The Gears Behind the Clock

Avraham Tamir, who died last week at 86, was an original character; modest himself, he exerted great influence.

It is a summer Friday afternoon in 1983, during the last months of active service of Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir, then in his late 60s. He is driven, in a white Volvo, to a meeting in central Tel Aviv. His driver, a 20-year-old corporal from Haifa, was upset: I had missed the last train home before Shabbat. Nothing can be done, Abrasha said in an effort to console the soldier; I'll take you to the train station, and you can hitchhike." "In fact, something can be done," the soldier exclaimed. "You barely leave the house on Shabbat. I'll take you home, and then bring the car to Haifa. If you need to go anywhere," a possibility the soldier discounted, "take a cab."

While the general was still digesting this chutzpah, the corporal added the piece de resistance. "And if you bring me a receipt on Sunday, I'll reimburse you." Only in Israel, only in the Israel Defense Forces, can a corporal speak that way to a major general.

Avraham Tamir, who died last week at 86, was an original character; modest himself, he exerted great influence.

Avraham Tamir Nir Kafri
Avraham Tamir

"He was like the movement, the gears, in a fine old Swiss watch," the son of another senior general noted this week. "The kind that is hidden behind the watch face, and without which the shining hands cannot move."

In 1948 the IDF General Staff had a planning branch, headed by Maj. Gen. Yohanan Ratner. But both the branch and Ratner were quickly forgotten. Tamir emerged as a brilliant planner, responsible for military operations, for building up the IDF and dealing with classified strategic matters. The IDF, which worshiped flexibility and improvisation, went a quarter of a century without a general who was assigned to such areas. Had Tamir, a brigadier general and aide to Israel Tal for long-term planning, had authority comparable to that of Military Intelligence director Eli Zeira in 1973, the Yom Kippur War might have turned out differently.

After the war Tamir was promoted to major general and reestablished the planning branch under the joint authority of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff. Chief of Staff David Elazar, one of Ariel Sharon's many antagonists, resented Tamir's serving alongside Sharon in Sinai but was too weak to block Tamir's ascent. His successors, Mordechai Gur and Rafael Eitan, tried to push out Tamir. They did not want the army to lose its monopoly over military planning and they resented Tamir's warm relations with the political leadership.

As Defense Minister in 1977-80, Ezer Weizman kept Tamir in the IDF and created for him the national security unit.

After the 1977 visit by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, when Gur and Eitan were clinging to narrow-minded positions, Sinai Division commander Brig. Gen. Ehud Barak would sneak into the hall using the door between the offices of the defense minister and the chief of staff to give Tamir inside information about the IDF's range of flexibility in negotiations with Egypt on security arrangements. Barak used Tamir position as head of the planning branch to bypass Eitan and submit to Sharon his own war plans for the north.

As an envoy who negotiated with Egypt, the United States and nearly everyone else, Tamir was a clever bargainer who could present Israel's position as if it were that of another party, and vice versa. At times - to those who missed the fine distinctions - he appeared to be a double agent in the service of peace and security. The fact that documents he wrote decades ago appear as though they were written today is a tribute to Tamir, but does not say much for the opportunity-missers who continue to lead Israel.