The Last Battle

Fifty years after the chief of staff in the Sinai War, Moshe Dayan, accused Major General Asaf Simhoni of refusing an order, his son, Yoav, has cleared his father's name by means of previously unpublished documents. Along the way he discovered that his father had been piloting the Piper that crashed, killing himself, a key witness in the case and another man

Yoav Simhoni was 12 when the Piper plane that carried his father, the GOC Southern Command Asaf Simhoni, took off from Sinai en route to the center of Israel, on the afternoon of November 6, 1956. The Sinai War had ended in an Israeli victory, and Simhoni, the victorious head of command (though officially he was still a colonel), had many plans for the two days after the scheduled landing at the Ramat David airbase. He intended to go to Haifa to sign his divorce documents, to visit his home in Kibbutz Tel Yosef, and to do a victory drive through the Jezreel Valley in a car that was taken from the governor of Gaza.

More important, though, Simhoni planned to meet with the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to prove to him, by means of classified documents, that contrary to the allegation of the chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, he had not violated an order when he instructed the 7th Armored Brigade to advance into Sinai. However, the flight never reached its destination, and none of Simhoni's plans were realized.

Yoav Simhoni waited 35 years before starting to investigate the moves of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the Sinai War, the source of the dispute between his father and Dayan, and the plane crash in which his father was killed. During all these years his grandmother objected to the investigation, and it was only after her death, in 1991, that he felt free to embark on the journey in the wake of his father. He enlisted the historian Tzila Rosenblit, who researched the Sinai War and the military activity of Asaf Simhoni for more than five years, starting in 2000. In another few months, she and journalist Amos Carmel plan to publish a book on Simhoni.

Yoav Simhoni learned about the existence of a report by the commission of inquiry that investigated the plane accident from the journalists Micha Friedman of Army Radio and Amir Oren of Haaretz, whose film "The Simhoni File," will be broadcast next week on Yes Docu, the documentary film channel of Israeli satellite television. In addition to the report, the film reveals the existence of a cable that was sent from the General Staff's Operations Department to Southern Command, authorizing Simhoni to send the armored brigade into action under certain circumstances ("If Qusseima is not captured by morning, the 7th Brigade is to be activated in order to capture it at daybreak"). The order to enter Sinai was given to the brigade commander, Colonel Uri Ben Ari, about three hours after the cable arrived. Dayan himself was not at General Staff headquarters at the time and he could not be reached.

The film also reveals that Simhoni sent a cable to Operations Branch reporting the order that he had issued to the armored units to cross the border. That cable, which was written by Major Moshe Ilan, from the IDF's History Section, who accompanied Simhoni, stated that if the General Staff thinks that the move is wrong, it should issue an order halting it. Within a short time a reply arrived: "If you've crossed, we authorize."

"Everything that was disseminated about Asaf Simhoni is a slander," his son, Yoav, now says. "Dayan arranged the historical record the way he wanted, in real time. He took Mordechai Bar-On [Dayan's bureau chief at the time] and had him write down everything he wanted to dictate to him every day. He had no God and he wasn't afraid of anyone, he did whatever he wanted, and the diary contains things that are simply unbelievable. I would have expected that in the diary Dayan would say something related to the 7th Brigade. Well, there's not a word there. No only is there not a word, but he and Dad are on the same wave length on the critical days. The whole story about the 7th Brigade was made up afterward."

The victorious general

The real point is that this is not so much a forgotten clash over the violation of an order, as it is a competition between Dayan and Simhoni for their place in history. Their backgrounds were quite similar. They were from the same generation - Dayan was born in 1915, Simhoni in 1922 - and were both from Moshav Nahalal and members of Mapai, the ruling party, both under the auspices of the same patron, David Ben-Gurion. Both ran and were elected to the First Knesset, in 1949, on the Mapai ticket, but resigned immediately afterward to pursue their military careers.

The dispute between the two occupied Yoav Simhoni from childhood. "I always wanted to know exactly what happened there," says the son, who works in the computer industry and lives in Ramat Hasharon. "I was not at Dad's funeral. I was asked and said I didn't want to go and I stayed in the kibbutz. Already in the eulogy, Ben-Gurion called Dad the 'victorious general.'

"Anyone who knows Ben-Gurion and his character, knows that he never said anything off the top of his head. He was not an emotional person at all, he was a manipulator, he put on performances in the Knesset. And here he is providing a first sign that there is something here that does not jibe with what was said about Dad in connection with failing to execute an order or being in breach of discipline. On the contrary: the defense minister of Israel [Ben-Gurion held this post as well] comes and says that this man played a central role in achieving the victory."

Simhoni was younger and more junior than Dayan, but was close enough to Ben-Gurion to threaten Dayan's preferential status with the prime minister. Simhoni had far-reaching ambitions: he hoped to become chief of staff and from there continue to the country's leadership. His course, then, clashed with that of Dayan, who was apprehensive that the glorification of Simhoni would be detrimental to him.

Simhoni - who fought in the pre-state Palmah commando unit, took part in many operations in the War of Independence, was the commander of the Golani Brigade and acting GOC Northern Command - was appointed head of Southern Command three months before the Sinai War of October 1956. The campaign, which was intended to breach the Egyptian closure of the Suez Canal and bring about the fall of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime, was launched at the initiative of Dayan, the chief of staff, and Shimon Peres, who was then the director general of the Defense Ministry. Ben-Gurion himself was less enthusiastic and insisted that the move have the active backing of an international force. Finally, a week before the start of the campaign, Ben-Gurion authorized it, on condition that the parachuting of the 890th Battalion at the Mitla Pass in Sinai be presented as a reprisal raid ahead of the entry of Britain and France into the campaign, "in order to act as a buffer between Israel and Egypt."

The collusion with the two European powers was kept secret from Simhoni. He informed his officers that on the southern front he was the commander and he intended to implement a plan for rapid progress, which would take the Egyptians by surprise, ensure gains on the ground and keep casualties low. On the day following the parachute drop at the Mitla Pass, Simhoni authorized the 7th Armored Brigade to advance into Sinai. He maintained that he had authorization from General Staff headquarters, from which Dayan was absent.

Dayan saw the events differently. In the "Diary of the Chief of Staff's Bureau" he assails Simhoni and talks about his "capricious behavior." But there is no mention in the diary about the violation of an order concerning the brigade's entry into Sinai. When Dayan received a report about the brigade's move, he ordered it to advance further into Sinai.

Ten years later, Dayan published a different version in his book, "Diary of the Sinai Campaign," noting in his entry for October 31, "Yesterday I had a stiff contretemps with the GOC Southern Command" (from the English edition of the diary, Sphere Books, 1967) - an incident which is not mentioned in the "Diary of the Chief of Staff's Bureau." This was the first time Dayan stated that Simhoni had violated an order by sending the brigade into Sinai on October 30. Because the order had already been given, and "at least to extract the maximum advantage from the brigade's already having joined in the fighting," he gave the move his retroactive backing.

When Dayan arrived in Sinai, he reprimanded Simhoni in the presence of many officers and soldiers and led him to believe that he wanted his removal. In the "Diary of the Chief of Staff's Bureau," Dayan wrote, after the conquest of Gaza, "Asaf is walking around intoxicated with victory. In fact, he has very little right to boast because most of the time he intervened in a small matter and in a narrow sector without decisive influence on the overall battle, and [Southern] Command, as a headquarters, was totally paralyzed ..."

Simhoni knew he was being targeted. At his initiative he had a meeting with Ben-Gurion - who was intoxicated with the quick victory and was not really interested in the dispute between the chief of staff and the head of Southern Command. Simhoni insisted on proving that the entry of the 7th Armored Brigade into Sinai on October 30 was done with authorization and that he should get the credit for the rapid victory. He instructed his aides to collect the documents that proved his account so he could present them at a second meeting he would hold with the prime minister.

The Piper that took off from Sinai in adverse weather conditions, with strong winds blowing, was taking Simhoni to the second and decisive meeting with Ben-Gurion. The pilot was Binyamin Gordon and the two were joined by Lieutenant Colonel Asher Dromi, the liaison officer with the General Staff in the Sinai War, who was to be Simhoni's witness in the meeting with Ben-Gurion.

When the plane failed to reach its destination at Ramat David and contact was lost with it, planes were sent into Sinai to search for it. But it was too late. The powerful winds drove the light plane eastward into Jordan, where it crashed.

The IDF investigative report states, "There are grounds for believing that at the time of the disaster the plane was flown by Colonel Simhoni." This was conveyed to Colonel Nur Sela, chairman of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Commission, by an American officer from the United Nations, who dealt with getting the bodies sent back to Israel from Jordan and was at the scene of the crash. Simhoni was a "non-paid pilot," meaning that he had taken a course for light flying only. The IDF report noted, "Pilots of the various aircraft should be barred from handing the flying of the plane to any non-paid pilots on the plane if this does not have prior authorization."

Simhoni, who had taken a quick course, apparently replaced Gordon when the flight ran into trouble. "Not that it helps," Dr. Alon Harmelin, Asher Dromi's son, said this week, but "if we consider who is at fault in this story, we can do eenie-meenie-minie-moe between Dayan and Asaf Simhoni. It was a flight that would not take off today."

Yoav Simhoni acknowledges that the decision to make the flight was the sole responsibility of his father. He says that there is no unequivocal proof that his father was at the controls when the plane crashed, and in any event "it is meaningless whether you are sitting at the controls or next to the pilot, because in a situation of distress everyone is united in one goal - to save themselves."

Still, was he the one who authorized the flight?

"Of course. In fact, it was prohibited for him to fly at night, but no one gave a damn. Everyone flew at night, everyone."

Doesn't the person who decides to have the flight proceed at night bear responsibility?

"Of course he bears responsibility. He should not have flown, if he had asked me. The commander is responsible - let there be no misunderstanding about that. It's not politicians' smart-aleck stuff. A commander is responsible for everything that happens in his sector."

Alon Harmelin [Dromi] says your father's responsibility is no less than Dayan's. Doesn't that make you uncomfortable?

"No, why? Did you ever think about what war is? In war there is the possibility of being killed. People take risks. It was not a civilian flight."

This was already after the war.

"It was an operational flight related to the war."

Not forgiving Dayan

Why did the family wait 50 years before opening this Pandora's box? Yoav Simhoni explains that they respected the wish of the grandmother, Yehudit Simhoni, who was a member of the First Knesset and was close to Ben-Gurion, who forsook the idea of an inquiry in order not to clash with Dayan and Ben-Gurion.

"She lived until the age of 90 and didn't want to get into it, and I respected her wish," Yoav Simhoni says. "True, he was my father, but he was also her son, and when a son falls it is very hard on the family. It's a trauma for the child, too, but the child does not understand these things as the parents do. He understands it through his emotional system, but the parents understand it also through the relations between them. He was killed at the age of 34. They were very attached."

Yehudit Simhoni's other son, Ahik, Asaf's younger brother, says in the film, "Mother was a political person and as such she understood exactly what it would mean to start investigating this matter of the conduct of Asaf, of Dayan and of the IDF during the Sinai Campaign. She knew that in the end everything centered on one person - Ben-Gurion. Mother was very loyal to Ben-Gurion, and if Ben-Gurion decided not to deal with it, for her that was almost satisfactory. She understood that if Ben-Gurion had to judge between the living Dayan and the dead Asaf, it was perfectly clear what he would have to do - choose Dayan - and she did not want any sort of confrontation over the subject."

This week, Ahik explained, "This matter of one's 'place in history' was not important. It was far less important than the mental health of her grandchildren, of her family."

But there was also personal gain here - she went into the Rafi party with Ben-Gurion and Dayan.

"Yes, and she said, 'I never forgave Dayan,' and with that she more or less summed up the issue for herself."

What was your father's attitude toward the subject?

"My father, Mordechai, thought far less of these subjects. He believed that what existed was very important, not cemeteries, and he was not willing to turn his home into a cemetery. There was no problem between the parents on this subject. On the contrary, it was Mother who went to the cemetery more and preserved the formal memory more. He [Mordechai Simhoni] said, 'I keep it all in my heart - I don't need monuments and I don't need cemeteries.'"

No access to information

Yoav Simhoni did not make do with the different accounts of those who are still alive - Mordechai Bar-On, who defends Dayan; and, on the other side, his father's supporters: Zvi Vardi, who was Asaf Simhoni's adjutant; Uri Ben Ari, the commander of the 7th Brigade; and Yeshayahu Gavish, the head of the Operations Department.

"The documents don't contain so much as an iota of what was said about Dad in relation to not fulfilling an o rder or violating an order," he says. "Anyone can tell stories, but to bring facts and analyze them - few, if any, can do that."

Simhoni explains, "Moshe Dayan had a tremendous impact on the systems and he made sure there would be no access to the information. Grandmother knew these things back then. Arik Sharon, for example - he himself went to her and asked her to talk to Ben-Gurion, because he was sure they were going to throw him out of the army or do him some wrong and that he would be Dayan's scapegoat, as he had been on a few previous occasions, when reprisal raids failed or if there were a great many casualties. And already then she told him that she was not interested in all that and did not want to get involved in those things. Whoever wanted to make sure there was no access, did just that.

"So even if Yehudit Simhoni was very interested, and had an open door to Ben-Gurion, it is hard to believe that Ben-Gurion could have ordered Dayan or the IDF to reveal all the documents because Yehudit Simhoni wants to know what really happened in the Sinai War. He had no control over that, contrary to what people think.

"Those who know how to deal with history and how history is manufactured, are the same people who have a grip on history. Since Yehudit Simhoni was a very smart woman, very intelligent and also realistic, she knew that nothing good would come of all this for her."

Didn't it undermine her very strong belief in Ben-Gurion and in the establishment?

"Why should it? What does it have to do with Ben-Gurion? Just so you will understand the relations between them, the closeness - she is a signatory on his will. At one of the memorial ceremonies for Paula [Ben-Gurion's wife], he said to Yehudit, 'Why don't you write a book about Asaf?' - because he felt, after his retirement, of course, that something wrong had been done here."

All your allegations are aimed at Moshe Dayan - don't you have anything against Ben-Gurion?

"No, there was no reason for that."

He could have made Dayan state that Simhoni did not violate an order.

"Already during the war, a day before he was killed, Dad wanted to get to Ben-Gurion at his initiative, because of what started to happen around him. That was of no interest to Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion laid down opening moves for the war that ran completely contrary to the whole doctrine of war as it was then and as Dad understood it, and very rightly so.

"Today everyone knows about the surprise factor and the concentration of the military effort, but at that time it was not so clear. Hence the failure of the conception in the Yom Kippur War, because Dayan, until the day he died, did not understand that the IDF's great successes in the Sinai War and in the Six-Day War were achieved thanks to an initial strike and a tactical and strategic surprise. This has a far greater weight than the comparison between the IDF's combat capability and the combat capability of the Egyptians or the Syrians or the Jordanians. As a result, he [Dayan] was very complacent when the Yom Kippur War began; otherwise he would have authorized Dado [David Ben Elazar, the chief of staff in the 1973 war] to deliver a preventive strike.

"Ben-Gurion effectively did not believe in the IDF's ability, but after the victory [in 1956] he was totally carried away. Suddenly someone comes to him and starts driving him nuts about what's happening with Dayan and with this and that and the other - and he's thinking to himself, 'Hell, who ever thought we would have such great achievements?' and suddenly Asaf shows up with all kinds of things that bug him.

"So he rejected him outright in relation to those issues, but accepted his request to conduct a clarification after the war. To that end Dad collected documents, and the documents are in Jordan. From the information Ben-Gurion received he understood what Dad's role had been in the war and what Dayan's role had been - and that's why he eulogized him as he did."

Tall tales

Asher Dromi, who joined Simhoni's last flight, was survived by his wife and their three-year-old son, Alon. On the plane there was a file of documents which were, Simhoni believed, going to prove that he was in the right. The documents remained in Jordan, and numerous attempts to get them returned to Israel - including efforts by former prime minister Ariel Sharon and former Mossad espionage agency chief Efraim Halevy - were unsuccessful. According to Yoav Simhoni, the Jordanians refused to hand over the documents because "they do not give anything for free."

Dromi and the pilot, Binyamin Gordon, a police officer, were supporting actors in the Dayan-Simhoni struggle - victims of a flight that probably never would have been made had it not been for the falling-out between the two.

Dromi's widow, Sarika Harmelin (who later married Yosef Harmelin, a former Shin Bet security service chief), declined to be interviewed, either for the film or for this article. Dromi's son, Dr. Alon Harmelin, said this week that his mother's refusal was due to personal reasons and not intended to protect Dayan, who had been her friend. Alon Harmelin himself did not probe the dispute or the circumstances of his father's death. "It's interesting, but it won't change anything," he says. "For my mother it was a huge trauma when her husband was killed. It is a wound that she has no desire to reopen. That was a different time. She was told, 'He died in the war,' and beyond that hardly anything was added. The story about the bad relations between Asaf and Moshe Dayan, which was more or less the reason for that whole separate trip, was always in the background. It won't bring her husband back."

Did you ever talk about the accident at home?

"Very little. We were not aware of this story, this theory of going to Ben-Gurion and bringing a witness. It may or may not be true."

Are you curious about what happened?

"Yes, but I satisfied my curiosity by getting very clear answers. First, that he was killed; second, that he was killed while flying in a Piper in bad weather. I found the information about that flight when I was in the Air Force. If Simhoni was planning to go to Ben-Gurion, that's interesting, but what difference does it make?"

Harmelin and Simhoni agree on one matter. Dromi's son, too, is suspicious about the testimony being offered by people today, 50 years after the events: "Almost everyone who has something to say in the first person has died. The rest is 'He gave him the knife' and 'That one gave him the rifle' and tall tales of old people who are already half senile."

Yoav Simhoni: "Beyond Yoav Simhoni's desire to know exactly what happened, this investigation was important at the national level. It is meaningful for the IDF's historical research. Truthful reporting is the basis for proper command procedures. If incorrect conclusions are drawn, if things are not known and there is a cover-up - those are the origins of all the bad things. It wasn't by chance that we found ourselves in the Yom Kippur War. Dayan was not the first to rewrite history. Others did it before him, in many other places." W