with map, is as brilliant as the plan itself. He calls it “a watershed in Middle Eastern affairs” and is satisfied that it was “a dramatic demonstration that Israel would not tolerate the continued terrorization of its people.” Still he notes that it did not stop Nasser, who then allied with the Soviet Union and prepared a bigger war.
That came in 1956. Sharon led a paratroop brigade to capture the shores of the Suez Canal and the strategic Sinai passes. When, after the cease fire, the government ordered the army to vacate the Sinai, the young brigadier “took it hard.” “Our overriding goal had been to find a way of forcing Egypt to accept responsibility, and put an end to [terrorism]. And now the Egyptians would be coming back. It was as if we had not solved anything at all.” And indeed Israel had gained only another eleven tortured years. Then, in 1967, Division Commander Sharon again led the Israeli spearhead. He struggled against the government’s and his fellow generals’ preferences for piecemeal attacks along a broad front and thrust his division through enemy lines, disorganizing the enemy rear and delivering total operational success. The book gives no hint of any dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to stop military operations at America’s behest without achieving changes in the attitude or composition of the Arab regimes.
Then came the desperate Yom Kippur War of 1973. Retired General Sharon resumed command of a division, and, on the fateful day of October 8, suffered the near fatal consequences of insufficient boldness at the high command. After near insubordination on his part, he again thrust through the enemy lines in a classic maneuver, cut off the enemy, and forced a cease fire—again to suffer the consequences of bellum interruptus. At this point the reader is saying: Ah, if only Sharon had been in charge of the government! Surely military operations would have been designed to achieve real peace.
In the 1982 Lebanon War, Sharon was Defense Minister and Prime Minister Begin’s soulmate. Sharon did not lack a vision. Victory would consist of destroying the PLO, which since 1973 had ravished the Lebanese body politic and inflicted terror on Northern Israel, and of chasing Syria out of Lebanon. Peace would be secured by restoring the balance of Lebanon’s religious communities, which would itself depend upon restoring the power of Bashier Gemayel’s Maronite Christians. The Israeli army was up to the task, and Sharon knew precisely the maneuver that would do the job: capture the Beirut-Damascus highway, link up with the Christian forces, make the Bekaa Valley untenable for Syria and turn Beirut into a death trap for the PLO.
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The problem with all this was that Sharon and Begin did not share these thoughts with the cabinet or the country. On the contrary, they got political agreement for the war by reiterating that its purpose, “Peace For Galilee,” could be achieved by clearing out the PLO from a 25-mile zone up to the Litani River. Sharon tells us that the advance beyond the Litani to the highway and Beirut were in response to Arab violations of two cease fires, and that the Labor Party’s hue and cry against the advance was disloyal. All true. Nevertheless, it is also true that Sharon knew all along what sort of military operation it would take to achieve peace, and that he refrained from building political support for it. That may have been because such political resolve is beyond the power of any Israeli—or possibly of any Western political leader to achieve. At any rate, he did not try.
This leads us to the main question: Is it possible for a country such as Israel to resolve to defeat its enemies—not just to stave off battlefield defeat but to impose its will on another people? Sharon’s explanation of the Labor Party’s betrayal of Israeli forces—they so resented being out of power that they began thinking of the army as “them,” and wanted “them” abased more than they wanted the PLO and the Syrians abased—is true enough. It reminds Americans of our own Vietnam War. But the explanation is insufficient. Why is it that a significant proportion of society’s leaders just cannot countenance war for the natural end of war—to impose our kind of peace on others?
Israel is prototypical because its leadership is composed, even more thoroughly than the leadership of other Western countries, of people who have no intellectual or moral foundation outside of modernist ideologies. The lamp unto Israel’s feet is not the Old Testament, but rather Second International socialism, the Kennedy School of Government, and the latest nonsense from the intellectual hothouse of the West. Hence even the generation of Ben Gurion never sought military victory. Those old socialists believed that Arab hostility would vanish when modern, secular socialism would reach Arab capitals. Peace would reign among modern secular socialists of all races. The next generation of leaders was paralyzed by the presumption that all values are equal, and that national peculiarities were retrograde. Surely the Arabs would be kind to fellow relativists! The generation of leaders with whom Sharon must deal nowadays believes in the so-called globalization of the world. They believe along with the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman that the civilization of the computer would overcome the resentments of “olive tree” cultures. Victory has no place in any of this.
And so Israel’s boldest warrior faces a cruel war of attrition waged by people wholly unlike what modernist ideologies say they should be. His military operations have amounted to tit for tat. Sharon may or may not have developed, in his heart of hearts, a battle plan for winning this war. It is certain only that he has made no effort to marshal the ideas within his own body politic that would make such a plan more viable than the excellent but foredoomed plan he executed in Lebanon.