A Marshal's Scepter in His Kit Bag

More than 50 years after his tragic death in a plane crash, at age 34, Maj. Gen Asaf Simhoni is still a subject of both awe and controversy in the Israel Defense Forces.

Aluf Hanitzahon: Asaf Simhoni (The General Who Brought the Victory: Asaf Simhoni ), by Amos Carmel, with research by Tzila Rosenblit Yedioth Ahronoth Books (Hebrew ), 423 pages, NIS 98

Asaf Simhoni headed the Israel Defense Forces' Southern Command during the days of the Sinai Campaign. Immediately after the victory parade in Sharm el-Sheikh, on November 6, 1956, he took off in the direction of Tel Aviv, and was killed when his plane crashed. He was just 34 years old.

Simhoni was promoted posthumously from colonel to major general, on the orders of then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion, and in spite of the wishes of the chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, with whom he had had a serious falling-out near the end of his life. He was the favorite son of the Labor movement aristocracy; his short career typifies those of other members of his generation, whose basic tenet was "hagshama" -- fulfillment of one?s purpose in life, whether by the sword or by the plowshare, or both.

Asaf Simhoni was born in 1922 in Nahalal, the first workers moshav, but grew up on Tel Yosef, a kibbutz founded by members of Gdud Ha'avoda, the "Workers Battalion" that formed several settlements before its dissolution in 1927. His parents had immigrated to Palestine the year before his birth, as part of the Third Aliyah (the 1919-1923 wave of Jewish immigration from Europe ). His mother, Yehudit, was one of the only women who succeeded in reaching the top ranks of both Mapai (the forerunner of the Labor Party ) and the Histadrut labor federation. She was also a member of the First Knesset, and for a long time, including during his declining years, she was considered close to Ben-Gurion.

Simhoni got involved in security matters at an early age. As a boy he joined the Haganah, the pre-state underground Jewish militia, and in 1941 he was one of the first members of its elite commando force, the Palmach. Immediately after he was drafted, Simhoni was described by Yigal Allon, one of the Palmach's founders, as a "private who carries the scepter of a marshal in his kit bag," and Simhoni did in fact begin to rise in the ranks of command. He was a graduate of the first squad commanders course and completed a course for platoon commanders. Later, as a Gadna commander, he participated in several of the actions of the Jewish Resistance Movement, the short-lived organization that brought together the Haganah, Lehi and Irgun in 1945-46.

Slow advance

Service in the Gadna was considered a "secondary track," and so, despite his image as a rising star, his advance in the ranks was in effect frozen. Only toward the end of 1947, on the eve of the War of Independence, was Simhoni appointed a company commander. The author of "The General Who Brought the Victory," Amos Carmel, claims that Simhoni's slow progress stemmed from political considerations -- he was a member of Mapai at a time when a substantial percentage of the Palmach leadership was connected to Ahdut Ha'avoda (the Labor Unity party, which was founded in 1944 after a split in Mapai ). The fact that he was a member of Mapai played a considerable role in Simhoni's later military career as well, both for good and for bad.

In the first stages of the war, Simhoni fought on the northern front, including in the bitter battles at Mishmar Ha'emek. Later he fought in the Latrun area and participated in Operation Danny (the capture of the cities of Lydda/Lod and Ramle ). In July 1948, Simhoni was appointed the first brigade commander of the Yiftah division of the Palmach, and fought in battles in the besieged Negev.

In early 1949 he was a part of the "political intermezzo" that characterized the early days of the state. Election rules in those days did not prohibit the candidacy of officers on active duty, and several parties included officers in their slates for elections to the Founding Assembly (the first Knesset ), which took place on January 25, 1949. For example, the Herut movement slate included the young officer Meir Sternberg (who changed his name to Shamgar, which is how he was known when he became president of the Supreme Court ), though at slot No. 84 he had virtually no chance of serving in the Knesset. Mapai was the only party to include four military men in high spots on its ticket. The most senior was Moshe Dayan, in 10th place, followed two spots later by Simhoni, who resigned immediately after the elections, but this achievemet strengthened his image as someone identified with the ruling party.

At the end of the war, Simhoni, then only 27, decided to remain on active duty in the Israel Defense Forces, and his advance was very swift. In 1949 he was appointed commander of a reserve unit, and two years later he received command of the Golani Brigade, one of the IDF's three regular brigades. In December 1952, still not yet 30, he was appointed deputy commander of the Northern Command.

Preparing for war

In November 1954 Dayan, then chief of staff, appointed Simhoni to a senior position on the General Staff: deputy chief of the Operations Directorate. In August 1956, Simhoni became commander of the Southern Command. During those days the position was a crucial one, since the IDF was preparing for war with the Egyptian army. Simhoni was appointed to the position as a very talented commander with a great deal of combat experience, as Carmel writes: "The memory of the War of Independence, which had been waged only eight years earlier, was still fresh, and in the entire gallery of IDF generals and senior colonels it seems as if there was nobody whose experience in combat command in that war compared to that of Asaf."

The path of Simhoni's advancement was similar to that of Dayan, who was a friend and a colleague. Both advanced quickly for the same reasons, beginning with their military ability. Both were known as natural leaders who were fearless, had proven themselves in the heroic battles of the War of Independence and were very familiar with the battlefield. There was also another, completely different reason: Both were members of Mapai. Dayan's meteoric military career stemmed in part from Ben-Gurion's desire to promote senior officers who were members of his party, as a counterweight to the generals of the War of Independence, the majority of whom were members of Mapam, the United Workers Party. Simhoni advanced quickly for the same reason. Carmel writes that Ben-Gurion speeded up Simhoni's appointment as head of Southern Command "because he recalled that Asaf was almost the sole Mapainik among the senior ranks of the Palmach."

Ben-Gurion's attitude toward Simhoni was also reflected in his commemoration of the commander after his death, when Ben-Gurion tried to present him as a Mapai hero. When MK Israel Galili, who headed the Ahdut Ha'avoda movement, eulogized Simhoni in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the prime minister immediately sent an angry letter to MK Meir Argov, chairman of the committee. In the letter, part of which is quoted in the book, the prime minister writes that he was shocked to hear that Argov had invited Galili, since "Asaf Simhoni was the commander of the Sinai Campaign, and was not appointed by I.G., was not a member of I.G.'s party, never worked with I.G. because I.G. never served in the IDF. In his final enterprise -- the campaign in Sinai -- he had no connection with I.G. and from I.G.'s eulogy one could have thought that Asaf was a member of Hakibbutz Hameuhad and a member of I.G.'s party. Had Asaf heard that eulogy he would have been horrified."

Before and during the Sinai Campaign, Simhoni's relations with Dayan deteriorated considerably. The main reason was a dispute about the deployment of Brigade 7 during the war, a dispute still making waves

more than 50 years later. On the second day of the war, Simhoni used his discretion as the senior commander in the field and sent the brigade to the battle of Qusaymah, a decision Carmel describes as pivotal: "On the morning of October 30, 1956, a dramatic change took place in IDF history, on the initiative and under the direction of Asaf Simhoni, a 34-year-old GOC. For the first time an armored brigade embarked on ... an offensive action against key positions as a concentrated breakthrough and attacking force."

Dayan wrote in his book "Diary of the Sinai Campaign" (Am Hasefer, 1965 ) that Simhoni sent the brigade into action "before the date decided on . . . in contravention of the instructions of the General Staff." Dayan said he "was furious about the activities of the head of the command." But in spite of that, he felt a certain empathy for Simhoni, writing: "It's better to fight against noble horses than to spur on the reluctant bulls." In that sense, Dayan was actually angry at Simhoni only when he behaved more like Dayan than Dayan himself.

"The General Who Brought the Victory: Asaf Simhoni" was commissioned by the Simhoni family, largely to settle the family's account with Dayan and his supporters and to put forth the case for Simhoni. Yoav Simhoni, Asaf's eldest son, writes in the foreward that over the years "books have been published by commanders and researchers who repeatedly claimed that Asaf Simhoni defied an order and was thus guilty of a misunderstanding and irresponsibility." The book's objective is to demonstrate and prove that "my father ... did not defy an order and did not exceed his authority, but played a crucial role in achieving the victory." The origins of the book as a commissioned work can also be seen in the fact that it barely touches on sensitive issues in Simhoni's life, such as his relationship with his wife Delila, who separated from him but had refused to agree to a divorce. The book doesn't explain that Simhoni wanted to travel quickly from the victory parade in Sharm el-Sheikh to the center of the country because he wanted to receive the hoped-for divorce papers. That point was part of a film about Simhoni made by Amir Oren and Micha Friedman, and it is a significant issue that could have helped readers better understand the subject of this book. Amos Carmel's account is interesting, readable and based on thorough research, but the readers must view it not as a historical study, but as a writ of defense.

Prof. Yechiam Weitz is a historian at the University of Haifa.

Haaretz Books, January 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com