Moshe Dayan

Mordechai Bar-On, Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero (Yale University Press 2012) pp.247

Patrick Tyler, Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite who run the Country and why they can’t make peace (Portobello Books 2012) pp.562

Reviewed by Colin Shindler

Moshe Dayan was charismatic, courageous and innovative as well as conniving, ruthless and devious. This short biography by Mordechai ‘Moraleh’ Bar-On well encapsulates the complexity of this unusual man. Moraleh writes as someone who was very close to Dayan in the 1950s as the head of his office and as secretary at the famous ‘collusion’ summit at Sèvres in 1956 which laid the basis for the Suez campaign. As a member of Knesset for Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights party and a leading member of Peace Now, Moraleh Bar-On took a very different path to his commander. Dayan, he argues, certainly had deep insight into short-term problems, but was oblivious to the longer term historical goals of the Zionist experiment.

Dayan did not mince his words – he wrote his own speeches – or his actions. In an oration over the grave of Ro’i Rothberg, an admired commander of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, he rubbished ‘the ambassadors of scheming hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms’. Ben-Gurion instructed Dayan to remove this phrase. Dayan cared little for diplomats, both foreign and Israeli, but preferred the battlefield to settle issues.

Moraleh testifies to Dayan’s almost foolhardy bravery which almost got him killed on numerous occasions. In a foreword to a book of poems by Natan Alterman many years later, Dayan wrote: ‘Man goes into battle because he, personally, does not want to surrender, to be defeated – he wants to fight not for the existence of his life but for the meaning of life. Death is merely the supreme expression of the courage of his struggle’.

Those of a certain age will remember photographs of the one-eyed general being placed in the windows in Jewish owned shops in London during the Six Day war. Dayan emerged as the hero of the hour. Six years later he left office as a figure of blame, responsible for the deaths of thousands in Ha’Mehdal (the Blunder) of the Yom Kippur war.

As a consequence, Dayan lost an opportunity to succeed Golda Meir as Prime Minister. Both he and his great rival, Yigal Allon, were ultimately passed over in the appointment of Yitzhak Rabin. Banished to the margins of the Labour movement and at odds with the party’s leadership, Dayan was unexpectedly resurrected from his political grave by the ascendency of Menachem Begin in the elections of 1977. Begin’s tactics over the years had to been to create an umbrella under which General Zionists who promoted private enterprise, redemptionist Zionists who wished to settle the West Bank,  the far Right who wanted both Banks including Jordan and disaffected members of the labour movement such Arik Sharon could all shelter from Ben-Gurion’s disfavour. Dayan was the latest member of this motley crew to join when he accepted Begin’s offer to become Foreign Minister. As history records, this undiplomatic diplomat then went on to forge the Begin-Sadat agreement which brought over 30 years of peace to Egypt and Israel. Dayan also wanted to solve the problem of the Palestinians and quickly found himself in dispute with Begin. Resignation and death shortly followed, but Dayan left a legacy which many other military men – in particular Sharon –attempted to imitate.

Moraleh Bar-On produces a picture of a troubled yet remarkable man. A hero and a villain at one and the same time who was full of political contradictions. Dayan was famously, magnetically attracted to regiments of women. Dayan was the bull in the marital china shop. He did not care whom he offended – his long-suffering wife, his long-suffering mistress, the wife of an old Nahalal friend. As his daughter commented: ‘I knew of them all; the thin and the fat, the Frenchwoman and the student, the officer and the journalist’. She did not condemn him, but ‘was merely shocked by the vulgarity of it all’.

‘Fortress Israel’ will please the reader of potboiler histories of Israel – this one through the prism of the military elite. Aimed at an American audience, it relies on often sensationalist and reductionist language to unravel a political event. ‘Olmert was going down like the Titanic’. Or Dimona’s secrets were preserved ‘through a robust internal security network that functioned like secret police’.

Yet Patrick Tyler has covered the breadth of Israeli history since 1948. He writes about the Bus 300 affair and about the case of Jonathan Pollard – now in prison for as many years as Mandela. The little known case of Nahum Manbar, sentenced to 16 years, who reputedly sold production lines of nerve agents to Iran is told in detail. The origins of the conflict between the diplomats and the generals, stretching back to the 1950s, is informative.

Israeli leaders, however, are caricatured for their flaws and eccentricities. The author seems to accentuate the negative while eliminating the positive. What is missing, however, is the ideology and political philosophy which has guided a figure in a particular direction.

For half of the last twenty years, military men, Rabin, Barak and Sharon, have been in power. The civilian leadership have recently made a comeback through Olmert and Netanyahu. The Israeli public seems to believe that if real decisions have to be made, then call on the military. Rabin as problem solver and peacemaker. Sharon as hammerer of the Islamists. The civilians seem to be regarded almost as fillers-in and caretakers. In an age of missile warfare, many believe that the Army stands between normality and Armageddon. This story of the military elite therefore remains unfinished.

Jewish Renaissance January 2013

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