Analysis: Docs don’t show Dayan’s despondency

As the tide of battle turned, Dayan’s behavior suggested to some a death wish. He visited fronts daily, exposing himself sniper fire.

If Israel were given to erecting statues of its generals, Moshe Dayan would, until October, 1973, have merited the most prominent pedestal in the military pantheon, perhaps one as high as Nelson’s in Trafalgar Square. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, public opinion would have relegated him to a modest side niche, if at all.
It is Dayan’s chilling testimony at a cabinet meeting a day after the war’s outbreak upon which the protocol just released by the State Archives focuses. There are no new revelations, not even Dayan’s instruction to evacuate the beleaguered strongpoints on the Bar-Lev Line and to leave behind the wounded if necessary.
RELATED:War archives ‘are being sensationalized’ by pressYael Dayan ‘angry’ at media focus on her father
Although some media reports profess shock at the order, it was in fact a consensus opinion among commanders.
The protocol does not capture the full measure of Dayan’s despondency in the opening days of the war. It shows him giving a coherent briefing of the situation – critical but not hopeless – on two fronts based on the reports reaching the war room and his own trips to the fronts.
It was in private conversations with Prime Minister Golda Meir and some of his generals that he used the phrase “the Third Temple is in danger,” meaning that Israel’s very existence was threatened, an appraisal that sapped the spirit of all who heard it.
Gen. Moshe Peled, on his way to the Golan ahead of his armored division which was to launch a successful counter-attack, saw Dayan sitting on a rock at the side of the road watching the smoke of battle rising over the heights. Peled put his hand encouragingly on Dayan’s shoulder only to see his old friend and neighbor begin to weep.
These snapshots add up to the wrong picture. The shock of the powerful two-front surprise attack from enemies who had been disposed of with such ease only six years before caused minds even of veteran warhorses to freeze up as they tried to grasp the incomprehensible. It would take days before they could return to themselves and seize the initiative. Dayan was stunned to realize that Israel was fighting a war it had not prepared for – that the airforce was neutralized by Soviet-supplied SAM missiles, that Israel’s tanks were being decimated by the new Saager missile, that the Arab armies were fighting with a spirit they had never before shown.
Beyond the two attacking armies, he saw other Arab armies joining the fight, as they would. It was the breadth of his vision that would account for the depth of his despair.
Within two or three days, however, he found his balance.
From the beginning, however, and for the entire war he offered wise counsel to his military chiefs and the cabinet. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David (Dado) Elazar was among the few leaders who did not lose his head (Ariel Sharon was another) and his conduct of the war merits him a place not just in Israel’s military pantheon but history’s.
Elazar was fortunate to have Dayan as a sounding board and strategic partner.
The Agranat Commission did not call for Dayan’s dismissal on the grounds, to my mind correct, that defense ministers are not supposed to be “super chiefs of staff.” In the pre-war period he had nevertheless been more concerned than his generals about the Arab buildup. “You’re not taking the Arabs seriously enough,” he told them the day before the war. It was only at his insistence that the 7th Armored Brigade was dispatched to the Golan a few days before the war, a move which prevented the heights from falling.
Once past his initial fall, he kept the war in perspective for the decision makers.
Describing to his cabinet colleagues the performance of the troops which had crossed the canal, he said they were fighting wisely but too boldly. “It’s a wonderful thing and a terrible thing. We have to slow down and think what we’re fighting about. This isn’t the Western Wall.”
As the tide of battle turned, Dayan’s behavior suggested to some a death wish. He visited the fronts every day, exposing himself unnecessarily to artillery and sniper fire as if he wished to atone for what had happened by dying a soldier’s death.
In the end he “atoned” by joining the postwar government of Menahem Begin and playing a leading role in achieving a peace agreement with Egypt.
The writer is the author of The Yom Kippur War (Schocken, New York).