Of Authority and Duty

Israel's military history is filled with those who, successfully, changed the orders they were given without reporting to their commanders.

On the afternoon of Friday, October 5, 1973, a man was summoned into the office of the head of the authority planning the tank that would later be known as the Merkava; it was the office of deputy chief of staff Yisrael Tal. Maj. Gen. Tal was not there; he was taking part in discussions about the growing tension with Egypt and Syria. His bureau chief, Maj. Meron Homesh, was there and looked agitated. "How are things?" he said. "Things are very bad. Talik says war will break out tomorrow."

Tal, a disciplined soldier, said - he didn't shout - what he also said using the appropriate channels in the chain of command, but he remained alone at the top. He tried in vain to convince his commander, chief of staff David Elazar, and to secure the help of his friend, Military Intelligence chief Eli Zeira. He did not make a huge fuss or overturn any tables. This self-control would torment him for years after the Yom Kippur War and the terrible rift it caused in the country. He knew many of the 2,600 fallen soldiers personally, and many were well respected, including the sons of some of his closest friends.

Yaakov Neeman would have granted him an award for bravery. That's the way a major general should act if he disagrees with his commanders. To express himself quietly, behind closed doors, through the command pipeline, without making waves. Going by the book even when a catastrophe looms. A deviation from the rule is appreciated only when it contradicts the legal authorities and favors Avigdor Lieberman - for example, when police officer Stanislav Yazhemsky, who stole intelligence and interrogation material from the National Fraud Squad, made allegations against the unit's commander, Moshe Mizrahi. What an escaped convict is allowed is forbidden to State Prosecutor Moshe Lador or Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who warned against the dangers of the justice minister's tentacles.

On Friday evening, the Simhoni clan - the extended family of Asaf Simhoni who was GOC Southern Command during the Sinai Campaign and died the day after the fighting when his plane crashed in Jordan - gathered at the clubhouse at Kfar Yehoshua. The members of the diverse families with connections to Simhoni were celebrating the publication of a book by Amos Carmel and Tzila Rosenblit on the fallen general. The extended family's memorial tablet includes the names of other airmen, armored corps members and fighters from the Sayeret Matkal special forces unit. Many of those invited and their relatives were born on kibbutzim and moshavim in the Jezreel Valley - Tel Yosef, Geva, Nahalal, Kfar Yehoshua, Beit She'arim. They are the aristocracy of blood and earth, tank and tractor, aircraft and plow.

Asaf Simhoni, meanwhile, thought differently from chief of staff Moshe Dayan and acted against his plans even though, contrary to what Dayan claimed, he had received the approval of the General Staff's operations officers. (The documents were found in the archives 50 years later by his son Yoav and grandson Avner.) Keeping the Seventh Brigade from Sinai, Simhoni feared, would cause the Israel Defense Forces heavy losses and prevent it from routing the Egyptians. He was right, and as for the question of authority, the same chief of staff who was so angry with him later welcomed the change of plan; he himself flouted authority when he refrained from reporting this to David Ben-Gurion. His opposition to Ben-Gurion's decision to withdraw from Sinai under pressure from the great powers was even broadcast over the loudspeakers.

Other good examples of this in Israeli history are Ben-Gurion's resignation and machinations to concentrate authority in his own hands (out of office he did not hesitate to rebel against his successor, Levi Eshkol). Further examples can be seen in the underground movements of the Irgun and Lehi, and the dissident Mapai faction Siya Bet. Even Yitzhak Rabin was sentenced by chief of staff Yaakov Dori for violating a prohibition against taking part in the protest on the anniversary of the Palmach's dismantling.

The last to speak at the Simhoni event was another major general in the family. In 1982, while conducting war games as head of the IDF's training division, Simhoni was one of the few who dared point out defects in the plans of defense minister Ariel Sharon and chief of staff Rafael Eitan for the first Lebanon war. Another major general, Military Intelligence chief Yehoshua Saguy, who "moved aside" when he saw that no one was listening to his warnings, as he told the Kahan Commission, was sent home at the commission's behest.

Among the members of the Simhoni family over the generations were two commanders of air bases - the cousins (thanks to their wives) Amikam Norkin from Tel Nof and Yehu Ofer from Sde Dov. In recent years, they and their friends took part in some of the most important plans and campaigns for Israel's safety. Even more fateful situations are ahead of them. Let's hope that when they have to express their opinions, they will follow in the footsteps of Lador, not Neeman.