The Israeli Historian Who Blames Rabin for His Own Murder and Praises Hitler Is Making a Comeback

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Uri Milstein. "At the strategic level there’s no one who was worth anything in the whole history of the IDF.”
Milstein. "At the strategic level there’s no one who was worth anything in the whole history of the IDF. In war it’s the top ranks who are the key players. In the IDF’s selection process, the worst reCredit: Meged Gozani
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The time has come to forget the stories about the Chosen People. The fairy tales about dashing young Jewish fighters in the War of Independence. The legends about the nation’s heroes. This is the time to stop thinking about Israel as an invincible power. The senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces failed and humiliated themselves time and again, and their blunders run like a thread through Israel’s history from 1948 to the present day. In fact, it’s possibly due only to a miracle that Israel still exists.

That, at any rate, is the impression one gets from perusing the vast project undertaken by Dr. Uri Milstein, one of Israel’s leading and most productive military historians. At 78, the angry prophet from Ramat Efal, in central Israel, is convinced that he deserves the Israel Prize and a military medal of valor, no less. He likens himself to Don Quixote, to Aristotle, to Einstein. Not only should academia sing the praises of his research, he believes: He should also be awarded the title of “professor-plus.” He’s certain that he’s being ignored by the establishment because of its glorification of and devotion to the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin.

That last notion is not without foundation. Milstein has flayed any number of admired IDF officers, but it was his bashing of Rabin that made him anathema in the academic world and among the public as a whole. The straw that broke the camel’s back came a few months after the prime minister’s assassination in 1995, when Milstein praised his student, Yigal Amir, and claimed that he himself had played a part in various developments.

Public denunciation of Milstein led him to develop more radicalized ideas and positions: From being an acclaimed historian, he was relegated to the fringes and accused of disseminating conspiracy theories. At present, though, as his 80th birthday approaches, Milstein is enjoying something of a comeback. Rabin is no longer considered to be a saint, and even his crassest critics are no longer execrated. Milstein of 2018 is slowly making his way back to the mainstream, with a growing fan base. He writes a weekly column for the newspaper Maariv, blogs on the News1 website, is a frequent guest on Kan public radio and sends a weekly newsletter to a mailing list that he says consists of 5,000 subscribers, “200 of them professors and Ph.Ds.”

Milstein’s return after a protracted period of ostracism is an opportunity to reconsider his image and the circumstances that could pave his way back to the heart of the mainstream. His proponents view him as a brilliant, trailblazing researcher and treat him as a profound, serious historian of unbounded scholarly and personal integrity. At the same time, his many opponents and detractors in academic circles and beyond perceive him as a provocateur, claim he’s superficial and a charlatan, and even raise the possibility that he’s mentally deranged.

Yigal Amir, Yithak Rabin's assassin.Credit: Tomer Noiberg

Miraculous existence

Half an hour with Milstein – “a philosopher who deals with the study of the military experience and war as a model for understanding human behavior and contemporary civilization,” as he describes himself – is enough to make even the last of the patriots squirm uncomfortably in his chair. Whereas most Israelis believe that the IDF is an exemplary army, Milstein immerses himself in the disgraces of each battle and campaign. The public at large is familiar with only a fraction of them. The details of most are filed away in the immense archive he maintains in his home – the fruit of a life enterprise that is as exceptional as it is controversial.

“When you come to a doctor in the emergency room, he doesn’t interest himself in your health but in your diseases,” Milstein told me when we met in his home. “It’s the same with me. I have this character trait that homes in on people’s blunders, errors and mistakes.”

Milstein has gained fame as a “myth buster” and “slaughterer of sacred cows.” He’s known as a historian who has focused on the failures of the legendary leaders and military commanders of the Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine – of the Haganah militia and of its successor, the IDF. A perusal of his books and articles could leave the reader thinking that it’s only by a miracle that we’re still here.

One person who lapped up Milstein’s ideas was Yigal Amir, who took his course at Bar-Ilan University on the military and social aspects of Israel’s wars. Amir was also an ardent reader of Milstein’s book “The Rabin File: An Unauthorized Exposé” – as the English-language version of 1999 work is titled – which was published in Hebrew in April 1995, about seven months before Amir assassinated the prime minister.

In that book, Milstein describes the dark side of “Mr. Security.” Forget Rabin’s positive image as the sabra from the pre-state Palmach strike force, who rose through the ranks to become general, chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister. The latter’s military and security-related history – as the author wrote and Amir, among others, read – “is a chain of disasters and failures,” and his personal file is replete with blunders whose results could even have prevented Israel’s establishment. Milstein’s Rabin is a coward who abandoned his troops on the field of battle, was removed from operational missions in the War of Independence and suffered a breakdown during the Six-Day War.

Three months before the assassination, Amir, the student, invited Milstein, the lecturer, to give a talk at one of the programs he organized for a group that he had created, which met every Sabbath at different places around the country. In this case, the agenda included a tour of battle sites in Jerusalem. Milstein recounted his “theory,” as he calls it, according to which Rabin was responsible for the collapse of Israel’s security services “from the day he enlisted in the Palmach in 1941 until and including the time he took the positions of prime minister and defense minister,” as he writes in the Introduction to the English edition of “The Rabin File.” Rabin’s failures, the author concluded “endanger[ed] the very existence of the State of Israel.”

According to reports published after the assassination, the police found a copy of “The Rabin File” in Amir’s room in his Herzliya home. A few months after the killing, Milstein praised Amir in an interview he gave the local weekly Tel Aviv. He said he was proud that Amir was “a product of my research and lectures,” and added, “I definitely believe that his operational performance was superb, and I believe that I was influential in getting people to function like him. When that influence succeeds, it’s a source of satisfaction, it consolidates my theory about flaws in the defense establishment. The Rabin assassination consolidated my theory.”

He also said in the interview, “It’s amazing that a person under conditions of pressure performs ideally and optimally in order to achieve his goal. I of course oppose his goal, oppose murder, certainly the assassination of a prime minister, but I am talking about the operational aspect. In this Yigal was completely successful in the face of tremendous difficulties [such] that no one believed he would do it. I ask myself again where he drew the analytical mental strength –which I believe he got from me. I taught my students [how] to make decisions under conditions of pressure. I don’t think I have a part in his desire to assassinate.

“I do have a part in the crystallization of his conception of who Rabin is. I gave them intellectual tools to analyze the security systems and how one should find the flaws in the security systems and how to function properly in the face of them, both in minor-tactics warfare, which he [Amir] did, and in regular warfare.”

In the atmosphere that suffused Israel immediately after the assassination, Milstein was transformed overnight from being a controversial individual to someone who was boycotted and shunned across the entire political spectrum. Bar-Ilan University, the last academic venue in the country that had been willing to host him, ordered all its departments to stop inviting him to give lectures immediately. Subsequently, a senior source in the Israel Police was quoted as saying that the possibility had been examined of launching a criminal investigation against Milstein. A Labor MK demanded of the attorney general that he indict him, under suspicion of laying the ideological foundation for Rabin’s assassination. In reaction, Milstein did not retreat. On the contrary he embraced in full the image of the rebellious underdog who flaunts conventions, radicalizing his critique, his writing and his public statements.

Leaving the battlefield

It’s all but impossible to get a word in edgewise once Milstein gets started. He careens from one memory to the next, leaps between stories and treks across anecdotes. He turns out to be multifaceted: smart and very knowledgeable, funny enough to elicit tears of laughter, cynical and bitter and sometimes also conspiratorial and megalomaniacal. A glance at a select list of titles of his books and articles (in Hebrew) is enough to show why he’s never gained official recognition (for example, by winning the Israel Prize): “The Jews Flee,” “The Commanders Remained in the Rear,” “Abandoned to Death,” “The Palmach – Army of Amateurs” and “Chief of Staff in the Psychiatric Ward.”

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin and Jerusalem commander Uzi Narkis enter the Lion's Gate into Jerusalem's Old City during the Six Day War. Credit: Ilan Bronner / GPO

The latter title refers to Rabin during the 1967 Six-Day War. Rabin is undoubtedly one of Milstein’s greatest obsessions. His library is packed with books he’s written about the late premier, all of them hostile, vicious and bordering on character assassination. Asked what he has against Rabin, Milstein maintains that the question is misplaced. “My attitude to Rabin is like a zoologist’s attitude toward baboons. I don’t think that Rabin is a baboon. He’s a mediocre-minus person. I don’t have a negative or positive attitude toward him,” he says. “I don’t shed a tear for reality. Throughout history, everyone murders all the time. Take the Bible as an example. King David didn’t commit murder? For that I should shed a tear?”

At this point, as at other junctures during my conversations with him, Milstein drops some serious names. “If Albert Einstein refuted Newton, that doesn’t mean he hated him. Same with me. If I showed that Rabin ran away from the field of battle, that doesn’t mean I hate him.”

Milstein’s admirers don’t need elaboration about that last comment. They’re already familiar with his theories about what happened on April 20, 1948, when the so-called convoy of blood of the Harel Brigade, which was under Rabin’s command, was attacked by Arabs en route to Jerusalem. Milstein maintains that Rabin fled from the battle, abandoning his men. Other historians, including the late Dr. Meir Pa’il (the “Palmach’s propagandist,” according to Milstein), read the course of events differently. In a 1991 debate with Milstein, Pa’il said, “The expression ‘Rabin fled’ is garbage from Milstein. The facts are that Rabin, the brigade commander, rushed to [neighboring Kibbutz] Kiryat Anavim to get help. Thanks to his action, reinforcements arrived and rescued the convoy.”

Milstein went further: After the assassination, he claimed that Rabin was responsible for his own murder. And he says the same today, 23 years later. “Every prime minister in the world is a candidate for assassination, because there’s always someone edgy who’s been hurt by him. I find Yigal Amir’s desire to assassinate Rabin natural. The role of the Shin Bet [security service], which is headed by the prime minister, is to guard the prime minister’s life. There was a failure here by Rabin.”

The impression one gleans from talking to historians who are knowledgeable about Milstein’s research is that it is he who, in a very different sense, dug his own grave, because alongside his professional historical pursuits, which include detailed interviews with contemporaries and impressive archival activity, he veers deep into conspiracy theories and along the way loses many potential readers.

His posts in the social networks, where he’s somewhat less restrained in his language, show, for example, that he’s an advocate of the theory according to which Amir was dispatched by certain associates with possible links to security elements to kill Rabin. “Yigal Amir should be happy over his good fate,” one of Milstein’s readers wrote on his Facebook page, apparently regarding his punishment. To which Milstein replied, “But he’s locked away tight so that he will not reveal the truth.”

What is that truth? The exchange between the reader and Milstein dealt with a new publication by the latter relating to Avraham Stavsky, a member of the pre-state right-wing Irgun militia. The claim is that Stavsky – who was sentenced to death for the murder of Labor Zionist leader Chaim Arlosoroff in 1933, but was acquitted on appeal to the Supreme Court, and died from wounds aboard the Irgun’s Altalena gunship in 1948, when it came under fire from the then-nascent IDF – was actually a secret agent of the Haganah, the underground force that was the forerunner of the IDF. Milstein hypothesized that Stavsky’s death was a planned liquidation, to prevent him from exposing the secret, in the same way that Yigal Amir was put behind bars and silenced to ensure that he doesn’t open his mouth.

The Altalena. Milstein attributes events involving the Irgun ship to “a conspiracy. It’s becoming clear that this is the left’s natural mode of operation.”Credit: GPO

“Altalena was a conspiracy. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the left’s natural mode of operation. Not a one-time event but a way of life,” the loyal reader wrote to Milstein. “It’s the same format,” Milstein asserted.

In Milstein’s mind, one thread connects the Arlosoroff assassination in 1933, the Deir Yassin massacre (which he says never happened and calls a blood libel) that Irgun forces perpetrated against the Arab village outside Jerusalem in April 1948, the shelling of the Altalena in June 1948 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The connecting thread is that the left exploited these tragic events, or was even behind them, with the aim of tarnishing the right.

Over the years it’s apparent that you have become enamored of the bad-boy position, the anti-establishment provocateur.

“Not so. I am 78 and have no pension and no income. My only regular income is from the National Insurance Institute, together with freelance work, which is pennies. That’s all the great Dr. Uri Milstein has. I don’t complain that I have nothing to live on or that I don’t live well. But at 78, after devoting 60 years to Israel’s wars, and even though the country’s rulers say I am the most important historian that ever was – nothing. No prize, no job, no board of directors, no committee… This year there were gatherings to mark the country’s 70th birthday. I wasn’t invited to a single one of them. Why? What did I do that’s bad?”

Early discoveries

Uri Milstein was born in 1940 to Avraham and Sarah Milstein. Rachel Bluwstein – the poet “Rachel” – was the sister of his maternal grandmother, Batya (Bertha) Bluwstein.

Milstein grew up in Tel Aviv’s lower-class Yad Eliahu neighborhood. A first formative experience occurred in his life in 1955, when he was 15. Milstein was chosen to give an Independence Day talk at school about the “Convoy of the 35” – a reference to an event in January 1948, four months before Israel’s establishment, in which 35 of 40 Haganah fighters were killed in battle when they were on the way to reinforce the besieged Etzion Bloc settlements south of Jerusalem. The event became a formative legend in the story of the war that followed.

“And what do I discover?” Milstein recalls. “That everything that had been published until then was a lie. Already then I realized that the historians and the journalists and the elites were all lying.” The bereaved parents of those who fell in the 1948 battle – a mere seven years earlier – were invited to the school event. Milstein, the teenager, spoke about the “deficiencies and the mess-ups” of the 35. “I told them that the unit had been sent to the Etzion Bloc in vain, for no reason, and that their heroic stories had never happened.”

What were the reactions?

“Total shock. Instead of giving me a medal, they wanted to expel me because I disgraced the school. I didn’t expect the Nobel Prize, but I felt I deserved a commendation for arriving at the truth. Instead, I felt that I was being cast out. And I still have that feeling. But my approach was that the truth must be uttered, no matter whom is hurt by it. I learned that all writing is based on various considerations and that even the teachers and the educators and the intellectuals don’t always want the truth to be written.”

Milstein was drafted into the Paratroops in 1958 and served as a combat medic in the 890th Battalion, “the Sayeret Matkal of the time,” he says, referring to today’s elite unit. In the Six-Day War, he fought in Sinai with the force commanded by Rafael Eitan, later the chief of staff. Six years later in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, he says, he was in charge of extricating wounded soldiers under fire. “No one else got up to lift up a wounded man and place him in a halftrack. Those who lifted up the wounded were myself, the driver and the radio man. Afterward I heard that people said Uri Milstein deserves a medal,” he says.

Uri Milstein as a soldier in the Yom Kippur War.Credit:

He didn’t get a medal from the army, but subsequently obtained a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He entered the university in 1960, studying economics, philosophy and political science. As a student he was active in the League for the Prevention of Religious Coercion, which was headed by his brother. In 1962, he was injured in a major brawl that broke out in downtown Jerusalem when he tried to get passersby to sign a petition calling for the introduction of civil marriage in Israel.

Milstein’s graduation project dealt with Plato’s aesthetics. His doctoral thesis, written in 1972, was titled “The Religious Argument in the Legislative Process in Israel.” However, he carved out his career as an autodidact military historian. He was already known for his unusual views by the time he completed his doctoral studies – despite his young age, he had already published dozens of articles and four books about Israel’s wars. They gained him publicity and in some cases notoriety.

Chapters from his book “The Paratroops’ War,” which he wrote as a student, were published half a century ago in Haaretz Magazine and stirred a furor. The articles angered some members of Unit 101, the commando unit that was the forerunner of the Paratroops. In a 1968 press conference, they accused Milstein of “describing only the unit’s professional military actions, as though killing and destruction were our aim and part of our character.”

Milstein fluctuated between journalism and literature at the time, and between academic studies and popular writing. Despite controversies generated by his publications, “they belonged to the mythic paradigm that the founders and the Palmach generation forced on all of us,” Milstein says today self-critically. “I was the greatest author of legends in the country. I have a share in [Ariel] Sharon and Raful [Rafael Eitan] achieving what they did. [Education Minister] Naftali Bennett was educated on these books, and in their wake he got to Sayeret Matkal. [Likud MK and former Shin Bet head] Avi Dichter also told me that my books prompted him to volunteer for the unit.”

The irony of fate: In the past he had to cope with criticism to the effect that he was excessively fond of the army. “I am accused of militarism, but I am not a militarist, I have a relationship with the army but I am not a militarist and I’m not especially attracted to that,” he told Davar, the newspaper of the Labor Zionist movement, in 1973.

The Yom Kippur War, in which Milstein served as a reservist in the Paratroops, was a watershed for him. It was only afterward that he understood that the emperor, whom had lauded until then, had no clothes.

“I realized that the founders’ generation, whose political leaders were [David] Ben-Gurion, [Moshe] Sharett, [Levi] Eshkol and Golda Meir, and the generation of the sons, led by Maj. Gens. [Yigael] Yadin, [Moshe] Dayan, Rabin and [Yigal] Allon, had failed twice. The first time because they did not establish an efficient defense establishment, and the second because they cultivated a mythic culture, based on false reports, bogus commitments, and failure to uncover flaws or draw conclusions,” he wrote later.

His anger was also aimed at the media and academia, which, he claimed, had been in league with the politicians and the military to blur the failures. “Treason of the intellectuals,” he called it. “I decided not to betray myself, come what may.”

His subsequent books and articles were written in a different spirit. In 1978, Davar’s weekly magazine published an article titled “Conspiracy in Jerusalem,” in which he claimed that there had been a secret pact between Ben-Gurion and Jordan’s King Abdullah in the War of Independence for the division of Jerusalem. Its gist was that Israel would not oppose Jordan’s conquest of the area that was allotted to the Arab state by the partition plan of the United Nations, provided Jordan did not interfere with the establishment of the Jewish state according to that plan.

The furious responses weren’t long in coming. “Rewriting history is in fashion. The events of the state’s creation and the War of Independence are a no-man’s land and many are manuring it in the hope that it will produce rotten fruit. It’s to this type of remaking history that Uri Milstein’s article belongs,” wrote Yitzhak Levy, who commanded the IDF’s Jerusalem District in the 1948 war.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Milstein published his four-volume “History of Israel’s War of Independence.” The books were part of a life project, prematurely aborted due to funding problems. If it were up to Milstein, he would have gone on to write dozens more volumes about the war and continued to describe how commander after commander botched battles or fled the field.

Along with the criticism there were some compliments. In 1998, in an article in the books supplement of Haaretz, historian Benny Morris termed Milstein’s research on the War of Independence “the most important historiography written to date about the military aspect of the 1948 war… a broad, deep work, straightforward and immeasurably better grounded than what has previously been published in Israel and the world on the subject.”

Morris doesn’t regret what he wrote, but would qualify it today. “Those were the good books, the most important and straightforward written about the war until that time,” he told me. However, in recent decades, “Milstein has got caught up in obsessions and perhaps also in conspiracy theories, starring Palmach and Haganah personnel.”

Most of the responses to Milstein were negative. In 1992, historian Michael Bar-Zohar launched an anti-Milstein front, after Milstein published a series of articles claiming that Ben-Gurion had viewed Rabin in a negative light. Bar-Zohar shot back sarcastically in Haaretz: “I am very envious of Dr. Uri Milstein … Milstein apparently talks to Ben-Gurion every day, otherwise where does he get his revelations? I spent nine years with Ben-Gurion when I was writing his biography. I asked him a great many questions and I also got quite a few answers. I questioned him at length about his relations with Rabin, and I also perused documents of his that were published and some that weren’t published. And nowhere and at no time did I read or hear so much as a hint of the arrant nonsense that Milstein feeds us.”

Three years later, when Milstein published the sensationalist “The Rabin File,” the editor of Haaretz’s book supplement, Michael Handelzalts, found himself on the horns of a dilemma. “The editorial board of this supplement asked several scholars of military history to review the book, but they sent it back with the comment that it didn’t deserve consideration. Because we thought we couldn’t leave these allegations without a response, we went on trying,” Handelzalts wrote at the time. Prof. Yagil Levy, who eventually reviewed the book, wrote that “Milstein failed in each of the tests of historical writing.”

Uri Milstein.Credit: Meged Gozani

The criticism did not deter Milsrein. On the contrary: The more strident it became, the more he stepped up his pace, not hesitating to fire back at former friends. Thus, a paean he’d written to the Paratroops in the 1960s turned into trenchant criticism, which he voiced in a 1995 Haaretz interview. “To date, the Paratroops have failed in all their operations, and in my best judgment one of the reasons for this is their feeling that parachuting as such is already a guarantee of something. All told, it’s quite expectable for a myth to create an opening for sloppiness and a lack of professionalism,” he said.

In response, Meir Pa’il, one of Milstein’s most vocal opponents, branded him a “yellow historian,” as in yellow journalism. Mordechai Gur, the commander of the Paratroops Brigade that captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, threatened to hang up on a reporter who called him to elicit his response to Milstein’s comments. Another major general, Avigdor “Janusz” Ben-Gal, commander of the 7th Armored Brigade in the Yom Kippur War, accused the historian of “indulging in sweeping exaggerations, half-truths, taking things out of context and drawing false conclusions, and thereby losing his credibility.”

Lunch with an assassin

At 78, Milstein, well aware of what’s said about him, has no intention of changing. He’s convinced, for example, that he was denied the title of professor only because of the intervention of the academic establishment.

“‘Professor’ is a title that friends give friends,” he says. “Once, at Bar-Ilan, two distinguished professors – the most distinguished – were given the task of examining whether I too deserved the title. Their publications amount to a quarter of mine. They told me there was no argument, that I was the world’s greatest researcher about the War of Independence and about Israel’s wars. But afterward, in a meeting with the rector and the dean, they said I didn’t deserve it. ‘Why do you need to be a professor? You’re already famous in Israel as a Ph.D.,’” they told me.

On another occasion someone tried to liquidate him, he says – not academically, but physically. “One of the heads of the Shin Bet told me that I was a candidate for assassination. After some time, I had a visit from a [former] Palmach person who had later became a Shin Bet hit man,” Milstein relates. The tension peaks when the assassin and Milstein share a meal in Milstein’s home.

“Were you a plant?” Milstein asks him. “Yes,” the other man replies. “What for?” Milstein asks. “Uri, drop it,” his interlocutor says. Asked why the hit didn’t happen, Milstein replies, “He told me that those who sent him had left the coalition, so they couldn’t keep their promise to give him a gas station [to manage] in return [for doing the deed], so there’s no way he was going to assassinate me.”

At his advanced age and with decades of military research behind him, he doesn’t hesitate even to praise Hitler. “Someone who becomes chancellor of Germany, hate him though you will, is not dumb. Hitler reached the top thanks to brilliant and exceptional achievements until the outbreak of the war. He seized Austria and Czechoslovakia without going to war.”

But even so…

“All right, okay, he was a character of the type who caused the greatest damage to the Jewish people, but when you talk about massacres you have to remember that until 800 years ago everyone carried out massacres. The prophet Samuel removed Saul because he didn’t behead King Agag… The difference is that today technology exists that makes possible industrial massacre. But it wasn’t invented by Hitler. He went to the opera and he liked dogs. The Germans did it cleanly. They didn’t kill with their own hands like the Turks did with the Armenians. From many standpoints, the Turks were more bestial than the Germans. But today we’re in the humanistic age and we don’t do things like that.”

Who in Israel’s history is praiseworthy, would you say?

“At the strategic level there’s no one who was worth anything in the whole history of the IDF. I don’t say that there weren’t commanders at the squad or company level that didn’t have a tactical vision. The problem is that in war it’s the top ranks who are the key players, who decide on the war and prepare the system for it. In the IDF’s selection process, the worst reach the top and the better ones are ejected. There are exceptions, like Arik Sharon, who was the commander of the most successful operation in Israel’s wars: the attack on Um Katef [in the northern Sinai] in the Six-Day War. But when he became defense minister, he made a dreadful mistake in the Lebanon War, which proved that he didn’t have what it takes to manage a whole system.”

Still, Israel has celebrated its 70th birthday, which is no small thing. There must be at least one person who deserves credit, even from Dr. Uri Milstein.

“In the whole history of Zionism there was one person with the skills to manage a system successfully: Ben-Gurion. The man didn’t understand a thing at the military level, so he asked, examined, learned and took an interest.”

David Ben-Gurion.Credit: Moshe Friedan / GPO

Milstein terms his thought, which he views as a full-fledged philosophy, the “survival principle.” Its study is an almost impossible task even for a trained reader, due to the tiresome, unreadable and sometimes unclear nature of his writing – which is apparently why he is almost totally ignored by the academic world. “The defense establishment, whose mission is to ensure the state’s existence, is endangering the state’s survival and by the same token its own survival,” he believes. Israel’s current situation, he’s convinced, proves on a daily basis that his criticism, which he’s been publishing for the past 45 years, has been right on target all along.

If you’ll just give him half an hour, he’ll persuade you that children of 7 equipped with nothing more than stones forced the Oslo Accords on Rabin, the acclaimed general, by chasing the IDF out of the territories during the first intifada. He will explain to you how 17-year-old youths in Hezbollah – “who never did an officers course, didn’t attend the National Security College and don’t have an undergraduate or graduate degree” – taught the IDF a lesson in south Lebanon from the latter half of the 1980s until the end of the 20th century, “when they made the IDF run for its life as though bitten by a snake.”

And afterward, too, history proceeded according to Milstein’s gloomy analysis. In 2005, he says, “Hamas and other small organizations, using primitive means of combat, forced the person who fomented the revolution of Unit 101, the IDF’s greatest field commander, retired Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, to initiate and carry out a flight from Gush Katif [in the Gaza Strip] while uprooting settlements.”

Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a press conference at his Jerusalem office, May 2004.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Milstein also takes aim at the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, and in fact every IDF operation from then to now. “The IDF is afraid of wars, afraid to get entangled,” he says. That conclusion will likely be seconded by many readers who have lived in Israel in recent decades.

But maybe it’s from the realization that if a military victory is impossible, it’s better to reach agreements with terrorist organizations so that no missiles will be fired at Israel?

“But what are we afraid of? Of missiles? Missiles have never eradicated a nation. The Jewish people lost six million, and it still exists. Let’s say an atomic bomb is dropped here. And let’s say that 20,000 people are killed, or 40,000, or even 100,000. We number 8 million today, of whom 6.5 million are Jews. If we kept going after six million of our number were killed, won’t we cope with this? The problem is that the nation’s spirit will break. And in that we differ from North Korea or Iran, which aren’t afraid of being bombed.”

At the age of 78, isn’t it time to let up a bit?

“The difference between me and Don Quixote is that he returned to his hovel in the end, whereas I continue to fight. And there are cracks in the windmills. The fact that you are interviewing me for Haaretz is a crack. I will carry on with this until I collapse cognitively. There are 80-year-olds who run marathons. I want to complete my project of documenting the War of Independence by the country’s 75th jubilee.”

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