Arms and the Man

Twenty-four years after the publication of his book `Dado,' Hanoch Bartov is back with an expanded edition in his campaign to clear the name of David Elazar, the chief of staff in the Yom Kippur War.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

A few hours before the Passover seder in 1976, David ("Dado") Elazar called the novelist Hanoch Bartov and told him that the time had come. Two years earlier, the state commission of inquiry, headed by the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Shimon Agranat, had concluded that Elazar bore the responsibility for the Israel Defense Forces' failure at the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was subjected to a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. Elazar must resign, the commission asserted.

Elazar was convinced that he had been done a great injustice but decided to forgo a legal battle, as though knowing that he had no chance to defend himself in the face of the political level and the testimonies that had evaporated or been neatly cobbled together on all sides. The attorney Amnon Goldenberg advised him to give his version of the events in book form, and Elazar suggested to Bartov that they write the book together, after giving him time to go through his own notes and records.

On that Passover eve he called Bartov to inform him that he had completed his part of the task and asked that they begin the work of organizing the material and turning it into a flowing narrative. The two agreed that after the holiday they would set a date to meet and launch the project. However, the next afternoon, after playing tennis and going swimming for the second time that day, as he did his twenty-second lap of the pool, Elazar's heart gave out. He was 51 at the time of his death.

Together with the entire country, Bartov was shocked at the former chief of staff's untimely death. Like many others, he attributed it to "heartbreak" at the ingratitude that the government had shown to the commander-in-chief who had saved Israel from a serious military defeat. Bartov had not taken a previous interest in military affairs but felt a powerful commitment to write the biography of the IDF's ninth chief of staff, who had been removed from his post so humiliatingly. As a columnist in the daily Ma'ariv, he had already been sharply critical of Elazar's ouster in April 1974. In one of his articles, entitled "Responsibility of the unresponsible minister," he had wondered how it was possible that the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, had emerged pure as the driven snow from the Agranat Commission, "when everyone knew that no one moved and that there was no motion or decision in the security-military sphere without his knowledge and authorization."

Bartov: "After Dado's death I had the feeling that he had charged me with writing the book and so it happened that I found myself, one day, in his apartment on Tagore Street in Ramat Aviv facing two metal filing cabinets that contained a great deal of documents and other material. In the first period I read and read, without having been given authorization, but after a time I received an official request from the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, the defense minister, Shimon Peres and the chief of staff, Motta Gur.

"I sat alone and filled thousands of file cards with items that caught my eye. There was documentation of the Six-Day War and the conquest of the Golan Heights, and of the War of Attrition, along with the material about the Yom Kippur War. The original material that I read about the 1973 war filled me with dread. It was hard to re-experience the pain of the blindness and the terrible price. That war was the most traumatic event in Israel's history. As I read about the entire campaign, I had the feeling that it was all like a Greek tragedy - how we went and slid into a war with such horrific losses."

Did you take it to heart?

"I would go home at the end of the day and find myself unable to sleep. For the first time in my life, I fell into depression. I took Valium for a few months and also sleeping pills. My wife, Yehudit [a psychology and literature teacher and a pedagogical counselor, she died in 1998] insisted that I drop the project, and when I hesitated she threatened me with divorce. After a year of work, I was so stressed out and depressed that I tried to get out of the contract with Ma'ariv Publishing House, but they refused. I was positive that I wouldn't be able to write the book."

After he "regained his balance," though, he understood that he had to do it for Dado's sake. "I understood that I had entered a crack that had opened up for me as a result of unique circumstances. Never again will someone like me be allowed to enter into a mass of material of that sort. I am one of those people who is fated to hear things from spokesmen or from journalists who have forgotten their avocation and effectively function as spokesmen of the Defense Ministry, and give us the material after it has been processed, sweetened and distorted. I did the work of a historian and made sure that I stuck with the facts as I received them. I never pretended that what I wrote was the final word, but I wrote everything I knew, and to this day the book has not received a negative review. I'm very proud that not one incorrect fact has been found."

Some 24 years have passed since the first edition of the two-volume book - "Dado: 48 Years and 20 More Days" - was published. It sold 50,000 copies in a very short time and received the Yitzhak Sadeh Award for military literature even before its official publication.

Bartov: "I finished writing the first edition of the book and submitted it to the publisher. The book was sent to the military censor's office, which barely touched it, apart from one fact that had to do with information about the imminent eruption of the war, which the head of the Mossad [espionage agency], Zvi Zamir, heard less than 12 hours before the war began. That took place in a European country and the information came from an agent who was codenamed `Bavel' [Babylon]. He said that war would break out on October 6th before sunset." The war, which the Arabs called the Judgment Day War, did in fact erupt on the day the agent said it would, at 2 P.M.

This week, just ahead of Yom Kippur 2002, which will mark the war's 29th anniversary, the second and expanded edition of the book is being published (this time by Zmora Bitan). At 782 pages, it is nearly a hundred pages longer than the first edition, and it contains 680 footnotes (there were none in the 1978 edition), a bibliography and new articles, a format that Bartov was prevented from using 24 years ago.

"I am launching a campaign to clear Dado's name. With incredibly calculated leadership and determination, he reversed the fate of the Yom Kippur War and led the IDF to the outskirts of Damascus and the heart of Egypt. Dado encircled one of the Egyptian armies and only the intervention of the superpowers saved it from total annihilation. Dado and a few other senior officers were made totally responsible for the actions and decisions and blunders that preceded the war, and they were as though thrown to the dogs, whereas the government, and the defense minister as part of it, claimed innocence."

Recordings about Sharon

The publication of the book in its full format represents the completion of a mission for Bartov. "When the first book came out, in December 1978, more than two and a half years after Dado's death, there were security restrictions. The truth is that I was also apprehensive about the people who came to power in 1977 [referring to Menachem Begin's Likud party]. I was afraid that they would block the publication of the book."

What do you mean?

"Rabin, Peres and Gur, who gave the book their blessing, were not involved in the events of the Yom Kippur War. After the Likud came to power in 1977, Begin became prime minister and Moshe Dayan was appointed foreign minister. Ariel Sharon, a major general, would not have been perceived as `king of Israel' if the terms of reference of the Agranat Commission had not stated that it was to investigate the events and decisions in the containment period extending only until October 8th. We have to remember that former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, who was appointed as commander of the Southern Front, above the head of Southern Command, Shmuel Gonen (Gorodish), made his continued activity on the Southern Front conditional on the removal of Sharon under certain circumstances - but Dado was afraid there would be a public and political brouhaha, and managed to dissuade Bar-Lev from that course of action. So, when I say I had concerns, I don't mean that I was afraid I would be killed, but that someone up there, some kind of Big Brother type, would order that the book be shelved."

Did you have any concrete reason for thinking that?

"On the day before the book was scheduled to be published, I got a phone call from a friend who was a spokesman in the government. He told me that by chance he had run into the justice minister, Shmuel Tamir, on a plane trip. `We started talking about your book,' my friend went on, `and Tamir wanted to know whether you are ready to submit it to the ministerial committee that deals with manuscripts written by civil servants.' Maybe it's not nice to tell your paper what I told him, but I told him he could kiss my ass.

"A few weeks later I received an official letter from the office of the justice minister, politely written, stating that he knows prima facie that it is my duty to submit the book, and so forth. But I didn't give an undertaking to anyone, and after all, I wasn't a civil servant. I went to Amnon Goldenberg and he wrote them a letter designed to ensure that they wouldn't bother me anymore. That episode was an indication that they wanted the book to go to the committee so they could bury it for who knows how many years.

"Because I was apprehensive, the book's first edition appeared without my sources being cited, which I thought even then was a major shortcoming. All my sources were primary ones. I had most of the relevant documents, and above all, Dado's filing cabinets contained 35 tape recordings that documented what went on in the `Pit' [the IDF's subterranean High Command post], which was material that was worth its weight in gold."

Who recorded the events in the Pit?

"The recording was not done either for the sake of history or as a lark. From the very beginning of the war, Dado suspected that Dayan was preparing for the postwar period, so Dado's bureau chief, Avner Shalev [afterward chief education officer and now the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Directorate] placed a tape recorder on the table and changed the tapes as needed, and he recorded and recorded. From the moment I was given permission to read documents and listen to the recordings - which no one before me had heard, including the members of the Agranat Commission - I sat with earphones and transcribed them line by line, word by word." (The recordings and the other material from Dado's estate are now in the IDF Archives.)

The material from the recordings has been added to the new edition. Listening to the tapes, Bartov says, was a searing experience in itself. "I am not a military person, and it took me a long time to get into the atmosphere of the High Command. For example, there was a stage in which they decided that it was essential to replace Major General Gorodish because he wasn't able to get control of the situation in Southern Command, and certainly he was unable to control veteran generals like Sharon. The recordings contain that entire dialogue, including Dado's attempt to reassure Gorodish. Dado didn't want to injure his honor and wanted to soften him up so he would agree. The decision was to leave him with his title [head of Southern Command] and appoint Bar-Lev over him as commander of the Southern Front. I'm not talking about facts here, but about the human side and about the way this whole chain of events comes across in the tapes.

"There was a stage when Dado wanted to oust Sharon, because Sharon was causing chaos in Southern Command, not obeying orders and doing what he wanted, but Dado was concerned that because Sharon was `king of Israel' among the public there would be a ruckus in the country if he acted. There is a passage in which Dado confides in Dayan about this, and Dayan says, `Listen, from this point of view Israel is in bad shape.' But Dayan, too, did not back the idea of replacing Sharon. At one stage, Bar-Lev said, `Either Sharon or me,' and Dado implored him to stay."

From your impression from the tapes, how far did Sharon actually go?

"It emerges from the tapes, contrary to the prevailing notion, that Sharon obstructed the crossing of the canal. The original plan was that Sharon's division would establish a bridgehead, but Sharon decided to cross before he had completed the bridgehead. He left the Tartur axis exposed and the Egyptians entered the area that was codenamed the Chinese Farm - an area that lay between Tartur and the Akabish axis. That disrupted the attempt to put the rolling bridge in place and also threw a Paratroops battalion into a bloody battle at the Chinese Farm, with many losses. There is a recording made after the first night of the crossing, when everything went wrong: Dado came back to the High Command post before dawn and described the events to the General Staff and it is all recorded. The theme of what he said was that a golden opportunity had been lost."

Didn't Sharon prove that you can emerge unscathed from a state commission of inquiry that finds you responsible for a blunder?

"That just goes to show that there are commissions, and there are commissions. The Agranat Commission that buried Dado left him buried. The Kahan Commission of 1982 [chaired by the president of the Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan] that investigated the events of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in the Lebanon War was a panel with teeth and operated in an orderly fashion, and its conclusion was that Sharon cannot serve as defense minister. So the commission said what it said, and Sharon today, as prime minister, is above the defense minister and he's the one who is deciding Israel's defense policy. That's how it works, whatever is convenient. If it's convenient, people say that the Agranat Commission decided what it decided and there is nothing more to be done, but when the Kahan Commission decided that Sharon could not serve as defense minister but in practice he is navigating the country's defense and security affairs and intervening in all things great and small, people say, Okay, there was a commission but the people decided differently."

The incredible transcript

The new version of the book also contains material that did not appear in the first edition because Bartov was simply unaware of it. For example, there was a consultation at the home of the prime minister, Golda Meir, on April 18, 1973. That was about half a year before the war, in a period when there were a series of warnings about the Egyptians' intention to go to war. Those who attended the discussion that was held that day in the prime minister's kitchen (the place where "we could consider things over a cup of coffee or during a light meal around my kitchen table," as she put it) were defense minister Dayan; minister without portfolio (and eminence grise) in the Prime Minister's Office, Israel Galili; the director of Military Intelligence, Major General Eli Zeira; Mossad chief Zvi Zamir; chief of staff Elazar; the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Mordechai Gazit; and assorted aides.

The forum discussed the prospects of war and what to do about the possibility. The minutes of the meeting, which appear in full for the first time in the new edition, are one of those historical documents that have to be read in order to be believed. (Dayan recommended that the approach to the full cabinet should be "in very minor tones," only "in the form of information.")

Bartov: "One of the reasons that led me to put out a new edition of the book is that after the Yom Kippur War all the lessons seemed to have been learned and people thought a trauma of that order couldn't happen again. But even though so many years have passed - we are about to enter the 30th year since the war - everything is the same today and things are being run just like they were then. In 1973, the cabinet was excluded from all the major decisions. Those decisions were made by a small group, which included the prime minister, ministers Galili and Dayan, and sometimes [education minister] Yigal Allon, too. The minutes of the meeting in Golda's house show that the political-military leadership group was, on the one hand, afraid to say things in full to the cabinet and, on the other hand, afraid of the Americans.

"The place in the minutes where Galili says that he passed a note to Dayan stating that Eli Zeira had described the situation to the cabinet exactly as they wanted and according to their instructions, is amazing. Why? That government, exactly like the government today, did not want to return territories and they knew that if they were to tell the Americans on the one hand and the full cabinet on the other that things were reaching the boiling point, the Americans would say: Let's go to Camp David, we'll talk and reach a compromise. That was the last thing that Golda's kitchen cabinet wanted. I could accept that approach somehow, if it were backed up by a mobilized military force, but they didn't want to call up the reserves, either, because Israel cannot maintain a large army in the field indefinitely."

Another equally fascinating passage of the minutes exposes the way the most fateful affairs of state were treated in "Golda's kitchen":

Israel Galili: "There were two very significant words in what Dado said. He said: If it [war] happens, let it happen. But in my opinion, that obliges us to behave in a way that will bring about a `meaningful decision.' Those are very intriguing words."

Golda Meir: "In all the serialized novels this is the moment where they stop the movie" [sic].

Galili: "If so, I say, just before the movie is stopped, that we need an authoritative interpretation of the deciphering of this matter."

Golda Meir: "He said that they [the Egyptians] have intentions and are planning it. I state for the record that I do not want a war. That probably comes as a surprise to you."

Dayan: "I suspected as much for some time."

Golda Meir: "On Friday I visited the Shur family [whose son, Lieutenant Avida Shur, was killed a few days earlier in the IDF's `Aviv Neurim' raid on Beirut that struck at Palestinian leaders] on my way to Revivim [the Negev kibbutz where Meir's daughter lived]. His mother is totally shattered and she told me, `I said all along that I'm not worried at all. I am not fearful for his life because he was a saint. I was sure that nothing could happen to him.'"

Bartov points out that less than six months after this conversation in Golda's kitchen, 2,350 Israelis were killed in a war. Obviously all the participants in the meeting viewed these heavy losses as a disaster, but when they had the choice between a political option, which probably could have given Israel what it expected in a settlement with the Arabs, and the war option, the participants decided to forgo a discussion on the subject and not to share what they knew with the full cabinet. There was no discussion of the matter as was mandatory in a properly run government.

Bartov: "Why do I say that everything comes down to the terms of reference of the Agranat Commission? Because they didn't deal with the events of the spring and what preceded the war, including what is implied in the minutes of the meeting that was held in Golda's kitchen - which was actually a scheme by a group of leaders both against the Americans and against the full cabinet. The Agranat Commission stopped its investigation at the moment when the Israeli force started to organize and move to a counter-offensive, first on the Golan Heights and then on the Southern Front, all after October 8th."

Are you hinting at a conspiracy?

"I don't want to use that word, because I don't know. It all began with the terms of reference of the Agranat Commission, which decided that it would not deal with the political level or with the major policy issues that sent Israel into war. Let's say it was not a conspiracy, but that there was the intention to prevent an investigation of those matters. The commission also stated that it would not address the question of ministerial responsibility but only direct responsibility, and therefore neither the prime minister nor the defense minister is responsible. Golda said afterward, `What do you want from me, I was surrounded by excellent generals.' But she was the one who made the decisions. Justice Agranat and the members of the commission believed that Israel was in such dire straits that it would be catastrophic to do away with the political leadership - but it didn't help them, because the government of the fiasco was sent home by demonstrating soldiers. The country was led by other governments and survived and became stronger."

The bulldog qualities

One of the ways that the new edition of the book makes its point about the Agranat Commission is through a lecture delivered by the former president of the IDF Appeals Court, Major General (res.) Ilan Schiff. "The book ends on October 25th, the day the shooting stopped. I deliberately did not want to get into a controversy with the commission. I know the facts better than they did. The Agranat Commission took the easy way out. I let the facts speak for themselves. That is why I cite the remarks made by Major General Schiff, a legal expert. That was the first time that an officer of his rank spoke the hard truth about the faulty working methods of the Agranat Commission - which was the last time that what is considered the `good of the commonalty' was placed above the right of the individual, and in fact also above the Commissions of Inquiry Law.

"How is it possible, Schiff asked, that responsibility on this matter was imputed solely to Dado, who demanded a call-up of the reserves, and not on Dayan, who had all the authority and exercised it against a general mobilization? Justice Agranat, Schiff said, had doubts about whether it was right to recommend Dado's removal, but the majority of the commission members held that he should go, and he did not want to remain in the minority, so he concurred with them. That is more than an amazing revelation in the light of the fact that one of the commission members, former chief of staff Haim Laskov, was then the ombudsman of the defense establishment and as such was subordinate to the defense minister, Moshe Dayan." (The other commission members were Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, State Comptroller Yitzhak Nebenzahl and former chief of staff, Prof. Yigael Yadin.)

Schiff delivered his lecture while he was still in uniform at a seminar on the Yom Kippur War. Called "End of the Age of Innocence," its subject was the legal aspects of the investigation and work of the Agranat Commission. Schiff argues that it is unlikely that the working methods and the conclusions reached by the commission would be applicable today, in a period when people are increasingly at the center of things. Schiff, who represented another chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, before the Kahan Commission, points to the strange fact that some of those who were being investigated by the Agranat Commission appeared without legal counsel - among them the chief of staff and the director of Military Intelligence, both of whom were forced to resign. Zeira said afterward that he had consulted with Justice Agranat, who had advised him not to use a lawyer. According to Schiff, one of the reasons that Elazar and Zeira were not represented was the pressure of the commission itself to complete its work quickly (at least to publish the first, partial, report) because the public was anxious to know what had happened and why, "and the good of the army and the general good are for the work to be completed as soon as possible."

How would you characterize Golda Meir's attitude toward Dado? Self-righteousness?

"In fact, they were all self-righteous when it came to him, apart from Yitzhak Rabin, who was then the minister of labor and was the only minister who called for the report to be returned to the Agranat Commission for its completion. Everyone, including Golda, was silent, and when she let Dado read the conclusions, and Dado looked at her and said, `I understand that I am being asked to resign,' she said, `Regretfully, yes.' Golda told Dado - and this is in the book - that he was the only person she trusted and that all the advice he gave her was good and that it was thanks to him that she had come out of the war in one piece. General Abd al-Ghani Gamassy, who was the Egyptian army's operations officer in 1973 and afterward its chief of staff, said that in his opinion the best Israeli officer in the war was David Elazar, the second-best was Elazar and the third-best was also Elazar. At a certain point Golda visited Dado at his home and offered him the post of Israeli ambassador to the United States. He was inclined to accept, but he died."

What is the role of the military correspondents and the rest of the media in this whole mess?

"Everyone was fed by the same sources and the situation is unchanged today. A few months before the war, Israel's 25th Independence Day was celebrated with exultant articles by all the wise men, the former chiefs of staff and the journalists, who declared, each in his own style, that Israel is a tremendous military power and so forth. Chaim Herzog [a retired major general who was afterward ambassador to the United Nations and Israel's sixth president] said so and so did Dayan. Dayan told Time magazine that Israel was out of danger for the next 10 years. Golda said with typical arrogance in an interview to Ma'ariv about the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, `Let him stew.' There was not a journalist who didn't declaim and repeat these texts. Ya'akov Erez, the military correspondent of Ma'ariv, told people for years afterward that on the eve of Yom Kippur 1973, he had a report of large concentrations of the Egyptian army but that the military censors would not let him publish it, and the next day the war broke out.

Much has been written about Dado's restraint and his nobility in the face of the Agranat Commission's conclusions. How do you explain that?

"He tried to keep his chin up and behave as he always did, with restraint and nobility. But according to a few stories I heard, he broke down and cried more than once when he was in an intimate circle. Elie Wiesel told me that he met Dado in Boston and they were talking, when suddenly Dado shed a tear, if not more. Dado came to this country as a lone boy of 15, orphaned of his mother and far from his father. For his whole life he kept a photograph of himself at his mother's funeral by his side. He came here and was taken to a kibbutz, Sha'ar Ha'amakim, where he joined the youth group from Yugoslavia, without knowing a word of Hebrew. He worked and studied. He wanted to join the British Army during World War II but his buddies wouldn't let him. He went to the Palmach [the pre-state "shock troops"] - the Yugoslav, or the `Montenegran,' as his friends called him - a child-man of 21, alone among all the sabras. That was in 1946. Within two years he was the commander of the 4th Battalion, the breakthrough battalion. That says something about his qualities of military leadership, about his great powers.

Can you conceive what went through his head during those harsh hours on Yom Kippur?

"The battles for Jerusalem in 1948 remained with him as traumas, and their oppressive weight surfaced during every crisis, including the terrible moments in the Yom Kippur War. The battle for the St. Simeon Monastery, in the Katamonin neighborhood of Jerusalem, became a symbol for him. The monastery, which overlooked southern Jerusalem, was manned by dozens of well-armed Arab fighters. The first attempt to take the building, on the night of April 29, 1948, failed, and the second battle, in which Dado took part, went on for 16 straight hours.

"At one stage, after the Israeli forces had captured the monastery but were then besieged inside it, and everything hung in the balance, and the Palmach lost a great many fighters, they considered retreating but didn't know what to with the men who were seriously wounded. Dado decided to stay with the wounded and blow up the building with everyone inside. Benny Marshak [known as the `politruk' of the Haganah defense force] was totally opposed to a retreat, and quoted Yitzhak Sadeh [a founder of the Haganah and the Palmach]: `When it is pouring rain and you are drenched to the skin, always remember that it is raining on the enemy, too.' In other words, whoever holds on for an instant longer than the other side will win the day. Dado always remembered that saying from that day of retreat, and he would invoke it in the darkest moments and in every crisis. In fact, it can be heard on the tapes from the Pit. It is a sentence that reflects his bulldog quality."n

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