JERUSALEM (Nov. 18)
As an Israeli army general in the tense days before the 1967 Six-Day War, Ariel Sharon proposed that the military seize the initiative from indecisive Cabinet ministers and launch a pre-emptive strike on the Arabs without government approval, according to a new official history of the period. The prime minister’s comments, in a book commissioned by the Defense Ministry, reinforce his image as a go-it-alone "bulldozer" at a time that he has defied his own right-wing allies with a plan to unilaterally give up the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Tensions in Israel were building in May 1967 as Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships — an act of war — ordered U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai desert and moved his armies toward the border with Israel.
Threats of annihilation issued from Cairo, Damascus and elsewhere in the Arab world as Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tried unsuccessfully to end the crisis by diplomacy, ignoring widespread appeals to launch a pre-emptive strike when it became clear war was inevitable.
In the book, written by historian and reserve Col. Ami Gloska, Sharon was quoted as saying that he proposed the action because Eshkol’s vacillation was endangering the state. He told fellow generals the army could "seize control, not in the framework of wanting to govern, but to make a decision."
Sharon said he suggested to his colleagues that government ministers be told to sequester themselves at command headquarters while the top brass declared war.
Cabinet ministers "would have accepted it with a sense of relief. That was my feeling," Sharon said in the book, titled "Eshkol, Give an Order!"
Israel eventually did launch a pre-emptive attack on June 5, defeating Egypt, Syria and Jordan in six days and capturing huge swathes of territory, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem — where Palestinians now want a state — the Golan Heights and the Sinai. Israel returned Sinai to Egypt after the two countries made peace in 1979.
Rather than plotting a coup, Gloska writes, Sharon was voicing the exasperation shared by Israeli military chiefs convinced the Arabs could not be dissuaded from their goal of wiping out the Jewish state. Many Israelis thought Eshkol’s indecisiveness meant Israel would end up waging war from a far less advantageous position.
"The critical question was who would land the first blow," Gloska told Army Radio. "The generals thought the people in government were a bunch of confused, panic-stricken men leading Israel to catastrophe."
But Gloska notes that the statements appeared to be idle chatter among the generals, not a serious proposition.
"The idea may have captivated" Sharon, "but one shouldn’t overstate the significance of the matter," Gloska wrote, according to Ha’aretz. "We are dealing with an offbeat statement, nothing more than thinking out loud. The same thought may have gone through the minds of other commanders, and Sharon was the one who expressed it."
Throughout his career, Sharon — nicknamed "Bulldozer" for his physical girth and tendency to plough through opposition — would be dogged by charges of circumventing higher authorities.
As a reserve general during the 1973 war, he clashed with the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command over deployment of forces against Egypt — though historians say Sharon’s aggressive tactics dealt Egypt a crushing blow that forced it to end the war and sue for peace.
In 1982, as defense minister, Sharon masterminded an invasion of Lebanon aimed at crushing Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and ending frequent terrorist attacks on northern Israel. When Israeli troops advanced all the way to Beirut, some critics claimed Sharon had misled Prime Minister Menachem Begin about the war’s true aims, something Sharon strenuously denied.
Sharon was forced to resign after an Israeli-allied Christian militia slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian refugees in two camps outside the Lebanese capital. An Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible because he hadn’t anticipated the possibility of a massacre when he let the Christian militia enter the camps to take on PLO fighters hiding there.
As prime minister, Sharon has drawn the ire of many right-wingers for his plan to unilaterally "disengage" from the conflict with the Palestinians by withdrawing from some of the territories next year.
Right-wingers say the plan rewards Palestinian terrorism and betrays the Likud Party platform on which Sharon was elected in 2001. But surveys show most Israelis support the prime minister, seeing Gaza as a bloody liability.