TEL AVIV (Aug. 12)
The Lebanon war was a “great success … a war of salvation … the most carefully pre-planned and implemented war in Israel’s history.” Moreover, it was directed on a daily basis by the Cabinet, which was fully privy to every move made, Ariel Sharon declared in a prepared four-hour address to a VIP audience at Tel Aviv University Tuesday night.
Sharon’s speech, in which he quoted extensively from the minutes of Cabinet and military staff meetings and briefings of senior army officers, was intended to “tell the truth and clear my name.” But it has been followed by the reopening of the Lebanon war debate, with renewed sharp attacks on Sharon and his veracity.
Introducing Sharon to the packed audience of senior government officials, senior army officers and academics, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Aharon Yariv, head of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS), which sponsored the meeting, said that Sharon had come under fierce attack during a JCSS symposium on the Lebanon war two months ago “and we thought it only proper to invite him now to present his case.”
But JCSS sources said that Sharon himself had decided to break his five-year virtual silence and had insisted on his right to appear, requesting the widest possible press coverage.
Observers suggested that Sharon might now want to present his case in view of possible early Knesset elections and his possible bid to head the Likud.
Sharon, who entered the campus via a side gate to avoid a crowd of anti-Sharon demonstrators, said that the plans to attack Beirut had been prepared years before the 1982 start of the war (when Ezer Weizman was Defense Minister) in what had been code-named “Operation Oranim.”
He insisted that the Cabinet, in 92 sessions (some twice a day), had been briefed on every new move made by the Israel Defense Force. Many critics including former Cabinet ministers have claimed that the government had been misled by Sharon, then Defense Minister, who had reported many of his moves only after they had been implemented.
Opening his lengthy address (which left no time for the many critical questions expected from people intimately connected with the war), Sharon said: “I did not come here to respond to various charges. I have come to state the truth, to tell things as they were, for the first time, on the fifth anniversary of the expulsion of the PLO terrorists from Beirut.” He said the PLO expulsion had been the “high point and major objective of the war.”
Sharon said the war was a “war of salvation, and I am proud to have been one of its organizers, a war against our main enemy — the Palestinian terrorism that has been fighting us for 100 years.”
Perspiring heavily in a hot auditorium, Sharon went into minute details of some moves during the fighting, with a minute-by-minute report of what he had said during various meetings and what he claimed had been said to him.
SHARON’S CLAIMS DENIED
Former Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur said immediately after Sharon’s address that his lecture had been “full of lies and half-truths.”
Weizman, whom Sharon said had prepared a plan for the invasion of Beirut, said: “Sharon is famous for his inaccuracy.”
Weizman said Sharon had possibly laid himself open to criminal prosecution for having read in public parts of the minutes of Cabinet and general staff sessions. But Rafael Eitan, Chief of Staff during the war, said Wednesday he had checked the minutes referred to by Sharon and had a different version.
Observers commented Wednesday morning that Sharon had appeared intent on spreading the blame for the Lebanon war as widely as possible and ensuring that none of the decision-makers at that time could claim they did not know what was going on.
Yet, Arye Naor, the Cabinet Secretary at the time, said Sharon had overlooked the fact that at the Cabinet meeting on the eve of the war, from whose minutes Sharon quoted, the Cabinet had ratified an invasion of only 40 kilometers inside Lebanon.
Naor said the former Defense Minister had made “selected use” of what he claimed were stenographic records of Cabinet and staff meetings and conferences with senior army officers to strengthen the claims he has frequently made that the Cabinet agreed with his “defense conception,” on which the war had been based.
“That is incorrect,” Naor said. “The Cabinet never discussed his conception (ousting the PLO from Lebanon and setting up a pro-Israel Maronite Christian government and state in Lebanon), but only the various consecutive steps and developments of the fighting as presented to it by Sharon. The only overall Cabinet decision was the one referring to the 40-kilometer entry into Lebanon.
Col. Ram Cohen (Res.), who took part in the war and Tuesday demonstrated against Sharon together with Mapam protesters outside the hall, said Sharon was out of order in presenting his case now.
“He stands as the accused in the Lebanon war controversy. The only body which can decide what happened in Lebanon is an officially appointed commission of inquiry,” he said. “We cannot allow Sharon to transform himself from the accused into the accuser.”
Replying to Sharon’s charge that the only opposition to Likud activities including the bombing of the Baghdad nuclear reactor and the war came from Labor Party headquarters, Laborite Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio Wednesday morning: “Absolutely no truth to the accusation.”
He said the Labor Party had been informed of the war plans only after the IDF had already crossed the border and had then been told that the fighting would last only three or four days and would take Israeli forces only 40 kilometers from the border.
Peres said that under questioning at that time the Labor leaders had been told there would be no approach to Beirut and no confrontation with the Syrians.
“We were all taken by surprise for what happened later. Not only were we not informed–we were told exactly the contrary of what happened,” Peres stressed. “(Then-Premier Menachem) Begin himself told me he was surprised by the IDF air raids on Beirut and promised me he would check with Sharon.”
Peres noted the Lebanon war had begun during a period of relative quiet on the border, and ended with the extremist Hizbullah, together with the PLO, in control of a destroyed Lebanon.
(Sharon had said the war started after a long period of attacks on Galilee settlements, and had ended with the defeat of the PLO.)
Peres said he had until now opposed the idea of a commission of inquiry into the Lebanon war, but Sharon’s speech Tuesday night had possibly made essential such an official investigation.
Weizman said Wednesday that Sharon’s conscience appeared to be troubling him.
Reacting to Sharon’s statement regarding 1980 plans to march to Beirut, Weizman said: “We had no authorized plans. You have to understand that in the general staff you deal all the time with potential problems and prepare files (contingency plans) for possible events — such as a strike against the enemy air forces in 1967, which had been prepared in advance.
“But nothing like this was authorized by me or anybody else. The only contingency plans we had was jumping across the Litani River up to the Zaharani.
“But that is not the point. The point is that if Mr. Sharon finds it necessary to open up this discussion now and use me as an excuse, he must have a very heavy conscience, and I would rather argue with a successful and victorious Defense Minister than one who looks for excusesâ€¦
“And back in July 1981, Begin as Prime Minister and with the good offices of (U.S. envoy) Philip Habib achieved a ceasefire between Israel and the PLO on the northern borders which was adhered to Not a shot was fired into Israel.
“And the only reason that we started the war in 1981 was the attempted assassination of our Ambassador in London.”
The public debate on Sharon’s version of the Lebanon war is likely to continue for some time, with renewed demands by critics for a commission of investigation into the war, and counter-demands by Likud for an “inquiry commission” into what is termed “the conduct of the Labor Party in sabotaging the war.”