Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dramatic Decisions During the First Lebanese War: Ariel Sharon's Authority is Curtailed, 12 August 1982

In the summer of 1982, 32 years ago, Israel was also involved in a military campaign against Palestinian terrorists across the border. "Operation Peace for Galilee," known today as the First Lebanese War, began on 6 June 1982. In the government discussions beforehand, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said it would last no longer than 48 hours, and he hoped it would not cause a clash between Israel and Syrian troops in Lebanon. When it was decided to launch the operation on June 5, it was limited to an advance of 40 kilometers into Lebanon – the range of the Katyusha rockets threatening northern Israel. Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan (Raful) drew the 40 kilometer line on a map shown to the ministers before they approved the operation. But the IDF became involved in fighting with the Syrian Army and it lasted weeks which turned into months. Israel only withdrew from most of Lebanon in January 1985, leaving a small "security zone" held by the South Lebanon Army militia with Israeli help until 2000.

Defense Minister "Arik" Sharon briefs journalists on Operation Peace for Galilee, June 11, 1982. (Photograph: Yaacov Saar, Government Press Office)
The factor which disturbed a growing group of ministers in 1982 was that the area held by the IDF was moving more and more to the north until Beirut and the Beirut-Damascus road were reached, well beyond the 40 kilometer line. From time to time Sharon brought the government proposals to occupy various sections of Lebanese territory, and sometimes these proposals were rejected. But the main criticism of him was that he was presenting the government with a fait accompli, after the IDF had already moved north, seized territory and begun to lay siege to West Beirut, which was held by the PLO, a Syrian brigade and Muslim Lebanese forces.

On 8 August, after the IDF had taken Beirut airport, Deputy Prime Minister David Levy protested against the move, which had damaged the confidence of the United States in Israel and said that Prime Minister Menachem Begin was not informed beforehand. Begin replied: "I assure you, David, that I am always informed, either in advance or after the fact." We can conclude that Levy's claim that the IDF, on Sharon's orders, took Beirut airport without Begin's authority was probably correct.

On 12 August criticism of Sharon reached its height after news arrived of another IDF advance in West Beirut. After a stormy meeting, it was decided to take away some of Sharon's powers over the Air Force and the ground forces and to force him to receive advance authorization from the prime minister. The decision was supported by all the ministers except for Sharon himself and Yuval Neeman. You can read about this and other dramatic episodes during the war (in Hebrew) in the ISA's recently published volume of documents on Menachem Begin, edited by Arye Naor and Arnon Lammfromm.

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