In Be'er Tuvia in the 1940s and 1950s, Israel Tal's father had a horse. One of the youngsters on the moshav, who tended to the animal and became attached to it, once asked: "Israel's dad, when you die, can I have the horse?" At his death on the eve of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, Tal, who was known as Talik, bequeathed not a horse but the Merkava tank.
The tank embodies an idea: that man is in the middle. The engine sits before the soldiers, in the vehicle's most exposed area; the idea is that the crew is the element whose survival is of supreme importance. The engine, like other parts of the tank, takes an enemy's blow, absorbing its lethal force; it protects the warriors inside the vehicle. A tank that is crushed can be replaced; a man is irreplaceable.
No other army, and apparently no other man of war, had ever come up with this thought. The generation that fought the 1967 Six-Day War brought to battle a slogan, "exposed at the turret," that reflected command needs with regard to old-model tanks devoid of state-of-the-art instruments for observation and fire control. The slogan reflected a reality, not a value; Tal sought to save lives. No longer would the tank be "exposed at the turret;" the Merkava tank crew would be protected, as would be infantry soldiers in the armored personnel carrier-Merkava that was begotten by the Merkava tank.
Maj. Gen. Tal was a military giant. His multifaceted talents - one could say genius - had no equal. Unprecedented was his aptitude for balancing contrasts, as in the formula "the soldier's obligations and rights" that he installed in the tank corps. He was a man of war and a man of peace, a man of vision and ideas and a man of practical application. He was a democrat and a tyrant, a teacher and a terror, modest and imposing.
Tal was driven by belief and eaten by doubt. He demanded complete perfection while being aware of defects. He was an artist who saw the big picture and a wizard in control of the small details. He was a composite of strategy and logic of the highest caliber, and an exemplary model of perseverance, professional expertise and steely logic. Faced with anyone who seemed disappointed by the fact that the vaunted Merkava could be derailed, Tal would reply: "Don't be a fool; by definition, if there were a tank that could overcome any enemy, then that one vehicle would conquer the entire world."
He takes his last military journey, carried on his subordinates' shoulders, on the eve of his 86th birthday. On September 13, 1973 he stood at the foot of the summit, without knowing it was Mount Nebo. He was at the time deputy chief of staff, and the leading contender to replace IDF chief David Elazar in another 15 months. On that day, Israel's air force clashed with Syria's, and downed 12 enemy aircraft. Syria's preparations for the Yom Kippur War in the coming weeks were mistakenly interpreted as responses to this air battle, and contributed to the military, intelligence and political leadership's complacency.
Tal warned that war was impending but became reconciled to the prevailing intelligence assessments and was partner to the leadership's woeful failure, a failure that devastated a generation of young officers, his peers and comrades. As commander on the southern front at the end of the war, he personally blocked a scheme prepared by Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Elazar to renew the fighting. This cost him what remained of his chances to win the chief of staff appointment from the Golda-Dayan government. His record was marked by principled stands, including his refusal in 1969 to be appointed southern commander of the disastrous Bar-Lev Line during the War of Attrition.
After the 1973 War, Tal's influence was considerable, but indirect. Petty jealousy among his IDF rivals prevented his plan for a ground forces command from being adopted; his rivals worried that the plan's acceptance would facilitate Tal's return to a command post, and then to his appointment as chief of staff.
In 1983, when his friend Ariel Sharon was ousted, Tal's candidacy for the defense ministry portfolio was considered. Tal did not know about this development, which was initiated by his admirer Dan Meridor; Menachem Begin, however, decided upon a political appointment, Moshe Arens. Later, Tal mediated between Arens and the new chief of staff, Ehud Barak. Had he not been weakened before his death, perhaps he would have been able to mediate recently between Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
The Israel he sought for four decades was a state headed toward an agreed-on compromise based on the 1967 borders and the exchange of territories for guaranteed, stable peace - peace that would be defensible and whose violators could be punished. Only on the basis of such a settlement, he believed, could the army and world opinion be united around a just, realistic goal. This hope, which he never saw fulfilled, is receding into the distance with his death. At least, Israel should memorialize his name by calling the next Merkava model: Tal, a tank for Israel.
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