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Sharon Set the Stage His Heir Reacts On By Ethan Bronner

NYT | August 6, 2006

TOWARD the end of last month, well into Israel’s war with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Ariel Sharon suddenly seemed to shudder. He had lain in a coma since having a stroke in January, and with the Israeli military turning its fury once again northward, his health began to slide. In the middle of the country’s biggest crisis in years, Mr. Sharon, the former prime minister, was rushed to the emergency room.

It is hard not to view that decline in symbolic terms or to sense his shadow falling heavily over all that is happening in southern Lebanon today. As a commander and politician, he made sure that Israel responded to armed provocation with ferocity, helping create Israel’s doctrine of asymmetrical deterrence. But paradoxically he was the one who, as prime minister, did virtually nothing for five years as Hezbollah built up a deadly anti-Israel arsenal on its northern border.

This has left his successor, Ehud Olmert, in an excruciating dilemma, one from which he is still trying to extricate himself. If this war ends for Israel as badly as it has started — it intensified last week after a hiccup of an Israeli ceasefire — it could well mean not only the end of Mr. Olmert’s political career but a harsh coda to Mr. Sharon’s life’s work.

Like all wars, this one has many causes and serves many functions. It is about the future of Lebanon, the security of Israel’s borders, the struggle between the United States and Iran. But it is also about the legacy of Ariel Sharon.

Israelis have an expression — “Habotz halivanoni” — the Lebanese mud, and it is Mr. Sharon, more than anyone, who was responsible for getting his country stuck in it for 18 painful years. He led the first invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to uproot the Palestinian ministate that had taken hold there to carry out raids on Israel, a goal the invasion achieved. But a further effort to transform Lebanon into a state friendly to Israel failed utterly, and helped spawn Hezbollah, a Shiite movement that rules most of southern Lebanon and has since haunted Israel in more ways than one.

With sponsorship and training from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah turned into a formidable foe that fought Israel throughout the occupation. In 2000, when Israeli troops left Lebanon, Hezbollah claimed the exit as a victory and used that claim to help turn itself into the largest single political force in Lebanon and an anti-Israel stalwart.

As if that weren’t enough, Hezbollah probably inspired the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where an anti-Israel uprising broke out within months, led by the militant group Hamas. And now Hamas, also with some help from Syria and Iran, has taken over Palestinian politics.

So it was to some extent Mr. Sharon who created the current dilemma. As a result, one question many in Israel have been asking these days is: What would “the Bulldozer,” as he was known, have done? A participant in all of the nation’s previous wars, he had little time for pie-in-the-sky talk of peace. While he did withdraw Israel from Gaza last year and planned further territorial reductions, he did not shy from aggression. So if he had not lost consciousness seven months ago and had gone on, as expected, to win the elections in March, what would he have done last month when Hezbollah attacked with rockets, mortars and a raid that killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two?

One guide to the answer — and a surprising one — is how he reacted when similar attacks occurred on his watch. Hezbollah was hardly passive during Mr. Sharon’s five years in office. There were more than a dozen serious attacks, including cross-border infiltrations and seizures, and rocket and mortar fire, which killed Israeli civilians and soldiers. Mr. Sharon ordered a few airstrikes and return fire but nothing remotely on the scale of what has been happening now. What occurred on July 12 differed little from some of those earlier attacks.

Moreover, Hezbollah’s buildup of a 12,000-rocket arsenal, including longer-range ones capable of hitting central Israel, was no secret. Military intelligence commanders warned Mr. Sharon of the arsenal’s growth and increased sophistication in briefings widely reported in the Israeli media.

So why did he do so little? There are two answers, one pragmatic, one psychological.

The pragmatic answer is that he was elected on a platform of ending the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, that began four months before he took office, and he simply couldn’t focus on Lebanon in a serious way at the same time.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, the American ambassador to Israel during Mr. Sharon’s time in office, sees the issue as one of priorities.

“He was very much concerned about Hezbollah’s buildup of rockets,” said Mr. Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton. “I have notebooks with Sharon’s argumentation in which he was trying to pound into all of our heads that his focus on the Palestinian issue should not allow us to ignore Lebanon and Iran. He meant it, but in practical terms he got caught up with the Palestinians.”

Nonetheless — and here is the psychological answer — the prevailing view in Israel is that Mr. Sharon was so burned, politically and emotionally, from past Lebanon campaigns that he couldn’t face going in again.

“His 1982 invasion of Lebanon led to the worst crisis of his career,” said Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development and national scholar for the moderate-left Israel Policy Forum. “He never got that monkey off his back.” An Israeli government commission found Mr. Sharon guilty of indirect responsibility for a massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militiamen in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. He was removed from his job as defense minister.

A senior Israeli official who has known Mr. Sharon for 30 years and spoke only on condition of anonymity, said by telephone: “His whole life’s work was almost destroyed by Lebanon. There was no way he was going to do anything more there.”

He noted the mordant twist in the fact that Mr. Olmert has found himself fighting a war on two fronts — Hamas in Gaza, to the south, and Hezbollah to the north — a situation Mr. Sharon had studiously avoided.

“Sharon never had to prove he was Sharon,” the official said. “To be prime minister of Israel, the Jews must trust you and the Arabs need to fear you. Sharon had those qualities. Olmert still needs to prove that he is Sharon.”

The result, he and others argue, is that Mr. Olmert has responded with a ferocity in Lebanon that Mr. Sharon would not have chosen. At the same time, Mr. Sharon’s neglect of Hezbollah’s arsenal left Mr. Olmert far more vulnerable.

Leaders of Hezbollah and its sponsors said they did not expect Israel’s harsh counteroffensive. However ferociously he had fought Yasir Arafat and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Sharon never reacted that way in Lebanon while prime minister. In 2004, he exchanged 430 prisoners and the bodies of 59 Lebanese for an Israeli citizen taken by Hezbollah and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers held by the militia. Hezbollah calculated that his more moderate successor, Mr. Olmert, would be open to similar negotiations.

For Mr. Olmert, the calculation was different. Since the attack from Lebanon came on the heels of a similar one from Gaza — leaving three Israel soldiers in enemy hands — and his entire policy is based on more withdrawals from occupied territory, he felt he was being tested. He needed to show friend and foe that he could be a Sharon.

Mr. Olmert not only has little personal experience in war, he also was persuaded by his military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz of the air force, that Hezbollah could be degraded from the air without the use of ground troops. That proved false and now Mr. Olmert is rebuilding a security zone in southern Lebanon with Israeli troops, the very zone that proved so muddy to such troops in the 1980’s and 90’s.

If this war ends with a multinational force taking Israel’s place and Hezbollah significantly weakened, Mr. Olmert may well be able to go on to his grand plan of removing Israelis from large sections of the West Bank, finishing the building of a barrier between Israel and the area, and setting the boundaries of a democratic Jewish state for a generation. This, too, is a Sharon legacy. Mr. Sharon is the one who adopted this plan, late in life, and made withdrawal from land seem less like a concession than an act of Israeli self-assertion and self-definition. When a bulldozer moves, even backwards, it makes a powerful impression.

But if Israelis spend months or years sinking again into Lebanese mud, fighting off guerrillas and seeking to prove their deterrent skills, the West Bank plan may sink right along with them. And history will take that into account not only in writing Mr. Olmert’s chapter, but Mr. Sharon’s.

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This entry was posted on 6 August, 2006 by in Hegemon-watch, Israel, Lebanon, Middle East, Politics and Psychology.

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