Israel:The Ingenious General, DC – Had Ariel Sharon never entered politics, he would still be known
around the world as a military commander and tactician. In both roles, he was
extraordinary, because his methods diverged from normal military practices, even in
the unconventional Israeli army.

Consider the Yom Kippur War. On October 16, 1973, ten days after Egypt’s army
surprised the Israelis by crossing the Suez Canal, Sharon turned defeat into victory
by leading his own troops across the canal through a narrow gap in the Egyptian
front. The Israelis swiftly spread out behind the Egyptians, overrunning
anti-aircraft batteries and blocking supply and reinforcement routes.

Within six days, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had to plead for an immediate,
unconditional ceasefire: so many Egyptian units were cut off, wrecked by air
strikes, under attack, or fully encircled that no major forces were left to stop the
advancing Israelis – not even to guard the road to Cairo.

The Egyptian high command was convinced that Sharon’s crossing was only an overnight
raid by light forces. Their reasoning was sound: The Israelis did not control even
their own side of the canal, so they could not possibly reinforce the first wave of
a few hundred men with a handful of tanks. Rather than pulling their units back
across the canal to chase the raiding Israelis, the Egyptian commanders believed
that their forces could capture all of them by converging toward one another, thus
closing the two-mile gap that Sharon had exploited.

Sharon’s superiors agreed with their Egyptian counterparts. They ordered Sharon to
stop sending forces across the canal, and instead to widen the gap on the Israeli
side. Sharon did not obey, pleading communications difficulties while sending as
many of his forces as possible across the canal. He calculated that attacking the
Egyptians from their own rear – destroying the missile batteries that impeded the
Israeli air force, ambushing reinforcements and supplies, and simply causing massive
confusion across the entire front – would induce organizational collapse in the
Egyptian army.

That is exactly what happened. But Sharon’s fellow generals were furious at him, as
was often the case. In 1953, at the age of 25 and already a wounded veteran of the
1947-49 War of Independence, Sharon was recalled to active duty to establish
Israel’s first commando unit. Arab raiders were crossing Israel’s unfenced borders
to rob cattle and steal farm implements, sometimes attacking civilians. Guarding
Israel’s elongated borders would have required 20 times more troops than Israel had.
So Israel chose to mount punitive raids against Egyptian and Jordanian military
outposts and villages that harbored marauders.

Sharon was given a free hand to raise and train his unit. Instead of insisting on
discipline, his men wore whatever they liked, never saluted anybody, and never
drilled. But they launched devastating night raids while suffering few casualties,
even when going up against Jordan’s Arab Legion, by far the best Arab military

Sharon sought natural fighters rather than dutiful soldiers, and he carefully
planned each raid, always sending some men well beyond the target of the attack to
ambush any reinforcements. The main assault force advanced toward the target in the
darkness until detected, then rushed forward, firing every weapon, while mortar and
machine-gun emplacements remained in the rear, firing just ahead of the advancing

Within three years, Sharon commanded an entire brigade in the 1956 Sinai campaign,
which he led in a swift advance across the desert to link up with a paratroop
battalion that had been dropped deep into Egyptian territory at the entrance to the
strongly defended Mitla Pass. There Sharon was to stop but did not, instead fighting
a bloody battle to conquer the pass. His immediate superiors wanted him out, but the
top leadership instead promoted him to command a division.

That is how Sharon came to plan and fight the extraordinary battle of Umm Katef in
the June 1967 war. The battle lasted only one night, but it was unique in its
complexity. The Egyptian defenses blocked the central highway across the Sinai with
a fortified box containing powerful artillery and more than a hundred tanks, fronted
by three parallel trench-lines manned by thousands of infantrymen and anchored on
sand dunes and high ground at each end.

Sharon had his troops climb over the sand dunes to enter the trench lines at their
top end and attack down their length – a simple maneuver that the Egyptians could
have defeated had they not been pinned down by an artillery barrage and Israeli
tanks firing directly at them. The Israeli infantrymen had taped flashlights to
their helmets so that the tank gunners could direct their fire at the Egyptians just
ahead of them.

Still, the Egyptian artillery was superior, and should have at least silenced the
tanks firing at the trench line. But paratroopers, flown in by helicopters, suddenly
jumped the Egyptian gun crews, who never had a chance in hand-to-hand combat.

The Egyptians’ tanks could still have counter-attacked, but they were engaged by an
Israeli tank battalion that appeared from well behind the trench lines, having
crossed supposedly impassable sand dunes. Then the Israeli tanks that had been
shooting up the trench lines crossed over them to enter the box, and finish off
Egyptian resistance. The road through Umm Katef was opened. Sharon had once again
broken the basic rules of warfare, yet won total victory.

But, even for the unconventional Israeli army, Sharon was too unconventional. When
he was passed over for promotion to Army Chief of Staff and retired from active duty
(he fought his epic 1973 battle as a reservist), a wise Israeli general warned his
colleagues that he would return as Defense Minister, and that if he lost that office
– as he did after the 1982 Lebanon War – he would return as Prime Minister.

Only now has Sharon met an enemy that he cannot outmaneuver.

Edward N. Luttwak, a military strategist and consultant, is Senior Associate at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.

Project Syndicate,