The life of Mordechai ‘Motta’ Gur: From those who knew him

A man who moved quickly up the ranks of the IDF, who was like a father to his soldiers, but had deep conflicts with Ariel Sharon and a hard time accepting criticism of his military decisions.

Gur with Gen. Ariel Sharon in 1976. (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER)
Gur with Gen. Ariel Sharon in 1976.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER)
Writer and 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “One secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.” The late Mordechai “Motta” Gur, who was the IDF’s 10th chief of staff, committed suicide by pistol 20 years ago this month on the balcony of his home in Tel Aviv’s Afeka neighborhood. He had been battling cancer for many years and had managed to internalize Disraeli’s advice.
Gur is best remembered for his leadership as commander of the 55th Para - troop Reserve Brigade during the Six Day War, and his ascent to chief of staff. But he was not immune to controversy. Some say that he drove Maj.-Gen. Israel “Talik” Tal so crazy that the officer was overheard saying he had plans to assassinate Gur in the Knesset courtyard.
Indeed, like most iconic Israeli figures, Gur had failures along with his successes, and shortcomings along with his virtues – and these are important to examine.
GUR CAREFULLY plotted his own career path, which included becoming IDF chief of staff and hoping that would lead to the post of prime minister. According to his friend Col. (res.) Arik Achmon – who served as the 55th Brigade’s chief intelligence officer in Jerusalem during the Six Day War – “when [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin won the election in 1992, he knew that he’d have a hard time fulfilling the role of prime minister and defense minister, too. Rabin wanted someone for the Defense Ministry whom he could trust 100 percent. That person was Motta. Unfortunately, though, Motta was already sick, although this was not yet public knowledge.”
As a young man, Gur volunteered for the Palmah, and taught a Gadna pre-military course at Kibbutz Givat Brenner. Volunteering for the Palmah was one of the most significant and successful moves he ever made, since in the Hagana division he trained with a cadre of great leaders – among them Rabin, future statesman Yigal Allon, and future IDF chiefs Moshe Dayan, Haim Bar-Lev, David Elazar and Rafael “Raful” Eitan. No one in this group ever needed to look far for good connections; their paths were paved by virtue of their affiliation with the top security and political figures of the state.
At age 22, Gur realized that if he want - ed to become chief of staff, he couldn’t just run around the hills and conquer territory. He needed to develop methods and intellectualize the situation. He transferred from the 902nd Battalion to the 910th Battalion in Jerusalem, and began courses in Middle East studies and political science at the Hebrew University alongside his military service as commander of Nahal basic training.
According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uri Simhoni, who began his military service in 1954, “the commanders of the 890th [Paratroop] Battalion were real mensches. They all had very strong characters and personalities, and were very independent in their decisions and actions. They were all people you would follow into war without hesitation.”
Gur was appointed commander of the 890th Battalion’s Company D in May 1954. Brig.-Gen. (res.) Tzuri Sagi-Shenkin recalls that “Motta received a mediocre company and turned it into an outstanding one. He was an excellent commander.”
Natan Malinov, who was a sergeant in the company, recalls Gur as “an educator. He was very competitive with [deputy battalion commander Aharon] Davidi. He would make us read Haaretz and would explain things to us so that we’d know what was going on in the country. He was very sympathetic, and his soldiers loved him. He was a father figure, very approachable. But he was afraid of parachuting. He wasn’t courageous like Davidi or Raful. And he didn’t lead like [legendary IDF commando] Meir Har-Zion. Instead, he would always bring someone to lead next to him.”
IN LATE August 1955, Gur was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: to take command of Operation Elkayam, in which forces conquered and blew up the Khan Yunis police headquarters in the Gaza Strip. The operation was delayed from August 30 to 31 due to logistical shortcomings, a situation that replayed itself 11 years later during the Six Day War in Jerusalem.
In his book, Company D , Gur wrote, “The results of the retaliatory attack in Khan Yunis were positive for the IDF in almost all respects, especially for Company D.” Gur showed great talent at taking a dysfunctional situation and turning it into a success. Following the operation, Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan awarded him with a medal of courage for “showing ini - tiative during the heat of battle and changing the assault plan as needed. Despite his injury, he acted bravely and risked his life.”
The truth, however, was somewhat different. Gur changed the plan of attack following a mistake made by his half-track driver, who had become frightened and confused. Gur did not manage to take control of the vehicle, and the half-track broke through the police barrier and reached near the building’s entrance. Gur did not report this change to his sub-commanders. Apparently he was in shock and risked his life trying to be the first to break into the police building. In the end, he was only wounded. Davidi was the one who took command of the attack to take over and blow up the police building.
From interviews with a number of commanders and fighters who participated in this battle – Emanuel Cohen, Arie Shapira, Nadav Neiman and Benny Keidar – it appears that Gur and the platoon commander, Moshe Stempel, were wounded at the beginning of the battle and were evacuated. As a result, they weren’t on site when the main battle took place. Another possibility is that the two of them were hit by friendly fire, since the other forces hadn’t been informed of Gur’s change in plan.
Stempel, incidentally, also received a medal of courage.
After the details of the battle were analyzed, it became clear that there were a few fighters who deserved a medal: Davidi, who that same year received a different medal for his actions in Gaza; sapper Yirmi Bardanov; and Stempel’s platoon sergeant, Neiman.
This incident does not just illustrate Gur’s monumental ability to take a devastating situation and turn it into a brilliant success; it also debunks the myth that in the 1950s, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, the 890th Battalion brought to light all of the fighters’ shortcomings – and that they learned their lessons.
TWENTY DAYS before Operation Kadesh (a.k.a. the Sinai Campaign) on October 10, 1956, paratroopers carried out a retaliatory attack against the Kalkilya police headquarters. Gur’s battalion received an order to carry out the main mission: to capture and blow up the police station. But during the operation, the paratroop commando unit that was blocking the road from Azun to Kalkilya so the Jordanians wouldn’t be able to send reinforcements found itself trapped. Sharon later said he’d given Gur an order to extract the commando unit. But Gur refused, so Sharon was forced to send in a Givati unit under the command of his deputy, Yitzhak Hofi, which succeeded in rescuing the commando unit. Eighteen fighters lost their lives, and 68 were wounded.
It’s safe to assume that this would have resulted in either Sharon kicking Gur out of the paratroopers – which would have ruined Gur’s chances of succeeding in politics – or Gur driving Sharon from the paratroopers, which is what actually happened during their next confrontation. But at the time, all the paratroopers were too busy preparing for Operation Kadesh, and the Sharon-Gur conflict was put on hold.
The paratroopers played a strictly strategic role in the French-British-Israeli conspiracy of Operation Kadesh. The plan was for them to parachute into the western opening of the Mitla Pass, just 40 km. from the Suez Canal, to give the French and British grounds for becoming involved in the war and thereby preventing the “exacerbation” of the battle, which could lead to the closing of the canal. Suez had become an essential waterway for international movement, and its closing would have proved disastrous for the European powers.
The main goal of the French and British decision-makers was to prevent the canal from being nationalized and to reconquer it. Due to IDF intelligence failures and contrary to the original plan, however, under Eitan’s command at dusk on October 29, 1956, Battalion 890 parachuted into a flat area east of the strait, 80 km. from the canal. As a result, the British and French no longer had a strong strategic excuse to intervene.
BETWEEN 1961 and 1963, Gur commanded the Golani Brigade. According to Sagi-Shenkin, “just like with Company D, Motta took Golani, which was in terrible shape, and turned it completely around.”
But not everything went so smoothly with Golani, either. On the night between March 16 and 17, 1962, Gur led the Nukeib Action against Syrian villages and outposts in the Golan Heights, during which seven soldiers were killed. Armored vehicles were apparently abandoned in the field during the fighting, and kibbutz members from Ein Gev, Ha’on and Tel Katzir were whisked in to help IDF forces rescue the trapped troops.
To hide what many considered a military failure, 13 medals were granted to soldiers. The growing list of controversial battles in which Gur had been involved did not prevent him from climbing up the ladder to the top, and in 1965 he was appointed commander of the IDF military colleges.
Maj. Amos Ne’eman, one of his students at the college and a squadron commander in Eitan’s brigade at Mitla, was picked to investigate the Mitla battle. During the presentation of the results, Ne’eman asked Gur, “Why didn’t you just look at the strait through your binoculars? You could have seen where the Egyptians were shooting from, and you could have shot back at them instead of sending your regiment into a trap.” After hearing this, Gur stormed out of the room in anger.
Needless to say, Ne’eman finished the course with a B minus, even though he knew he had a strong B average. When he asked Gur why he’d given him the lower grade, Gur replied, “This is a warning for you never to say such things to your commander.” When Gur became chief of staff, he kicked Ne’eman out of the military even when the latter begged him to let him stay.
EITHER WAY, luck was on Gur’s side time and time again. In 1966, he was appointed commander of the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade, which fought in the battle to liberate Jerusalem, and ended up playing a role in the liberation of the Holy City.
In April 1978, he retired from the IDF. He entered the world of business, then moved on to national politics. He joined the Labor Party, first aligning himself with Shimon Peres and later switching to Rabin. He served as agriculture minister in the unity government, then as a minister-without-portfolio, and eventually just as a Knesset member. During a visit to New York in 1983, he telephoned Uri Simhoni – who was then the IDF attaché in Washington – and requested a meeting.
“I jumped on a shuttle,” Simhoni recalls, “and 50 minutes later, I was in New York. It was a beautiful day, and we took a walk through Central Park. I told him, ‘Motta, everyone thought you were aiming for the top, that you’d be prime minister. Why did you stop?’ And then Motta replied, ‘I realized that the price was too high.’”