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Tapes Renew Debate on Sharon War Role

October 4, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ As a reserve general in the 1973 Mideast War, Ariel Sharon pushed a division toward the Suez Canal in violation of orders, and tapes of field radio exchanges show how easily Israel’s future prime minister brushed off his superiors.

The tapes, kept in an attic for three decades, as well as other now-it-can-be-told revelations, have reignited debate about the conflict that broke out 30 years ago Monday, and became known as the Yom Kippur War.

``Please leave me alone with this stuff, OK?″ Sharon is heard telling the head of Southern Command, Shmuel Gonen, after being told twice to change battle plans. Other tapes record Sharon’s superiors insisting he obey orders, Sharon rejecting offers of reinforcements and demanding to be allowed to do things his own way.

Israel was caught by surprise on Oct. 6, 1973 when the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack as Jews were observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

About 2,700 Israeli soldiers were killed in the three-week war, and the blame-fixing and recriminations linger on even now in what is known as ``the war of the generals.″

To Sharon’s supporters, his disobedience is what won the war. To his critics, it was part of a pattern of indiscipline that they claim typifies his career as an officer, a general, defense minister and now prime minister.

The tapes reveal the arguments between Sharon and his commanders, Gonen and then-Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar, as the fighting raged.

The tapes were made by Yitzhak Rubinstein, Gonen’s radio man in 1973, who stored them in his attic after the war. Recently he decided it was time to disclose them and took them to Ronen Bergman, a reporter with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. The first excerpts appeared last month.

``Everyone comes out bad,″ Bergman told Army Radio _ Gonen , who ``failed to read the battlefield map, and Sharon who just goes off in the battlefield doing whatever he wants.″

Two months before the Arab offensive, Sharon had retired from the army and gone into politics. Recalled to uniform for the war, he had more battle experience than Gonen, who had once served under him.

In the first week of the war _ in the midst of the incessant bickering and a failed Israeli counteroffensive that led to great Israeli losses _ Gonen was pushed aside, partly because he failed to bring Sharon into line.

At one point, responding to an order by Gonen, Sharon says: ``Absolutely not.″

``Poor Gonen. He couldn’t order anyone, particularly Sharon, who was known to be a headstrong subordinate. Sharon did what he pleased,″ said Martin Van Creveld, a military historian with Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Sharon’s division surprised the Egyptians when it crossed the canal westward and wedged itself between two Egyptian regiments. Sharon’s troops were exploiting an opening they had discovered a few days earlier when operating in an area where they were not supposed to be.

Uri Dan, an Israeli newspaper correspondent and Sharon supporter who was with the general throughout the war, says ``Sharon won the war for Israel.″ Had his superiors listened to him and crossed the Suez Canal much sooner, the war would have been shorter, Dan said.

Sharon’s critics say he was reckless and caused Israel needless casualties. Some even accuse him of racing to cross the canal first in order to score points for Likud, the political party he had just co-founded.

The tapes cannot resolve the argument, Van Creveld said. They illustrate the ``tremendous confusion″ at the time, he said.

Much of the war documentation remains classified. Bergman and co-writer Gil Meltzer released some of it in ``The Yom Kippur War _ Moment of Truth,″ a new book. Bergman said military censors ordered some 200 excisions.

Rubinstein, the radio man, said Gonen ordered him to make tapes, fearing he would be scapegoated for the war setbacks. In the end, much of the blame indeed fell on Gonen. He said the 30th anniversary, which falls Monday, felt like the right time to release the tapes.

The Gonen-Sharon conflict began on the second day of the war when Sharon arrived at the Suez Canal front.

Sharon discovered that Israeli soldiers on the east bank of the waterway were under fierce Egyptian fire. He offered several plans for a counterassault. His commanders decided to go with their own plan, which failed. Sharon lost confidence in the officers and went off on his own, reaching the Suez Canal by Oct. 9.

The animosity increased as the war progressed. Later, the commanders admitted that Sharon’s moves were ``tactically brilliant″ but told inquiries that they came ``too early, were destructive and unnecessary.″

One exchange on the tapes shows how worried the high command was that Sharon would charge across the canal too soon. Chief of Staff Elazar is heard telling him: ``The plan that you mentioned earlier is absolutely unacceptable. It does not suit the mission that I gave you. I want you to hold the head of the bridge. We will speak again later. This is the mission now and it has to be done COM-PLETE-LY.″

On the night between Oct. 15-16, Sharon was finally ordered to cross the canal. A photo of Sharon with a bandage covering a fresh head wound made him famous worldwide.

Sharon, 75, has not commented on the tapes, but Dan, a longtime friend, said those who made and released the tapes ``just want to smear Sharon.″ Gonen and Elazar are both dead.

The war ended in stalemate and laid the ground for Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s secretary of state, to negotiate the first troop withdrawals that would ultimately lead to peace with Egypt, though not Syria.

But there is still no complete cease-fire in the war of the generals.

``It’s so easy after 30 years to sit down and criticize,″ Van Creveld said. ``But it’s so hard... to really get into the shoes of people who were really operating under enormous pressure.″

Editors note: This story was submitted to Israel’s military censor, who ordered a deletion.

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