Text size

One fateful moment, on May 31, 1967, epitomizes Yigal Allon's great missed opportunity. The general background is known: Allon, then minister of labor in the government of Levi Eshkol, stays too long during a visit to Leningrad, and comes back late to Israel at the peak of the pre-war crisis. The defense portfolio is due to be taken from Eshkol, who remains prime minister, and given to Moshe Dayan. To block Dayan, however, senior figures in Mapai (the precursor of the Labor Party) - Zalman Aranne, Golda Meir and Shaul Avigur - suggest that Allon be appointed defense minister instead.

Allon, who was the youngest general of the 1948 War of Independence, was, in his own words, at the "height of glory" in that war, is apprehensive lest "the impression be created that Eshkol is no longer able to stand on his feet, and there is already a general who has ambitions for the post." He waits around, pending Eshkol's consent, and does not press to launch a war with the composition of the government as it was at the time. Hearing of Allon's apparently impending appointment, Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff, is delighted, and generals and officers who are not Dayan sympathizers, such as Ariel Sharon, are quick to send Allon supportive messages. As compensation, Dayan was to be returned to active service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), become GOC Southern Command, and thereby bring about the ouster of the serving GOC, Yeshayahu (Shaike) Gavish.

One day is wasted, and then another, and then everything goes topsy-turvy: The Mapai secretariat - "a flock of geese, people who lose their heads, betray Eshkol internally," in Allon's words - caves in under external pressure. Dayan is ultimately made defense minister, Menachem Begin is co-opted into the government, the old order is shaken up. On the brink of his great accomplishment, Allon loses. Again, and not for the last time.

"For a moment," Allon recounted, "I considered resigning from the government and going to the front. Eshkol was ready to appoint me GOC Southern Command. In my mind's eye I saw Shaike Gavish, my pupil, who was a battalion commander under me in the Palmah [pre-state commandos]. I thought to myself: Why behave like a flock of birds that do not build a nest, but settle in a nest built by a different bird? I knew that this was another victory, but everything was prepared, planned, with all the routes of advance, operational orders, and to come and shunt him aside as a victim of political intrigues and deprive him of the command, I told Eshkol: 'I will not do that to Shaike.'"

But history, as is its wont, continued to roll on. It is not pleasant, not proper, not fair. "Nice guys finish last," as the Americans say.

Allon died in February 1980, at the age of 61. In the year before his death, he recorded a long and confidential series of interviews with Reudor Manor from the Davis Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The transcripts were deposited in an archive. Only now, after certain nuclear, military and intelligence passages were censored, have they been made available for perusal.

Dr. Yigal Kipnis, from Ma'aleh Gamla, encountered the material in the course of researching a book. The obvious title, "Allon's Memoirs," is not accurate. With embarrassing frequency, names, places and events fail him. Sharp descriptions fade into fog, the darkness of oblivion is illuminated by flashes of memory. "I don't remember," Allon apologizes. "The years have done their work. We get old, forget."

Dayan as dark hero

The dark hero of the Allon version is Dayan. "A comrade-in-arms since my youth and a political rival, though by the way it's a rivalry that does not interfere with friendly relations between us" - this was Allon's self-righteous comment, which does not counterbalance his stinging criticism of Dayan "as a person and as a military man." Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his juniors who nevertheless passed Allon by, also have prominent parts in the plot, but it is Dayan who is his nightmare, his calamity.

"Dayan's appointment created great expectations, as he had the reputation of being a man of the offensive, beyond what he deserved. Dayan did not influence the course of the war. The actions that were taken in Sinai were those that I had raised earlier in a conversation with generals Motti Hod, Aharon Yariv and Haim Bar Lev. I know that Gavish, too, thought in the same terms," said Allon.

On October 7, 1973, the day after Yom Kippur, Allon was with Golda Meir, who was then prime minister, "when Dayan came to her with dreadful news. His face was obviously crestfallen. In fact, he spoke in a tone and with a message of 'we will have to start everything over,' 'destruction.' A very dramatic description of the situation. She did not break. She asked Sapir to come in, and I think also Galili [ministers Pinhas Sapir and Israel Galili were confidants of Meir], and Moshe repeated the story in the same tone of deep concern. He was actually talking about defeat, that we had to admit the fact that we had been defeated. He wanted a very deep withdrawal in Sinai and did not put forward a comprehensive operative proposal. I had already seen people of various ranks in situations that they perceived as desperate. I had never seen it at such a high rank."

Allon recommended to Meir that she convene the cabinet and told her that it was his impression, from the reports he was getting, that the situation was indeed bad, but not desperate. At the cabinet meeting, "Dayan presented the situation in a different light from what he had to Golda. He had had time to pull himself together." Dayan, Allon added, "is fundamentally pessimistic. Pessimism leads to mistakes in judgment. He is pessimistic by nature, apart from moments of euphoria as a result of successes, and there have been those as well. In contrast to his public image, he is a person who is incapable of standing up to acute pressure. He is inclined to despair. This was absolutely obvious in the Yom Kippur War, and in my view, also in smaller-scale battles in 1948. There was no reason then why we should not capture East Jerusalem, where Dayan was the brigadier. I also experience failures. The problem is not to crack; who cracks first, you or the enemy."

According to Allon, this was also the explanation for Dayan's call to move from nuclear ambiguity to a covert balance of terror: "He seized on nuclear weapons as a weapon of salvation, out of despair." Of Peres, but mainly of Dayan, he said: "To advance the process - that is an infantile strategic consideration to the point of disqualifying these people to head the pyramid of political and strategic decision-making. In my view, an approach of this kind is enough to rule them out. I have no doubt that his intentions are good. My nerves are better than his."

The 'satellite'

In the Labor Party at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, Allon, together with Israel Galili and major general (res.) Moshe Carmel, was part of a group that supported the establishment of the nuclear reactor at Dimona, "with production capability so that we will not have to use it." He also opposed supervision of Dimona by the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency, a position he called a "casus belli." Consent to supervision over the reactor would be possible only if "the day comes when we realize fully the potential expected of it."

According to Allon's testimony, "I advocated the creation of the nuclear option. I do not ignore the need to deter, but if we arrive at such a grave situation and such acute distress that we will want to flex a nuclear muscle in order to deter - we will cross that bridge when we come to it, and many years could pass, whole decades, without that need." One of those who shared his opinion, Allon said, was Sharon.

Instead of threatening conventional targets with special weapons, Allon preferred deterrence based on the threat of conventional weapons against special targets: "To threaten networks of dams and water canals in Egypt, Iraq or Syria with long-range missiles is likely to deter them more than a nuclear bomb. It will be a shame if we have to do it, but theoretically, if you can destroy the Aswan Dam, you can inflict a disaster on Egypt."

Allon attributes to himself a central role in three decisions of the Six-Day War: the capture of East Jerusalem in the wake of Jordan's shelling of the western part of the city; the conquest of the West Bank, and not only the Jenin area; and the taking of the Golan Heights. He never forgave David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister and defense minister at the time, for his refusal to conquer the West Bank in 1949. "Ben-Gurion was far more party-oriented than you think. Under the guise of a state-oriented approach, the most terrible party-oriented things were done, and in the army, too."

Also, alluding to Peres, Allon said: "Behind Ben-Gurion's back, selfish, less responsible forces operated, with personal aims. Ben-Gurion lost much of his alertness and his ability to consider matters due to his age and the fact that he was being pampered. He was surrounded by people who were not always sufficiently reliable."

Allon entered the Six-Day War as an advocate of Greater Israel. He came out of the war, after getting a look at the Palestinians in the West Bank and the serious crowding in Gaza, as an opponent of the annexation of populated areas. His friends were dumbfounded. At the time, the "Allon Plan" - which called for retaining the Jordan Rift Valley, the Judean Desert and "a small wedge from the sea to the Green Line, and therefore I stuck the settlements of Gush Katif [in the Gaza Strip] there" - was considered a far-reaching compromise. From an avowed "anti-Hashemite" who hoped for King Hussein to be deposed, he became an ardent supporter of Hussein, and shared in his hope that the Royal House in Amman would one day take control also of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He was against the PLO, which he dubbed "the viper."

Dayan, who was in charge of the territories and of the military government that was installed there, wielded the greatest influence among the leaders of the new Israel. Allon, was a "satellite" in the political sphere: He was not given direct access to officers or to the raw materials of Military Intelligence. His contribution, good or bad, was made indirectly. Allon, together with the GOC Northern Command at the time, David Elazar, organized the first settlement group in the Golan Heights.

Allon was proud of his part in the decision that was made to fight in the Syrian sector, but not in order to annex the Golan. He mediated between a delegation of representatives from Galilee and Eshkol, and urged Elazar to push on far beyond the first ridge. "I was not eager to move toward Damascus, but southward ... to stop at the first logical place that promised some sort of deployment. When I shouted at Dado [Elazar], the poor guy, 'Why don't you seize the chain of small hills' - he said, 'Look, I have already taken more than I was permitted.' If I had been defense minister then, or maybe chief of staff or maybe GOC Northern Command, we would have finished at Suweida, I promise you."

Suweida is the capital of the Druze district Jebel Druze, one of the provinces out of which the French fashioned Syria. Allon, who spent 1942 in Syria and Lebanon as commander of an undercover force that created sabotage, communications and intelligence infrastructures for resistance to a possible German conquest, was chief lobbyist of the idea of separating Jebel Druze from Syria and establishing a buffer state, supported by the IDF, between Jordan, Israel and Syria. He saw himself as a kind of Lawrence of Arabia figure, saying: "a Lawrence-type imagination was needed."

Allon tried to influence "Dayan in a private conversation, also Rabin and Eshkol, each separately, to move as far as Jebel Druze. There were no orderly discussions, but I did not let the matter rest. I talked about it with Dado - I was in his forward command post - and I spoke with Bar-Lev and Galili. In another day, at most a day and a half, we could be in Jebel Druze, in order to encourage the Druze, who possess national awareness. I visited Suweida a number of times, and I dreamed the dream of a Druze republic, which would stretch across southern Syria, including the Golan, in a military alliance with Israel. I relied greatly on the Druze community in Israel, which was already organized within the IDF, to act as a bridge between us and the other Druze. This Druze craze did not leave me after the war, either."

However, his contacts with the family of the Druze leader Al-Atrache, with the aid of the Mossad espionage agency, got nowhere.

In a bind

After Eshkol's death, Allon, with Sapir sitting next to him, drove from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. On the way, Sapir explained that Allon's turn had come, based on seniority and experience, but, Allon later recalled, "the danger was that choosing me would bring about a split, because of the possible defection of Rafi [a party originally formed by Ben-Gurion, which later joined the nascent Labor Party]. He suggests that I accept the fact that someone from Mapai will become prime minister [Allon was from the Ahdut Ha'avoda faction] ..."

Allon's guess was that Sapir would propose Golda Meir for the post. "I said that I had no doubt that she had the necessary experience and wisdom, provided her health would allow her to cope with the difficulties of the Prime Minister's Office. He said he had checked the matter with physicians. In their view, she can do it and it will even help her."

Five years passed, Golda resigned, "and Sapir said again, you are the natural candidate to succeed Golda, but putting forward your candidacy means that the candidacy of Dayan or Peres will be put forward. I am less fearful of Dayan now - he is not the same Dayan - but the camp around him can be relatively neutralized if we unite around a candidate whom you can accept and whom Mapai can accept, though even then there will be a hard struggle, and with combined forces we will defeat Peres."

Allon gave in. "After the vote, Galili and I went to have dinner, with a sense of relief. He said, 'Nu, after all, we accomplished something this evening.' I told him, Israel, this evening we elected Peres. You don't know him. From tomorrow the struggle will be renewed." Rabin, the newly elected party leader, offered Allon, his former commander, the defense portfolio, but withdrew the offer for fear that Peres would bring about a split in the party. As a substitute, he promised Allon the foreign affairs portfolio and the title of deputy prime minister, and implored him not to forgo one of the two posts in favor of Abba Eban.

Allon, a former Eban ally, acceded to the request - "Eban was already flirting with Peres" - and found himself in a bind. "Rabin did not come to my defense sufficiently or in public, and the impression was that I was fighting for some kind of post. If I had wanted to fight, I would have fought for the premiership and not to be deputy. A very embarrassing situation was created. If I insisted, it would be bad, people would say I was clinging to an extra seat; if I did not insist, they would say he gave in again."

More 'Allonisms'

On Peres: In the Rabin-Peres government, every Allon conversation "was reported immediately to the prime minister [Rabin] and the defense minister [Peres] and was leaked wickedly and maliciously. I did not develop an attack in response via wicked counter-leaks, and from this point of view I was in no little distress." Ahead of every visit by Rabin or Allon, as foreign minister, to Washington, it turned out that Peres organized a tour for himself with the United Jewish Appeal in the United States about three weeks beforehand, and beat them to the punch in meeting key administration officials. When Allon and Peres were in New York, the one on the way in, the other on the way out, they had a long conversation about Peres' meetings with Henry Kissinger. The conversation was so good that Peres forgot to tell Allon that he would be meeting with Kissinger again that evening.

On Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko: At the end of their conversation, Allon complemented the interpreter on his English. "No, he is not good," Gromyko said surprisingly with an angry expression. "According to the translation, I sounded tougher than in Russian. I will punish him - on the flight back I will drop him into the ocean."

On Indira Gandhi: "Her aunt, Nehru's younger sister, told me that she is a bitch."

On Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta: "A wise old man. He reminds me of [Palmah commander] Yitzhak Sadeh, but is black."