Were the Past Leaders of Israel Immune to Error?

Conversations with relatives of politicians who led the country reveal that nothing fed their ego more than the sense that they had been wronged.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

The course of Yigal Zahor's life took him in an opposite direction from that followed by many other Israelis: from right to left. He was born into a right-wing, religious household in Netanya and settled in the secular Kibbutz Revivim, near Be'er Sheva. Zahor, 67, writes books and articles, and on Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich's website, he is cited as one of her supporters. He has just come out with a new book of conversations with the children or other relatives of the politicians who led Israel between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, called "In the Eyes of the Sons" (Carmel Publishing ). They have only good things to say.

Ofra Nevo-Eshkol says about her father, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol: "Even though he was dedicated entirely to the national cause, he gave us plenty of warmth and attention. He knew that in the morning he had to take us to school. We were always late, because first Dad would get off at the Finance Ministry and then we would be driven to school."

On the eve of the Six-Day War, Eshkol was compelled to hand over the defense portfolio to Moshe Dayan, and his daughter says: "Dad spent four years getting the army ready, but most of the praise for the victory in the war went to Moshe Dayan. All these events greatly weakened Dad. On top of his physical weakness, the blow to his prestige was very difficult for him."

Uzi Dayan says: "My uncle remains an enigma in my eyes when it came to his conduct in public. He was a man of contradictions. After the Six-Day War, he was esteemed across the board, but he had no energy to empower himself. He could walk about like a master among his people, move about the courts of counts and kings, attend every conceivable cocktail party. It simply did not interest him."

Moshe Allon says of his uncle, Yigal, who served as deputy prime minister and in other ministerial roles: "Yigal was wronged by his fellow travelers, in Dayan's appointment as defense minister and later in Yitzhak Rabin's appointment as prime minister, while Rabin's teacher and mentor, Yigal Allon, was skipped over ... Yigal's loyalty caused him to be discriminated against, but most unfortunate of all is the fact that Israeli politics missed out on him as a leader."

Allon encouraged, among other things, the settlement in Hebron. Pinchas Sapir, the finance minister at the time, was concerned about the residents' livelihood. Amos Sapir recalls his father's reaction upon seeing the landscapes of Judea and Samaria after the Six-Day War. He said: "What does it matter, another hunk of mountain where there are Arabs who look at us with hate and envy?" But Sapir did not fight to advance his opinion with all his might, among other reasons because he feared he would harm his party.

Amos Sapir: "Dad was always devoted and loyal to the prime ministers under whom he worked, even when he thought they were wrong. In quite a few cases he was forced to act contrary to his own views."

Had he dared, Sapir might have been appointed prime minister; instead, the post went to Golda Meir, who led Israel into the Yom Kippur War. Shaul Rehavi, Meir's grandson, says: "Grandma saw as an inexplicable wrongdoing the fact that the failure to sign a peace agreement with Egypt was placed on her shoulders. She always asked what prompted people to feel burning hatred against her, seeing as she had not missed any opportunity for peace negotiations."

All this teaches us something about the politicians that led the country back then. Nothing nourished their egos more than the sense they had been wronged. So, it was not vision that motivated them, but rather insult. It seems hardly ever to have occurred to them that they had erred. Not one of them asked himself whether it might have been better if Israel had not conquered the West Bank, or at least refrained from taking over East Jerusalem.

A few months before the Six-Day War, a reasoned opinion paper was laid on Prime Minister Eshkol's desk. It had been drafted after lengthy discussions among representatives of the Mossad, the Israel Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry. At that time, there was a rise in Palestinian terrorist incursions, some of them coming from Jordan. The question was, under what circumstances might Israel be obliged to invade that country. The clear conclusion was that the West Bank had better not be conquered. But when the cabinet ministers were faced with the possibility of doing so, following the defeat the Egyptians suffered on the first day of the 1967 war - they could not resist the temptation. They could have withdrawn immediately, of course, even without peace - but they could not resist the temptation to stay around. They could have at least refrained from conquering East Jerusalem, or made do with taking control of just the Western Wall and the road leading to it, but they could not resist the temptation and took it all.

In retrospect, it seems that Israel thereby gave up the chance of ever reaching a peace accord. Eshkol studied a series of detailed plans to resettle the refugees from Gaza in the West Bank. Nothing came of it. That too was one of the blunders that led to the Yom Kippur War.

Did Israel miss out on a diplomatic option that could have prevented that war? Zahor says that any answer to this question will be within the realm of a "speculative view." But he presented it to Mike Herzog, whose uncle Yaacov, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, often engaged in clandestine diplomacy. The reply: "No massive, political and diplomatic action was taken to set a peace process in motion."

That is about the only critical comment Zahor heard from his interviewees.

Six Day War tour in the Negev. from left: Eshkol, Rabin and AllonCredit: GPO



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