Who Owns the History?

One of Maj. Gen. (res.) Benny Peled's greatest frustrations was the paucity of knowledge in Israel about the history of the state and the army - knowledge, meaning the truth as the basis of understanding, rather than the official, softened and renovated versions.

One of Maj. Gen. (res.) Benny Peled's greatest frustrations, and he had many, was the paucity of knowledge in Israel about the history of the state and the army - knowledge, meaning the truth as the basis of understanding, rather than the official, softened and renovated versions.

When he died on Saturday, a quarter of a century after he ended his role as commander of the Israel Air Force, Peled left behind his large mark on the defense establishment's decisive force. Benny Peled turned the Royal Air Force of Aharon Remez, Dan Tolkovsky, and Ezer Weizman, and the Palmah atmosphere of Mordechai Hod, into the advanced IAF. The Americans copied the uniquely Israeli model of an integrated intelligence-operations team for planning combat air missions from Peled and his subordinates.

Just as he demanded the air force supply itself with the intelligence it needed and not rely on the ground forces, Peled wanted full exposure of the histories of the wars - the Six-Day War, when as commander of the Hatzor air base he was forced with his pilots to encourage then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, instead of the other way around; and the Yom Kippur War, including the crisis of October 12, 1973.

Peled said that he had deliberately exaggerated the gravity of the loss of planes and pilots so as to force Golda Meir's government to move from defense along the Suez to offense. The result: Then chief of staff David Elazar, followed by Golda Meir, concluded that without enough force for an offensive, it would be best for Israel to accept an Egyptian demand for a cease-fire. If Anwar Sadat had not become intoxicated with his successes, the war would have ended with a clear Israeli defeat.

The raw materials for historical research into the events of 1967 and 1973, and most of the research based on those materials, are to be found in the IDF's vaults or on the shelves of the history department at the General Staff. One major general put in charge of the history department in the last decade warned the brigadier under him that he better not do anything foolish and publish any research without permission. No such permission was ever forthcoming. Everything is always sensitive, explosive, because in the IDF, old soldiers never fade away; they become defense ministers and prime ministers.

An amazing example of this was provided by the state prosecutor last week, in response to a High Court of Justice petition filed by Efrat Spiegel, whose son, Yoav, was killed in the Lebanon War, and her other son, Ehud. They sought publication of the secret annex of the Kahan Commission of Inquiry's report on the massacres at Sabra and Chatila. The state objected, even though State Prosecutor Edna Arbel, who was one of the Kahan Commission's researchers, supported releasing the annex. And supposedly, so did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has long claimed he wants the annex published - to prove that he wasn't incriminated by it - ever since his legal struggle against Time Magazine.

The state's response to Spiegel's petition exposed a series of odd steps taken by the Rabin and Sharon governments. In 1994, Rabin decided against publishing any material that could harm state security, its foreign relations, privacy of an individual, relations with minorities, the economy, "or any conversation or meeting in which there was a sweeping commitment to secrecy."

And last month, as stated in the state's response to the petition, the Sharon government discussed recommendations by the Mossad, Shin Bet security service and Field Security, which found - surprise, surprise - that the criteria devised by Rabin cover the secret part of the Kahan Commission report. Revealing the material "would be like pouring fuel onto the fire of the conflict, making the war on terror more difficult," the professionals from the security services warned. With a small, reversible majority - 9-7 and 3 abstentions, with Sharon not participating in the vote - the government adopted the security forces' recommendations.

The ministers are politicians, but they do not own the history, which belongs to the state. Most of the material is in the army's hands. If Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, is, as his reputation claims, a stickler for truth and knowledge, he'll take the history out of the national deep freeze.