Dayan the peace-maker?

Mordechai Bar-On provides a concise biography of the life of the former chief of staff, but he doesn’t go deep enough.

Moshe Dayan 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Moshe Dayan 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In August 1955, the popular Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser dispatched a squad of Palestinian Fedayeen, a terrorist unit, to roam southern Israel looking for targets of opportunity. In one week they murdered 16 people.
The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, ordered Ariel Sharon, who was then in charge of a battalion of commandos, to raid Egyptian positions in the Gaza Strip in retaliation. Just before the retaliatory operation got under way a message arrived from the prime minister. It was a no-go. “Elmore Jackson, a representative of the American Society of Friends [Quakers], had arrived on an Israeli-Egyptian peacemaking mission and [prime minister Moshe] Sharett did not wish to impede Jackson’s efforts by instituting any Israeli acts of aggression.”
This story could surely have been written in any of the decades of Israel’s short existence. In this case Moshe Dayan threw a tantrum and handed in his resignation, at which point government maneuvering by David Ben-Gurion resulted in a go-ahead being given for the operation. Sharon entered Gaza, arrived at the Khan Yunis police station where Egyptian soldiers were based, and razed the site to the ground.
MOSHE DAYAN is one of the iconic figures in Israeli history. After the Six Day War his stern face, complete with eye patch, became synonymous with the plucky little desert nation and its seeming David-and-Goliath struggle against the neighboring Arab states. Dayan was also a famous socialite and a Bible-believer, as well as an amateur archeologist; he did not hesitate to use his position to conduct excavations, without proper expertise, of numerous sites. He was also a feared politician. As Ben-Gurion said of him, “you have been endowed not only with first rate military ability but also with extraordinary political acumen and statesmanship.”
This latest biography is the product of a Yale series on Jewish lives. Mordechai Bar-On, a senior research fellow at the erudite Ben-Zvi Institute, has been tapped to provide the up-to-date life story of this Israeli leader. Moreover, Bar-On was Dayan’s bureau chief in 1956-57, and thus has a wealth of personal knowledge of his subject. He is not without criticism, writing: “[Dayan’s] Achilles’ heel was his insensitivity to historical undercurrents and his inability to see the larger picture.”
This book is not based on any discovery of primary sources shedding new light on Dayan’s life, but rather primarily a short biography for those who have not read a great deal on the subject before.
As Bar-On suggests, “the story of Moshe Dayan is the story of the State of Israel." Born on the famous Kibbutz Deganya, he participated in the invasion of Vichy-controlled Lebanon alongside the British in 1941, where he lost his left eye. He was in charge of the Israeli forces that fired on the Irgun ship Altalena in 1948, an event that, had it spiraled out of control, could have meant civil war in Israel between the Jewish Left and Right. Later Dayan was chief of staff during the invasion of Egypt in 1956. Later, he was appointed defense minister just in time to participate in the victory of the Six Day War.
It was the Yom Kippur War that was responsible for tarnishing the man’s otherwise sterling reputation. Leading up to the conflict he argued with prime minister Golda Meir over the need to mobilize troops and he opposed a preemptive strike. When the surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces came, it arrived like a hammer blow, knocking the IDF off balance for several days on both fronts. Dayan appeared to collapse as he forecast doom to those around him.
“Dayan’s dark sentiments swiftly spread, filling senior commanders with gloom and near despair,” writes Bar-On, who does not agree, however, with the usual assessment that Dayan’s reactions were irrational. He thinks that had the Egyptians and Syrians “been bold enough to continue their momentum and had introduced their armored reserves into the campaign on the first days of the war, Dayan’s dark predictions would have sounded less far-fetched.”
Many readers will be surprised at the chapter on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The author claims that “Dayan for some time had believed that president Sadat was interested in peace with Israel.”
Prime minister Menachem Begin is portrayed as simply reacting to events; “he rose to the challenge.” In the West Bank Dayan is often credited with being prescient as to the Palestinians’ national demands. “We must permit local Arabs to run their own lives without having to see or talk to any Israeli officials,” he said.
The author, a one-time leader of Peace Now, is critical of Dayan’s leadership here, calling the policy “unrealistic” and arguing that attempts to bring Palestinian laborers to Israel “made the conquered dependent on the conqueror.”
Bar-On argues that “it is clear today that a people cannot be occupied invisibly.” But this statement does not explain why Dayan never made any concrete steps toward attaining peace. If Dayan wanted peace with Egypt and understood the maladies of the Palestinians, why didn’t he do more when he had the power to do it?
In fact the Dayan policy resulted in much more Israeli intrusion in the Palestinians’ lives than the Oslo Accords, which have granted Palestinians limited self-rule. Dayan supposedly knew in his heart that Sadat wanted peace, and yet it took a Likud prime minister to produce the treaty.
Bar-On rightly points out that too much praise for Dayan is ill conceived, but he doesn’t go far enough; Dayan’s reputation deserves more scrutiny based on primary sources.