Legal Analysis / Actively Involved

The confidential minutes of prime minister Golda Meir's meeting with her war cabinet on the second day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which for some reason were only released this week, include an admission by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan that he had misjudged the strength of both the Israel Defense Forces and the enemy armies.

The minutes also provide evidence of Dayan's active role in directing military operations before and during the war. Essentially, he functioned as a kind of supreme IDF chief of staff.

The minutes were provided to the Agranat Commission, which investigated the war, but the panel refrained from concluding that because Dayan was functioning as a supreme chief of staff, he shared personal responsibility with the actual chief of staff, David Elazar, for the failings the commission cited.

At the time, Dayan's associates said the defense minister had presented his positions and recommendations to the IDF, but didn't seek to give orders to the army. But this week's revelations, which show that Dayan directly changed an IDF order so as to give individual army outposts discretion on how to proceed, buttress the thesis that Dayan was personally involved in operational detail. Had the Agranat Commission accepted this thesis, its key finding might have been different.

In assigning responsibility for the war's conduct, the commission applied the yardsticks of reasonableness and "weight of responsibility." Based on these standards, it found Elazar responsible for the war's debacles while clearing Meir and Dayan, concluding that the prime and defense ministers had acted as required by their positions. Essentially, the commission drew a distinction between the government and the army and absolved the former of blame.

The commission based its decision to clear Dayan on the fact that the law does not make the defense minister a "supreme chief of staff." But it ignored the possibility that in practice, that is indeed what Dayan was.

In conversations I had with Justice Shimon Agranat, he said the commission refrained from intensive scrutiny of the "supreme chief of staff" issue because it would have extended the commission's proceedings, already being criticized for their length, by several months. But he added that he never intended the public to interpret the findings as a full acquittal; he did think Meir and Dayan bore ministerial responsibility.