On June 19, 1972, the Sayaret Matkal special operations unit set out on a mission beyond the Lebanese border, where a group of senior Syrian officers was scheduled to tour. Prime Minister Golda Meir had approved Operation Argaz and the unit infiltrating enemy lines in the dead of night to kidnap the officers, who could be used as bargaining chips.
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The commander, Ehud Barak, headed the main ambush force with Uzi Dayan, while Benjamin Netanyahu commanded the blocking force. But soon enough the mission was called off; Chief of General Staff David Elazar feared that the force would be detected by the Land Rover accompanying the Syrians, so he ordered a withdrawal.
A Hebrew-language biography of Barak, “Wars of My Life,” portrays the cancellation of the mission as one of the hardest times in the decorated soldier’s life. Barak lost it; he lashed out at Elazar, saying the chief of staff hadn’t understood the situation in the field and ignored that Netanyahu’s force could have taken out the Syrian vehicle.
Netanyahu also reacted impulsively, deciding on the spot to forgo his plan to extend his service. Instead, he left the army some time later and flew off to study at MIT.
Anyone who hasn’t served in an elite unit in the Israel Defense Forces might find it hard to understand the extreme reactions by these two future Israeli prime ministers. Only a month earlier both were part of the successful seizure and rescue of a hijacked Sabena airliner, after which they were lauded as heroes. Moreover, only a few days later, there was another opportunity and the Syrians actually were snatched.
But for elite military men, there’s apparently no greater blow than the cancellation of a mission they were primed to carry out. It’s hard not to conclude that this irrepressible drive to act is what led Barak, when he was chief of staff, to plan a grandiose scheme to eliminate Saddam Hussein that ended with the Tze’elim B training disaster that took five soldiers’ lives. Apparently that same appetite for risk is what led him to push enthusiastically as defense minister for an attack on Iran, which fortunately didn’t happen.
Barak and Netanyahu are just examples; this drive is also evident in the biographies of Ariel Sharon, Moshe Dayan and other Israeli leaders, especially those who served in elite army units. Unfortunately, this kind of adolescent frustration can determine the fate of millions.
It’s an old legacy of the IDF, perhaps from the days in the 1930s of Orde Wingate, the adventurous and disturbed British warrior who for some reason is admired by Israeli defense officials. Wingate, who was described by a colleague, British officer Wilfred Thesiger, as arrogant, unruly and contemptuous of authority, was the man who laid the foundations of the IDF’s combat doctrine.
This emotional apparatus is worth remembering these days when the Gaza border may be heating up. Military reporters are once again explaining that “the next round” is only a matter of time; once again, a few thousand Palestinians and a few dozen Israelis will be killed. Then they’ll tell us that the attack was unpreventable.
But particularly now, and throughout the spring and summer, it’s important to remember that someone is eager to release the safety catch and carry out the action for which he has trained for weeks or months. Some ambitious officer – in uniform or in civilian clothes – is yearning to do battle, show his excellence or maybe make up for some past failure. He’s convinced that this time he’ll do better.
This isn’t speculation. It’s a recurring theme in the biographies of such people.