A disturbing study of the man behind Israel's war in Lebanon

Israel's Lebanon War, by Zeev Shiff and Ehud Yaari. New York: Simon & Schuster. 340 pp. $17.95. ``Israel's Lebanon War'' is a frightening and detailed study of how one determined man, Gen. Ariel Sharon, was able to bulldoze his way past democratic checks and balances and drag Israel into a war that continues to haunt the country.

The book should become the standard reference work for understanding Tel Aviv's unhappy involvement north of the border -- and the ongoing repercussions of that war. The book also provides meaty background for following General Sharon's libel suit against Time magazine.

Israeli journalists Zeev Shiff and Ehud Yaari, who covered the Lebanon invasion, offer detailed answers to all those nagging questions which dogged the conduct of the war.

What really was the war's aim? The Israeli Cabinet thought it was approving an incursion 40 kilometers north of its border to push Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters beyond the point where they could shell Israel's northern settlements -- without involving the Syrians.

But the authors show that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, supported by an often ill-informed Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was pursuing a far grander design: He aimed to oust the PLO from all Lebanon, confront and humble the Syrians, install a Christian ally as undisputed head of Lebanon, cement permanent Israeli control over the occupied West Bank, and force the vanquished Palestinians to seek their political outlet in Jordan.

How did the defense minister deceive the Cabinet? Sharon bypassed the normal decisionmaking process and gained control over key decisions by exercising a monopoly over critical information. By suppressing dissent within the general staff and then blocking the flow of information from the general staff to the Cabinet (which contained almost no military experts), he orchestrated situations in which he could present highly selective and misleading reports to the ministers and gain their approval. Thus he deliberately and continually moved his troops forward, provoking the reluctant Syrians into what he felt was a necessary confrontation and bringing Israeli forces into Beirut, while continually telling the ministers that his moves were dictated by the situation on the ground. Messrs. Shiff and Yaari's reconstruction brings back to this reporter's mind the anguished stories told at the time by outraged Israeli soldiers who recalled hearing reports on Israel radio that Syrians had attacked their units, when in fact they had been ordered to fire at the Syrians.

What role did former Prime Minister Begin play in this deception? The authors present Begin as torn between a desire to keep the Lebanon operation within its declared limits and the temptation to grasp the opportunities that Sharon believed his strategy offered. The outcome: Begin gave Sharon unqualified support even when the defense minister failed to keep him informed. Shiff and Yaari leave unanswered the tantalizing question of whether Sharon deliberately misled Begin or whether the prime minister simply deluded himself.

As for the Americans, the book argues that Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave Sharon the green light for one operation (the 40-kilometer drive), only to be confronted with another. (General Haig has denied the allegation.)

How could Sharon have misjudged the situation so badly? The book contends, as did analysts familiar with Lebanon at the time of the invasion, that the Sharon scheme totally failed to appreciate the viciousness of the internal strife in Lebanon. Sharon's thesis -- that Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel would be able to impose a tough Christian regime on the country within weeks of taking office with Israeli help, and would then be able to produce an Israel-Lebanon peace treaty -- was already unraveling in the few days between Gemayel's election and his assassination. Mr. Gemayel, well aware of the importance of Lebanon's commerce with the Arab world, was already planning power-sharing deals with Lebanese Muslim leaders and postponing talk of a peace treaty in the interest of retaining good relations with Arab neighbors.

Sharon also underestimated the toughness of the Syrian Army. Israel was unable to drive all Syrian troops out of Lebanon -- and not only, as Sharon would have it, because the United States intervened with a call for a cease-fire before Israel had finished the job.

Most of all, Sharon overestimated the willingness of elite Israeli reserve units, particularly the paratroops, to let themselves be used in what they quickly perceived was a political and not a defensive war. It was bitter and confused Israeli soldiers who roused the Israeli media to confront Sharon on the improper goings on in Lebanon, including the truth surrounding the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.

Shiff and Yaari do not provide the definitive answer to whether Sharon discussed revenge for Bashir's death in his condolence call at the Gemayels' seat in Bikfaya -- the claim for which Sharon is now suing Time magazine. The authors note that the corridors of the defense establishment ``were awash with rumors about the nature of the exchange'' for days and that, ``whether or not Maronite vengeance was on Sharon's mind, the prospect was in the air.''

Their postscript, in toting up the results of the war, lists the destruction of the PLO's infrastructure in Lebanon on the plus side for Israel. But it cites the continuing virulence of the Palestinian problem and the strengthening of Syria's Mideast role among the minuses.

As Israel tries once again to negotiate a security formula with Lebanon to get its still beleaguered troops out of that country, another minus is only too apparent: It will be far harder to negotiate such a formula now -- with Syria in a position to veto any provisions it disapproves -- than it would have been during the summer of 1982, before Syria had recovered from the war and when Israel held out -- at Ariel Sharon's insistence -- for a peace treaty with Lebanon.

Shiff and Yaari have compiled a fascinating study of how a determined man shanghaied a democracy. The book takes on additional interest as Ariel Sharon continues his quest, both at home and in a US courtroom, to dominate Israeli politics.

Trudi Rubin is a journalist in Israel.

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