How it really was: Spit and polish!

‘I will not have Dayan speaking for me’.

Sadat chatting with foreign minister Moshe Dayan during a dinner at the King David Hotel (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
Sadat chatting with foreign minister Moshe Dayan during a dinner at the King David Hotel
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
THE WOMAN walking toward me on Jerusalem’s Hillel Street was the wife of a fellow Canadian. I smiled and stopped to say hello. Once she recognized me, rage flared in her eyes, her hands turned into claws and she snarled something like, “You dirty… you disgusting… you attack Dayan!” Then, she spat at me. Fortunately, she missed.
The year was 1977. Menachem Begin had won a surprise victory over Labor’s Shimon Peres. The press reported that Begin was about to select Dayan as his minister of foreign affairs.
My article, “I will not have Dayan speaking for me,” was published in a very prominent place in The Jerusalem Post (May 31, 1977). It was hard-hitting, almost vitriolic, and enumerated Dayan’s flaws.
Even before the 1973 disaster, Dayan had distinguished himself with his questionable moral character. He had pillaged archaeological sites and used IDF helicopters and soldiers to transfer the discoveries to his home; he had brazenly conducted his private peccadilloes in such an open manner that he forced us to be aware of them. I could not have cared less about his or anyone else’s private life. Just keep it private! But leaving his easily identifiable official IDF car and driver flagrantly sitting outside the lady’s house? “Dayan,” I wrote, “imposed on my privacy by imposing his lack of privacy upon us.”
I did not write about his taking credit for things he had not done. In 1967, though Levi Eshkol, then both prime minister and minister of defense, had obtained the planes and tanks for the IDF, and Yitzhak Rabin and his general staff had prepared the firststrike plan, Dayan had no problem basking in the popular misconception that he was the one responsible for the Six Day War victory.
That was impossible. He had become minister of defense only on June 1, and the strike order was given by Eshkol on June 4. This led to the destruction of Egypt’s and Syria’s air forces on June 5 and determined air superiority for winning the swift campaign.
NOW WE return to the war that began with a successful Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal on Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973. Dayan was minister of defense in Golda Meir’s cabinet. For years before the war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had been sending messages to Israel via Henry Kissinger, then-US president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, proposing peace negotiations.
Though Golda had summarily dismissed the overtures, Dayan certainly knew of them. Let’s say that Dayan had pressed Golda to open a channel to Sadat, and she had rejected his advice; at that point he should have generated a cabinet crisis or resigned.
Golda’s opinionated stubbornness and Dayan’s acquiescence are what led to the Yom Kippur War. The rejection of overtures for negotiations caused Sadat to shift gears.
The Egyptian president decided to prepare his forces for a limited war.
The Egyptian army would stage a surprise attack, cross the Suez Canal and reconquer some of the territory of the Sinai Peninsula.
This “victory,” Sadat calculated, would restore “Arab pride,” and thus enable him to negotiate with Israel as an equal, and not as leader of a defeated nation.
Sadat thought strategically, while Golda and Dayan were bogged down in the “conception” that Egypt and Syria were not ready for war.
In other words, minister of defense Dayan had misread Sadat’s intentions, and the Israeli army was not properly prepared for the onslaught. The awe-inspiring initiative of tiny IDF forces and individual soldiers saved the Galilee from the powerful Soviet- aided Syrian assault. Within days, as Israel’s reserves reached the Golan and the air force flew endless sorties to knock out the Soviet-made tanks, Israel was poised 60 kilometers from Damascus.
Meanwhile, terribly bloody battles took place in Sinai. Eventually, the heroic crossing of the Suez Canal brought Israeli forces to within 101 kilometers of Cairo itself.
The war had lasted 20 days. If Kissinger had not convinced Nixon’s government to mount a massive airlift from the US (22,000 tons), Israel would not have been able to replace its tanks, artillery and ammunition and fight on.
No one could replace the lives lost. For days, out of fear of the impact the news would have on national morale, the IDF did not disclose the number or the names of soldiers killed. Fathers, especially former ranking officers, who were able to receive inside information, entered Sinai’s battlefields to search for their sons’ bodies.
Finally, as the tide turned in our favor, the finest of our announcers read, in his inimitable radiophonic voice and semi-Yemenite pronunciation, the lament of David over the death in battle of his beloved Jonathan and Jonathan’s father, King Saul. “Thy beauty, O Israel! Upon thy high places slain! How art the mighty fallen!” The announcer, Moshe Hovav, read out name after name. An entire nation wept.
At the war’s end, 2,688 Israeli soldiers and airmen had fallen, 9,000 civilians and military personnel were injured, and who knows how many were scarred with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Dayan let his subordinates take the blame, principally, then-chief of staff Maj.-Gen.
David (Dado) Elazar, who had proposed all the right moves before the war – moves that Dayan and Golda, under American pressure, had overruled. During the war, it was Dado who had coolly made the right strategic decisions.
If all this was true about Dayan, why did the woman spit at me for disparaging him? Such was his charisma; such was his reputation from the 1956 Sinai campaign and the 1967 Six Day War. Her hero, Israel’s hero, could do no wrong.
After the war, it is reported that Dayan fell into a deep depression. He reassessed the situation, and, perhaps, himself. And the warrior became the pursuer of peace.
It was clear that Israel and Egypt had reached a kind of balance: Israel could not destroy Egypt and Egypt could not vanquish Israel.
Sadat had tried for peace before turning to war; he had conducted secret negotiations with Rabin, who had replaced Golda as prime minister in 1974.
Dayan, as Begin’s foreign minister, continued undercover communication, resulting in Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. Later, Dayan also played an important role in the open negotiations, which eventually led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed on March 26, 1979, on the White House lawn, by then-president Jimmy Carter, Sadat and Begin.
Avraham Avi-hai served as Levi Eshkol’s secretary for Public Affairs from 1963 to 1965