I vividly remember the day the first Lebanon War broke out. I was 14 years old, a young teenager, living far away from the action, in Jerusalem. My father was not drafted; I was too young to have any friends in the military. It was a far-away war that only years later, when I myself had to go into Lebanon as a soldier, had any impact on my life.
There’s a lot you can read these days about the first Lebanon War, now marking its 30 year anniversary. A lot of memories of the soldiers, a lot of detailed stories of the battles, of Air Force victories, of politicians’ folly and public debate. The first Lebanon War is remembered for many things that are mostly not quite as unique to this war as some people tend to believe.
It is remembered for the manipulation of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Almost ten years ago, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by Sharon against a columnist who argued in 1991 that “Menachem Begin indeed knows very well that Sharon deceived him” in the Lebanon War. A Tel Aviv district court earlier concluded that columnist Uzi Benziman “had proved that Begin and his government did not give Sharon a mandate for an all-out war in Lebanon, but only for a limited operation of up to 40 kilometers from the border, and that Sharon went beyond those limits, deceptively reporting to the government and the prime minister”. However, the Lebanon War is hardly the first one in which there were differences between orders given and operations executed. Sharon himself is known to have been creative with orders during the Yom Kippur War (1973), when he was the hero general crossing the Suez Canal.
The Lebanon War is also remembered for being a war “of choice”, initiated by Israel, and not a direct response to attack or provocation. While there can still be debate whether this “choice” was the right one to make – some commentators would still argue that the removal of the PLO from Lebanon was a worthy cause – not one can seriously say that the war was forced on Israel. But the Lebanon War is also not unique in being a war of choice, and not Israel’s first. The 1956 Sinai War was clearly a war of choice, and some would also argue – although I would not agree – that the 1967 (Six Day) War was also a war of choice, as Israel was the first to attack.
The Lebanon War was indeed traumatic, and not a huge operational success. But the 1973 war was far more traumatic. The Lebanon War was one in which Israel tried to impose a new government on a neighboring country – that is unique. But I don’t thing that’s why Israelis are traumatized by Lebanon, why they still remember it with such unease.
The Lebanon War should be remembered as the first war for which there was no consensus. A war that almost immediately sparked a debate – a debate that became more contentious and ever more bitter with every passing day. Israelis didn’t have much choice in 1948 (the War of Independence); they were too smitten with victory in 1956 to care; they didn’t have many moral qualms in 1967; they were disappointed with their leadership, but could easily understand why fighting in 1973 was necessary. In 1982, for the first time, many of them actively objected to the war. They thought it was cynical, unnecessary, immoral, and ultimately unsuccessful. This is what makes Lebanon a turning point in the history of Israel’s armed clashes. A point after which no leadership could count on the public to automatically support every declaration of war, a point after which no government could go to war without first making sure it had the backing of most of the public.
Sharon himself learned this lesson well, and utilized when he became Prime Minister. Restraining the military for very long months during which suicide bombers struck Israel, he only unleashed it to launch the Defensive Shield operation in the wake of the terrible massacre of Passover 2002, when the public was united behind him and all (well, almost all) were convinced that tough measures had to be taken.