Lynette Nusbacher
Devil's Advocate

Ariel Sharon peaked too soon

The 1967 battle at Abu Agheila was the jewel of Sharon's career, and nothing that followed matches that victory

Ariel Sharon’s Staff College paper isn’t in the Staff College library.

Sharon was sent to Staff College in Britain, largely to get him out of the way. He took the course seriously, however, and when he set out to write his paper he was focussed. He spent a lot of time at Basil Liddell Hart’s house knocking on the door, finally being allowed in to get some advice.

Sharon wrote his paper on the relative position of the Second World War German commander and his forces. It’s a subject of immense relevance to the early development of IDF armoured tactics, and I’ve always wanted to read the paper. Nobody knows why it isn’t in the library.

I taught about Sharon as a tactician for years. I didn’t teach his tactics at Mitla Pass, which were unfortunate. I didn’t teach his tactics in screwing Bren Adan at Suez, which were unprofessional. I taught his tactics at Abu Agheila.

In 1967 the Abu Agheila road junction in the Sinai was designed by the Egyptians to be the graveyard of the Israeli Army. Based on their experience in the 1956 Suez Crisis the Egyptians expected the IDF to race their armour across the Sinai. Every senior Egyptian officer studied Abu Agheila in Staff College. With massive Soviet assistance the junction was fortified as a miniature version of Kursk, the great deathtrap built for the Nazis in 1943.

The IDF had come to the same conclusion as the Egyptians: Abu Agheila was key terrain for anyone trying to drive tanks across the Sinai. Sharon’s task was to take a division-sized task group and make a way through the Egyptian defences for a brigade of Avraham Yoffe’s task group to drive through. Sharon’s approach was daring, flexible, creative and effective. The approach demonstrated the Israeli adaptation of German tactics which had been in process since the early IDF armour experiments of the 1950s. The approach showed that a cowboy like Sharon could fight a set-piece battle without issuing complex timetabled orders.

Sharon succeeded. Yoffe was able to cross through Abu Agheila.

This was in many ways the high point of Sharon’s career. He had grown from an immature light infantry brigade commander in 1956 into a superb armoured division commander in 1967. Never again, not even in 1973 when he drove deep into Africa, would he be so unambiguously successful.

I also taught Sharon the strategist.

In 1982, in a quixotic attempt to play kingmakers in the Lebanese Civil War, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sharon, his defence minister, invaded Lebanon. Sharon misled the Army about the objectives of the invasion, and as a result the operation was improperly focussed.

Sharon became a case in point for any discussion of civilian control of armed forces. Begin thought that Sharon’s tactical mind made him a strategist. The Army thought the dust on his combat boots made him a general rather than a politician. The price was paid by the soldiers who fought a campaign in Lebanon that succeeded tactically but at immense cost, especially in psychological casualties.

Sharon’s greatest failing as a soldier and as a defence minister was that he viewed his area of operations as a blank canvas on which he could move his forces. Other people, whether civilians or his colleagues in command of flanking forces, were ciphers to him. Being in his area of operations, even on his side, was risky.

This failing made him, with some justification, a hate figure among Arabs. This was a handicap to Israel’s foreign relations and a boon to propagandists all over the political spectrum.

Sharon staggered onto the scene in 1948 during the massacre of the Alexandroni Brigade on the slopes near Latrun. It was a day in which Ben Gurion exercised his privilege as the civilian head of government and sent a brigade to its destruction.

Sharon staggered off the scene after exercising his power as the civilian head of government by withdrawing the IDF from Gaza. This was an act which arguably saved the IDF at the cost of destroying the nascent Palestinian Authority.

Midway between the two was the jewel of his career, Abu Agheila; the tactical action which enabled the tactical victory over the Egyptian Army in 1967. That day, in June of 1967, he was a division commander at the peak of his powers, and now that day is eclipsed by his failings as a politician.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.
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