A pain in the brass: Newly-released papers show turmoil at top after Yom Kippur War
Fight moves from front lines to Jerusalem as army chiefs clashed with political echelon
"I would like to draw your [the chief of staff's] attention and that of the defense minister to your mistake: I do not intend to continue, over the long-term, to bear responsibility for situations and plans with which I do not identify," wrote the then deputy chief of staff. "He must continue to act in accordance with the orders you give him," insisted the defense minister in response.
This is a story about three key people in the history of Israel's security establishment - Moshe Dayan, David "Dado" Elazar and Yisrael "Talik" Tal - and one of the most contentious affairs in the relations between the government and the military: Tal's refusal to renew the fighting on the southern front after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The general outline of the story was eventually revealed at Tal's initiative, but until now only his version was known, as recounted orally in a series of interviews. Witnesses and scuttlebutt from that period supported the reliability of Tal's version. Now, for the first time, documents too are reflecting - albeit in restrained language - the storm that raged among the top brass after the great cataclysm of 1973.
Until then, Dayan - the gloried defense minister of the Six-Day War and the victorious chief of staff in the Sinai Campaign - was the undisputed king of Israel's security. Lt. Gen. Elazar was the chief of staff whose January 1972 appointment was forced on Dayan by Prime Minister Golda Meir, under pressure from political rivals inside his political party - Yigal Allon, Yisrael Galili and the outgoing Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev, who was brought into the government as a counterweight to Dayan. Maj. Gen. Tal was the number 2 man at the General Staff; for a year and a half, he had been head of the Operations Branch and since June 29, 1973, he was also serving as deputy chief of staff.
The date of Tal's appointment to the title and position, which for the preceding eight and a half years had not been manned - apart from seven months during which Bar-Lev had served as deputy chief of staff in the lead-up to the Six-Day War while Ezer Weizman headed the Operations Branch - was not by chance. It stemmed from a struggle for authority that had emerged in the weeks following May 10, 1973, when Maj. Gen. Benny Peled was appointed commander of the air force.
Peled did not accept the primacy of the head of the Operations Branch among the majors general. He argued that the head of a fighting force is subordinate to only one commander, the chief of staff, and the heads of the branches at the General Staff are only staff officers of the chief of staff and are not in the chain of command. Tal maneuvered around this argument and obtained the promotion to deputy chief of staff on the grounds that the deputy stands in for the commander in the absence of the latter, and therefore secondary commanders are subordinate to him as well.
Bar-Lev and Elazar were friends and so were Elazar and Tal - but not Bar-Lev and Tal. Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon was friendly with Tal, but Bar-Lev and Elazar found him intolerable. The friendship did not prevent rivalry. Tal was older than Elazar by a year, but had to wait behind him for three more years for advancement to the rank of major general and the command of the Armored Corps, mainly because of Bar-Lev's support of Elazar.
On January 1, 1973, the expected date of Elazar's retirement, Tal was already almost 50 years old, and until then no major general who had entered his sixth decade had ever been appointed chief of staff. But as he was the sole man in the second highest position at the General Staff, he was justified in seeing himself as the leading candidate.
Tal was a disciplined soldier, who never circumvented his superiors in the chain of command but contented himself with voicing reservations and accepting the decree when his position was rejected. He also acted in this way when signs of impending war appeared at the beginning of October. When he did not succeed in convincing Dayan and Elazar to share his concern, he tried in vain to persuade the head of Military Intelligence, his friend Eli Zeira, to revise his assessment.
Elazar did not pay attention to Tal's warnings, in part because the dialogue between them had been extremely volatile during previous months. Tal had reservations about some hasty moves by Elazar, such as the authorization of the downing of Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114, that had entered Sinai air space and was found fleeing toward the west in February 1973.
There was also the forcing down, that August, of an Iraqi plane in order to take Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader George Habash prisoner (he was not on the plane ). It could be that Elazar saw this as ingratitude. Had he not agreed, Tal would have remained at the Merkava tank program at the Defense Ministry - his bastion ever since he had quarreled with Bar-Lev, refused to accept responsibility for the Southern Command during the war of attrition and resigned from the Israel Defense Forces.
During the war, the work of managing the General Staff was divided between the men. Elazar was a nonvoting member of the war cabinet of Meir, Dayan, Galili and Allon - reporting, recommending and influencing. Tal coordinated the preparatory discussions. When both of them were absent from "the Pit" (command headquarters in Tel Aviv ), mostly because of quick visits to the frontline commands, the role of head of the Operations Branch was filled de facto, and later on officially, by Maj. Gen. Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, who had completed five years as GOC Central Command in the week before the war and was about to retire from the IDF. Tal was not enthusiastic about the appointment of Ze'evi, and in his wake the appointments of other veteran major generals who had already retired - Aharon Yariv and Meir Amit - as aides to the chief of staff. Elazar tried to conciliate him: His areas of authority would not be infringed upon.
The General Staff frictions were trivial when compared to the leadership crises on the fronts. Dayan's initial reaction to the invasion of the Golan Heights by Syrian tanks was a proposal to sack the GOC Northern Command, Yitzhak Hofi, and the commander of the 36th Armored Division, Brig. Gen. Rafael "Raful" Eitan - paratroops officers whom he did not think were experienced enough to command an armored battle (which had not prevented him from approving their appointments a year before ).
In the south, the GOC Southern Command, Shmuel "Gorodish" Gonen, had difficulty imposing his authority on senior commanders who were older than he was - division commanders Ariel Sharon (at the time a candidate for the Knesset on the Likud list ) and Avraham "Bren" Adan. Various scenarios were considered. Sacking Gonen, sacking Sharon, reassigning them (Sharon to his previous position as GOC; Gonen to his previous position as commander of Division 143 ). In the end, it was agreed that Bar-Lev would be posted as superior to Gonen in the capacity of acting commander of the front, ostensibly as the chief of staff's representative, in order to preserve some of Gonen's dignity lest he resign and thereby demonstrate the strength of the blow that had been landed on the IDF.
In May 1967, before he was appointed defense minister, Dayan had wanted to return to active service as commander of the southern front, subordinate to Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Thus, 1973 was the first time in the history of the IDF that two lieutenant generals, Elazar and Bar-Lev, were serving simultaneously as active commanders. Bar-Lev was also a government minister, a mingling of authorities that infuriated Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira. Relations were tense.
Upon Bar-Lev's return to the government at the completion of his active role at the General Staff, Dayan and Elazar had to decide how to sort out the command tangle on either side of the Suez Canal: Gonen, Sharon and Adan were still there, bristling with mutual hostility. The barely satisfactory solution was the appointment of Tal as commander of the front. Perhaps he, Sharon's friend, officially senior to Gonen but also resentful of Adan from previous disputes, would restore order to the chaos.
On November 18, only 10 days after Tal's appointment, Elazar had to make it clear to him and Gonen in a classified/personal letter: "Re: The Deputy Chief of Staff - Command Authority. 1. The deputy chief of staff has received the command of the Southern Command with full command authority and he bears comprehensive responsibility for it. 2. The GOC Southern Command will be subordinate to the deputy chief of staff."
Tal quickly became embroiled on two issues: authority and policy. Dayan and Elazar, although rivals, were partners in the aspiration for a round to improve the army's position, especially when the Agranat Commission of Inquiry into the shortcomings leading to the war was doing its work. Tal disagreed with them. Four days after the composition of Elazar's letter, Gonen was removed from the south. He was appointed commander of the Merhav Shlomo, Sharm el-Sheikh sector, and Suez Canal "command." Before the war, the IDF had been content with a brigadier general as the commander in this sector. During the war, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yeshayahu Gavish had been put in command. Now Gonen was transferred there, though he still bore the title of GOC Southern Command.
Chief of Staff Elazar and Defense Minister Dayan were fighting for their lives, against each other and against the whole world - in light of the general shock, disappointment with the army, the Agranat Commission's discussions on shortcomings in the preparedness for war and its first three days, the talks with Egypt mediated by the United States and the approaching elections for the Knesset.
Toward the end of December 1973, the date of the Knesset elections, the two agreed on another round of fighting to improve positions along the Suez. Perhaps if the fighting were renewed and success were achieved, their status would be rehabilitated. Tal, who opposed this with all his might, understood only too well how he would be treated when - as his friend Maj. Gen. Menachem "Mendi" Meron testified - he questioned Dayan as to whether his orders had been decided on by the government. "The government is none of your business," Dayan said sharply. "You follow military orders."
'Lack of confidence'
Tal did not take that lying down. "The army is none of your business," he shot back. On December 25, 1973, Tal wrote a letter to Elazar, with a copy to Dayan. "Re: The Southern Command. As you know, I have been responsible for the Southern Command since November 8. I understood at the time that I was being sent temporarily to the command because of the possibility of the immediate renewal of the war, at a time when on the one hand there is a lack of confidence in Maj. Gen. Gonen at the supreme command level, and on the other because of the strained relations among the commanders of the forces in the south and the difficulties in controlling them. There was an immediate need to impose discipline and readiness and to organize the force for war.
"During the course of my activity in the command, it has become clear that agreement does not exist between the defense minister and the chief of staff on the one hand, and me on the other, on issues concerning this arena - neither in the diplomatic-strategic area, nor in the operative area, nor in the area of ongoing readiness. Though I am doing the best I can to act in accordance with the orders that obligate me, I had hoped I would be required to operate under those conditions only for a very brief period, based on my appointment as deputy chief of staff and the fact that there are two natural candidates for the position of GOC Southern Command."
The natural candidates, in Tal's definition, were Sharon - "who has expressed his desire" to return to the position he had filled until July 15 - and Mordechai (Motta ) Gur, the IDF attache in Washington, "who to the best of my knowledge has also expressed his desire for the position. However, it turns out that Maj. Gen. Sharon is a sure candidate for the Knesset and does not intend to drop this candidacy, and Maj. Gen. Gur, according to the reports in the newspapers, has been appointed to conduct the negotiations in Geneva on the separation of forces. I assess that there are no other candidates who could be appointed GOC Southern Command immediately."
Tal continued: "It is not my role and my responsibility to make appointments or to propose them, but my feeling is that the problem is not pressing on you and the defense minister. If this is indeed the case, I would like to draw your attention and that of the defense minister to your mistake: I do not want and I do not intend to continue, over the long-term, to bear responsibility for situations and plans with which I do not identify, and I ask that you act to replace me in the near future. In any case, there are two ways of dealing with this issue: sharing your thoughts and considerations with me or informing me of a date."
Two days later, on December 27 (the eve of the Knesset elections ), Dayan replied in a letter to Elazar, with a copy to Tal, who is mentioned only by his name and rank; Dayan ignored the fact he was deputy chief of staff. "I have received a copy of Maj. Gen. Tal's letter to you," wrote Dayan. "The appointment of Maj. Gen. Tal to the Southern Command came, as stated in his letter, because of the possibility of a renewal of the war and so that someone would be responsible for the Southern Command in that situation. There is no certainty that this, the possibility of the renewal of the war, will pass in the coming days or even weeks, and therefore consideration must not be given to Maj. Gen. Tal's removal from the Southern Command in the near future."
Dayan ended the letter with a barb: "As for the final clause in Maj. Gen. Tal's letter, he must continue - and I have no doubt he is doing so - to act according to the orders and instructions, in their letter and in their spirit, given to him by you."
The ripening of the talks with Egypt into the separation of forces agreement in Suez, in January 1974, obviated the danger of a renewal of war. Tal returned to the General Staff, still with the title Deputy Chief of Staff. Dayan, who wanted to expel him from the IDF, changed his mind when a group of major generals (among them Eitan, who had been promoted at the end of October, and Meron ) threatened to resign in protest.
All three of the players ended their roles in this dark chapter in the history of the high command within three weeks in the spring of 1974. Tal resigned from the position of deputy chief of staff and from the IDF on March 24; on April 1, the Agranat Commission submitted its interim report to the government, recommending that Elazar be sacked; and on April 10, Golda Meir acceded to public pressure, resigned and swept along with her the government, including Dayan.
Before the establishment of the new government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, Dayan managed to get the outgoing prime minister and government to sign on his appointment for the next chief of staff, Mordechai (Motta ) Gur.