Mordechai Bar-On - historian, one-time Knesset member, former IDF chief education officer - spent an eventful year and a half in the mid-1950s as bureau chief for Moshe Dayan when the latter was army chief of staff. That period coincided with the planning for, and the execution and aftermath of, the 1956 Sinai Campaign, when Israel, in collusion with France and the United Kingdom, undertook an invasion of Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
More than 50 years later, Bar-On has now published a short biography of his former boss (Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero; Yale University Press; 247 pages; $25), whose life (1915-1981) spanned the dramatic decades preceding and following the establishment of the State of Israel, and who played a decisive role in every one of Israel’s wars through 1973.
Politically, Bar-On differed from Dayan - who served as defense minister from the Six-Day War through the Yom Kippur War, and was Menachem Begin’s foreign minister until after the signing of the Camp David Accords, in 1979 - on the Palestinian issue, but he always admired his talent and his passion, and was fascinated by his failings and weaknesses.
Dayan had a profound connection to the Land of Israel, a far-reaching strategic vision, and a keen understanding of human nature. But he was also impulsive, voracious in his appetites, and he lacked the politician’s ability to compromise. Bar-On’s time with Dayan coincided with the beginnings of the general’s obsession with archaeology, and he shows a visitor to his home a ceramic jug that he and Dayan “robbed” from the Egyptian army base at Sheykh Zuweid, in Sinai.
After retiring from the army in 1968, Mordechai Bar-On, today 83, earned his PhD in history, headed the Youth and Pioneering division of the Jewish Agency, and was an early leader of Peace Now. He was elected to the Knesset on the Ratz list in 1984, but resigned two years later, and for the past two decades has been a research fellow at Yad Ben-Zvi. Haaretz spoke with him at his home in Jerusalem.
How did you happen to end up pilfering antiquities with Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan?
It was 1956, and we were traveling from Gaza to El Arish, right along the coast, with one [jeep] wheel in the water. And we stopped whenever we came upon a tel, or mound, to search it. Near Sheykh Zuweid, we saw a mound, next to a watchtower of the Egyptian army. We saw, to our horror, that the soldiers had made flower beds, and marked off the corners with the bottoms and the tops [of the jars] they cut off. The Bedouin in the area explained that it was they who cut off the tops and bottoms, so that they were left with the middles, in which they planted the seedlings of palm trees. The place was a huge harbor, and there were thousands of such pieces. So we made a deal with the Bedouin. They didn’t want money: They wanted sugar, and coffee and rice. And once a week I would go there, and they would give me what they had found, five, six or seven pieces, and I gave them what they wanted in way of nourishments. And it wasn’t very long, but we managed to bring out about 70 pieces. I have another one in this corner [he says, pointing].
In British history, the 1956 Sinai war is regarded as a humiliation to a dying empire, but in the book you quote David Ben-Gurion and Dayan referring to it as a great military victory for Israel. Can you explain the discrepancy?
It wasn’t just Ben-Gurion and Dayan; I think the entire [Israeli] population felt that it was a great victory. But for England and for France - especially England - it was a total, unbelievable stupidity, Because there was no way they could stop the process they wanted to stop - that of Nasser becoming the hero of the Arab world, as a result of which the French would lose Algeria and the British would lose the Middle East - certainly not by a commando operation in the Sinai. But Israel had good reasons to fight, and we also achieved two main achievements: the end of the guerrilla warfare that Nasser launched against us, and the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, including the creation of the UN emergency force, and complete freedom of navigation through the straits of Tiran. These were important achievements.
There was perhaps another achievement: Despite our joy in our victory in the conquest of Sinai, Ben-Gurion was clever enough to retreat when the Americans pressured him, and they remained indebted to us, so that [a decade later] in the Six-Day War, we were able to reconquer the Sinai without American objections.
But Dayan disagreed with Ben-Gurion on the withdrawal from Sinai, right?
Dayan was very loyal to Ben-Gurion. But here he found himself in total opposition: He said, why give in to the Americans now, when we can do it in a few months’ time? We have enough fuel, and we have ammunition. And Ben-Gurion was clever enough to say: No, it’s better to give in before you are coerced to do it. The greatness of Ben-Gurion, and this was very true in 1948, too, was a combination of foresight, and an understanding of what the reality really is, and not being stuck with preconceived ideas, being strong enough and able enough to change his mind completely. He realized that, between the pressure from [U.S. President Dwight D.] Eisenhower and the pressure from [Soviet Premier Nikolai] Bulganin, there was no choice but to agree to the principle of retreating.
You say in the book that two of the conventional wisdoms about the Yom Kippur War are wrong, and that both contributed to the terrible damage to his reputation with which Dayan emerged from that war. The first regards the Bar-Lev Line, which you say was never meant to hold off an enemy army -
- Dayan believed that as long as we sat on the Canal, we had to protect the soldiers there. There are some descriptions of his first visits at the beginning of the War of Attrition, in which we lost 20 to 25 soldiers a day, just from shelling. So he did not object to the idea of a line that would defend the soldiers who were holding the line. But in 1971, he suggested a withdrawal from the line, and Golda Meir didn’t agree to it.
In 1967 [in the Six-Day War], he had actually given orders not to approach the canal, and he repeated that many times. But then the soldiers, in the excitement of the war, jumped into the canal - remember the famous picture [on the cover of Life magazine] of the officer in the water holding his Uzi up in the air? And Dayan gave in.
You also say that it’s a misconception that the great failure of the Yom Kippur War was the intelligence failure that prevented Israel from anticipating the initial attack.
I think it’s totally wrong. I make the comparison with the Battle of Crecy [in 1346], when the French knights with their iron shields, etc., were defeated by the English, with their longbows. There had been a shift in the nature of the battlefield, and the French didn’t understand that shift, and that’s why they lost. And here, what happened to us was that Dayan said, they may attack, and he said more than others - aside from [Mossad chief] Zvi Zamir, who preached from February that the war was coming - they will attack. But he didn’t understand that that war could be a calamity.
Like everybody else, he said, okay, let them try to attack, to cross the canal. The forces on the canal will hold them back, and even if they have to withdraw somewhat, our two new armored divisions will throw the Egyptians back. What he didn’t understand was that that could not be done. Nobody, including myself - but I wasn’t a great general - everyone who dealt with the matter was sure that an Egyptian attack could be held, and we could absorb it. They didn’t understand that when 100,000 Egyptians cross the canal in one hour, on 20 bridges, with the Israeli air force having trouble with a whole array of missiles, and thousands of anti-tank missiles - that this would be a different war.
Nobody understood that, including Dayan. But he was the first to understand that the shift [had happened], much before Dado [IDF chief of staff David Elazar]. That’s when he famously said “There’s a danger to the Third Commonwealth.” People tend to quote that in answer to the question of, did Dayan have a loss of nerve or not? I don’t think he lost his nerve, but he did say that. When he came to the Golan Heights [on the second day of the war], and he saw that the Syrians were on the cliffs just above Ein Gev, and there was no one to stop them from going down to Degania, he called up the commander of the air force [to tell him to bomb the Syrians]. But since he was just a minister, and not in the line of military command, he wanted to make sure that he was listened to.
So he used dramatic language. He said: Benny, if you don’t do it now, there’s a risk to the Third Commonwealth. He used a literary figure of speech to emphasize that this is the most important thing you can do. Perhaps it was an overly dramatic term - but he needed it, to make sure that Peled would do what he wanted, so that he wouldn’t say, Mr. Minister, I have to check with the chief of staff, and the chief of staff is not available, and so on. So he said: Do it now!
That’s how I read that story. But nevertheless, he went down to the Sinai that first day, and he came back and told Golda, we should not counterattack, because we’ll lose tanks. And if we lose tanks, they will then introduce their own tank division, and there will be no power that will stop them until they reach Be’er Sheva. Again, people interpreted that as a loss of nerve, but in reality, what happened is that the Egyptian armor was not yet involved in the war. Dayan understood that if they had become involved, they would have reached Be’er Sheva, or certainly the heart of Sinai. But again, he did not insist, and Dado insisted on a counterattack. And then on the Monday there was this attack, which was a complete disaster. We lost hundreds of tanks. And only then did Dado understand that it was a different kind of war. And from then on, he ran the war really beautifully. But it took him two days to understand what Dayan understood from the beginning: the rules of the game had changed completely. When the book comes out in Hebrew, I’ll get a lot of criticism on this point.
Another of your book’s principal points is that Dayan, though he had a lot of empathy for the Palestinians, couldn’t accept the idea of a Palestinian state. Do you think eventually he would have come around?
He was unable to do that. The main theme of the whole book, and maybe it’s my main contribution, is that deep down, from a very early age, he developed two deep understandings, or yearnings: One is that Zionism should be established in the entire biblical land, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, and from Mt. Hermon down to Rafiah and Eilat; and the other, that we can and should live with the Arabs in peace.
His last speech in the Knesset [in December 1980] was the same. He said, we cannot give up our right to settle any place in the land, but we should give them the ability to live here as they have lived here throughout the generations. He could not understand that the world had changed, that nationalism became a force that you cannot mitigate by gifts and by autonomies, and all sorts of other promises. Nations want to have their own independence. He could not understand that, or maybe he understood, but he could not give up on his love for the country.