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Israel Studies 3.2 (1998) 215-237

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Israeli Crisis Decision-Making in the Lebanon War:
Group Madness or Individual Ambition?

Kirsten E. Schulze


Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups.—(Friedrich Nietzsche)

ON 6 JUNE 1982 THE Israel Defense Forces crossed the northern border and invaded Lebanon. "Operation Peace for Galilee" was announced to the public as a limited, 48-hour operation to remove Palestinian Fedayeen bases. Four months later, however, Israel was still in Lebanon. The objectives of the operation were to destroy the PLO's military and political infrastructure, to strike a serious blow against Syria, and to install a Christian regime that would sign a peace treaty with Israel. Accordingly, Israeli troops advanced beyond Beirut, engaging Palestinians, Lebanese Muslims, and Syrians in battle. Yet the achievement of their objectives remained elusive as Israel became embroiled in Lebanon's on-going civil war and became incapable of extracting itself for the next three years. What was supposed have been a brief operation with a quick victory ended up as Israel's worst war in its short history. Lebanon had become Israel's Vietnam.

The conventional explanation of why Israel had gone to war focuses on the personal ambitions of Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Zeev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari's book Israel's Lebanon War, for example, describes Sharon as a "cynical, headstrong executor who regarded the IDF as his personal tool for obtaining sweeping achievements—and not necessarily defensive ones—and a minister prepared to stake the national interest on his struggle for power." 1 The argument advanced by Schiff and Ya'ari is that it was not until Sharon took up his post in 1981 that a large-scale military operation [End Page 215] became a serious option; consequently, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was "born of the ambition of one willful, reckless man."

One individual—Defense Minister Ariel Sharon—arrogated the authority to conduct a major military venture as he saw fit and encountered no effective opposition from his government colleagues until the nation hovered on the brink of disaster. Promising what he never meant to deliver, Sharon transformed the war in Lebanon into a personal campaign . . . 2

This article does not challenge the claim that Sharon played a crucial part in Israel's decision to go to war. However, it offers a different explanation of the Israeli decision-making process before and during the invasion of Lebanon. This explanation stresses the part played by group dynamics as opposed to personal ambition.

The argument advanced here is that the Israeli decision-making elite responsible for the Lebanon War—Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Itzhak Shamir, Chief-of-Staff [End Page 216] Rafael Eitan, the Cabinet, and members of the Mossad and Military Intelligence—was a victim of "groupthink." Accordingly, the decision to invade Lebanon in 1982 was the result of pressure for group cohesiveness, stereotyped images, selective bias, and wishful thinking. "Operation Peace for Galilee" should thus be added to the list of foreign policy fiascoes caused by group dynamics. Similar to the decision-making responsible for the US Navy's lack of preparedness at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the pursuit of the defeated North Korean army on its home territory, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Watergate cover-up, Israel's Lebanon War was the reflection of excessive risk-taking at the group-level rather than one man's personal ambition.

Decision-Making Models and Groupthink

Much has been written on group behavior, decision-making, and risk-taking in an effort to ascertain influences and motives as well as to construct models. Two broad categories emerge within the scholarship: the empirical approach, and the social psychology approach. The empirical approach has often focused on an experimental methodology and theory. The numerical composition of decision-making groups, and in particular the power of larger factions versus smaller factions, 3 as well as majority and plurality, 4 have been at the center...


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