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In the late 1940s, David Ben-Gurion founded a unique military society: the state of Israel. A powerful defense establishment came to dominate the nation, and for half a century Israel’s leaders (bound by martial traditions and stern resolve never to lose sight of the Holocaust, and armed with a secret arsenal of nuclear weapons and the most powerful conventional army in the Middle East) have relished continuous war with the Arabs and an unblinking determination to prevail.
In the late 1940s, David Ben-Gurion founded a unique military society: the state of Israel. A powerful defense establishment came to dominate the nation, and for half a century Israel’s leaders (bound by martial traditions and stern resolve never to lose sight of the Holocaust, and armed with a secret arsenal of nuclear weapons and the most powerful conventional army in the Middle East) have relished continuous war with the Arabs and an unblinking determination to prevail.
Fortress Israel is an epic portrayal of state militarism overpowering democracy and civilian government—of Sparta presenting itself as Athens. Patrick Tyler takes us inside the tough culture of native-born militants: the sabras, named for an especially rugged species of cactus. He shows generals who make decisions that trump those of elected leaders, generals who disdain diplomacy as a sign of weakness, and statesmen who make peace deals with their neighbors so that they can make arms deals with America. Tyler argues that this martial outlook makes Israel loath to achieve peace with the Muslim world even if it is possible to do so.
Based on a breathtakingly broad array of sources, declassified documents, personal archives, and interviews across the spectrum of Israel’s ruling class, Fortress Israel is a powerful story of character, rivalry, conflict, and the competing impulses for war and for peace.
“[A] revealing chronicle of Israeli foreign and defense policy . . . Tyler’s well-researched account illuminates an ugly and troubling dimension of Israeli policy and politics.” —Publishers Weekly
“Tyler presents a sharp critique of the close relationship between the Israeli government and the officer corps of the Israeli military . . . [he] researches deeply and does not pull his punches.” —Booklist
“Fortress Israel is the definitive historical and analytical account of the role that Israel’s military has played both in Israel itself and in the wider Middle East. In Patrick Tyler’s deeply reported and very well written account, one learns how a militarized Israeli culture has permeated the decision making of Israel’s governments for decades and how that culture affects the calculus of its politicians today. If you want to understand Israel’s future—and also how that future may play out in the Middle East—this book is mandatory reading.”
—Peter L. Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
“In this exceptional book, Patrick Tyler demonstrates with meticulous documentation and revealing interviews with the country’s national security experts how Israel’s founding military and intelligence leaders were essential to the survival of a young nation. Tyler also tackles the vexed question of our era: Will Israel’s warrior ethos and its legacy of zero-sum strategies for dealing with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians prevent it from crafting a lasting peace? Tyler’s analysis of how much the world lost with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is definitive and heartbreaking. Fortress Israel is essential reading for students of the Middle East.”
—Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times
“With Fortress Israel, Patrick Tyler takes his place in the first rank of historians of Israel and the modern Middle East. He presents a provocative but objective look at the militarism that has driven Israel’s leaders since the founding of the state and explains vividly—without ideological cant or bias—why generations of tough-minded sabras have found it so difficult to convert their battlefield successes into a lasting peace.”
—Terence Smith, Israel correspondent for The New York Times during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars
“A rare and often disturbing portrait of Israel’s military elite, with all its foibles, rivalries, and vicious infighting.”
—Martin van Creveld, author of The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel
David Ben-Gurion was splayed across his sickbed at the President Hotel in West Jerusalem, down with a miasma of symptoms in late October 1955 as he often was in times of high tension, and, lately, Ben-Gurion appeared to be living on tension. He had complained of lumbago in August but now was suffering from dizziness, and his doctors, fearing an ominous turn, had hospitalized him for a battery of tests.1 Some thought that he might have suffered a stroke.2 At sixty-nine, Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, seemed to be near the end of his life. Dwight Eisenhower had been leveled by a heart attack the previous month, Winston Churchill had retired in April, Stalin was dead. The passing of a generation appeared to be at hand.
But in Jerusalem, the patient refused to stay down, and the reason Ben-Gurion was too restless and irritable to remain bedridden was the arrival of intelligence reports that Soviet cargo ships were landing in Egypt to deliver—from the Eastern bloc—all manner of heavy weapons: tanks, artillery, fighter jets, bombers, and submarines. Egypt’s power under the new military dictator, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, would double or triple within a year. The implication was alarming: Nasser would stand as the colossus of the Arab world.
How could Israel breathe with bombers and submarines lurking off its coastline? Ben-Gurion asked. He had been in London during the blitz, and anyone could imagine how totally exposed Tel Aviv stood on the Mediterranean coast, where it could be reduced to rubble in a surprise attack.
Abba Eban, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, had cabled from New York that it was time to consider a preventive war. Two top intelligence chiefs, Isser Harel of the Mossad, and Yehoshafat Harkabi of military intelligence, had both sent Ben-Gurion secret recommendations that a preemptive strike was necessary to stop Egypt’s military breakout. And of course Nasser was stoking Jewish anxiety by having Radio Cairo blare out a staccato of vitriol: “The day of Israel’s annihilation is approaching. There will be no peace on the border, for we demand revenge. This means death to Israel.”3
“Revenge!” Nasser’s call rolled across Sinai like the scourge of Pharaoh.
The white tufts of hair rose from Ben-Gurion’s balding pate like solar flares, and if his blood pressure was not spiking at that moment, it was under assault by waves of frustration over Israel’s failure, in his view, to act more decisively, more aggressively against the Arabs.
From his sickbed, Ben-Gurion called out to Nehemiah Argov, his military aide, instructing him to send a message to Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. Tell him to cut short his vacation in France, Ben-Gurion instructed. He must return to Israel at once because—and this was not spelled out in the message—Ben-Gurion was ready to go to war even if Moshe Sharett and the rest of the leadership of Mapai, the Workers’ Party, were not.4
This was the beginning—the origins of Israeli militarism.
In the middle of Israel’s first decade, Ben-Gurion, infirm and apocalyptic about the future of the Jewish state, the loss of pioneering spirit among the Jews, the slowing of Jewish immigration, and the erosion of political support for his leadership, began to exhort his defense establishment to think beyond the self-evident tasks of securing the borders, finding weapons, and training recruits who spoke a polyglot of languages.
During an eighteen-month period of semiretirement from mid-1953 to early 1955, Ben-Gurion began thinking and speaking about a more ambitious national military strategy, one that contemplated with certainty a new round of warfare with the Arabs, called for expansion of the Jewish state through preemptive attacks with modern conventional forces, and—it seemed almost impossible for such a small state to think in such terms—the acquisition of atomic bombs as a fail-safe weapon to preserve the Jewish people. The new militant spirit was the culmination of Ben-Gurion’s long ferment about the conflict with the Arabs, but also, inescapably, it arose from his deep anxiety about the political lassitude of his people and their flagging support for his leadership. Ben-Gurion understood, or at least hoped, that war—militarism in the face of an Arab threat—might remobilize the Israelis. Faced with the prospect of retirement, Ben-Gurion also came to the conclusion that he had no equal in the Zionist hierarchy, and he seemed therefore determined to extend his political franchise as a paramount leader. He advanced with an irritable self-assurance and visceral compulsion to outmaneuver the stalwarts of his own political party, Mapai, who were treating him, because of his advanced age, like a dead relative.
* * *
At that moment in the mid-1950s, only a handful of people knew that the Israeli army—with Ben-Gurion’s encouragement and explicit approval—had been conducting clandestine raids into Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab territories. Despite the fact that he was not—for the time being—prime minister, Ben-Gurion advocated this policy of escalation, but the sitting prime minister, Moshe Sharett, was against the raids in principle.5
Ben-Gurion had exhorted the army’s commanders to go on the offensive and to do so covertly, to deceive the Americans, the British, and the United Nations, and to avoid the imposition of sanctions. The military had formed a special unit to carry out the cross-border operations. It was headed by a brash young officer named Arik Scheinerman—eventually to be known to the world as Ariel Sharon.
More disturbing for Israel’s young democracy, it was painfully obvious within the ruling party that the leaders of the defense establishment, especially Dayan, were making regular visits to Ben-Gurion’s retreat in the Negev for consultation and instruction at a time when Ben-Gurion was supposed to be in retirement. From his windswept porch, Ben-Gurion had schemed to circumvent the “old guard” of the Mapai—Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and their allies—in his quest to put the country back on the attack. In doing so, he relied extensively on the younger generation of sabras and their like-minded comrades throughout the army, where the thirst for combat with the Arabs—a “second round” of war—was far from quenched.
It was there, in the army, that Ben-Gurion had discovered Dayan, a tenacious fighter of the Jewish underground during the world war. (Dayan’s father, Shmuel, was among Ben-Gurion’s loyalists in the Knesset.) It was there that Ben-Gurion had spotted Yitzhak Rabin, the young officer of the Palmach militia, the elite fighting force, who had proved his loyalty to the state by attacking a rival militia—the Irgun of Menachem Begin—on the beach in Tel Aviv. (Begin had tried to land arms against Ben-Gurion’s order.) And it was there that Ben-Gurion had glimpsed young Arik Scheinerman, the bright-eyed and bullheaded commando who pushed the boundaries of every mission with a brutality that struck fear into the Arab camp.
* * *
Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, who since 1933 had worked at Ben-Gurion’s side in the Jewish Agency, which helped Diaspora Jews settle in Israel, seemed to be out of the loop in his own government. Before Ben-Gurion slipped away to the desert, he had surrounded Sharett with protégés who ignored or circumvented the acting prime minister’s prerogatives. That was the essence of the “plot”—it seemed the only word to describe it—that Ben-Gurion had laid to ensure that Sharett’s premiership would fail. And Sharett’s failure would, almost certainly, open a political path for Ben-Gurion’s return to high office.
Israel’s cross-border raids carried a high risk of international condemnation. They were violations of the armistice agreement that had ended the 1948–49 war. Both sides—Arab and Israeli—had agreed to take border disputes and refugee problems to the joint armistice commissions, where officers from both armies were charged by the United Nations to resolve disputes and defuse tensions.
Some of the secret Israeli raids were organized as reprisals for Arab infiltrations or acts of violence because about seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs had fled their ancestral homes—many under Israeli coercion—and it was inevitable that some would try to return. The refugees were living in squalid camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria with little food or shelter. From across the frontier, they watched Israelis take over their houses, orchards, and fields. Of those who risked returning, most came to recover property or to harvest crops. But some came to wreak vengeance, and that was a source of fear.
Israeli commandos crossed the borders to commit sabotage, shoot Arabs randomly, and engage in firefights with Arab frontier forces, all to deter the refugees from trying to return. Though these incursions were violations, Ben-Gurion and the most militant commanders in the army believed that the Arabs understood only force. Further, the Israeli army believed that the armistice lines could be changed to improve Israel’s position before they became internationally recognized borders.
The Israeli army had managed to seize 78 percent of the territory of the British Mandate as it existed in 1947, but the slender reed of Israel the country—merely nine miles wide just north of Tel Aviv—was far less than what Ben-Gurion believed was needed to support a modern state. No one in the Middle East, least of all Ben-Gurion, believed that the war with the Arabs was over. There would be a second round. He was counting on it.
So was Pinhas Lavon, who at fifty-six saw himself as a leading contender to succeed Ben-Gurion notwithstanding Sharett’s seniority in the party. Lavon, born in 1904 in Galicia, studied law at the University of Lvov (in present-day Ukraine) and, with Ben-Gurion and the other leading lights of the Jewish Agency, had built the Mapai Party through years of toil as a grassroots organizer in the Histradut, the Zionist federation of factory and agricultural workers. Lavon had Bogart good looks, bureaucratic skills, and political ambition that put him in contention for higher office, though he lacked the long experience in international affairs that buoyed Sharett’s prospects. If Lavon’s views on military affairs were known at all, he seemed a moderate figure who had left defense policy to Ben-Gurion.6
But when Ben-Gurion appointed Lavon minister of defense in late 1953—at the outset of Ben-Gurion’s so-called retirement—Lavon changed; he discovered an inner ferocity. Ben-Gurion had handed him an opportunity to play the role of the man in charge of national security and thereby a chance to pull even with Sharett in the succession sweepstakes. As defense minister, Lavon’s stature rivaled that of Dayan, whom many believed Ben-Gurion was grooming as an insurgent candidate for prime minister—a means to bypass the old guard of the party.
In pushing Lavon’s appointment through the cabinet, Ben-Gurion, the master manipulator, awakened Lavon’s ambition, and the former mild-mannered apparatchik suddenly presented himself to colleagues as the new strongman of Zionist expansion.
Soon after taking office, he shocked his fellow ministers by announcing that his goal was to set the Middle East “on fire” with conflict. His theory was that Israel would profit from serial warfare because the Arab governments were uniformly weak. Any government collapse in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, or Amman could be exploited—should be exploited, in his view—to expand Israel’s frontiers. It was a policy based on mayhem.7
Sharett, a veteran diplomat who believed deeply in the new international conventions to prevent war and resolve conflicts, realized that he was up against a wild man in Lavon. The notion of setting the Middle East on fire was repugnant to Sharett, whose strategy for the Zionist state was accommodation with the Arabs.8 As a boy, Sharett had lived among the Arabs near Ramallah on the West Bank, and then in Jaffa, the old Arab port south of Tel Aviv. He spoke Arabic, and his Zionism—his ambition for a Jewish state and homeland—was suffused with humanist precepts about coexistence.
But Sharett was less in charge than he perceived. Lavon acted as if the Defense Ministry, the army, and the military intelligence service were his exclusive domain. He struggled competitively with Dayan and with Shimon Peres, the young director general of the Defense Ministry whom Ben-Gurion had put in place as his eyes and ears. Lavon went around Dayan by dealing directly with senior generals and he cut Peres out of key decisions on tank purchases from France, where Peres had invested great energy.
The one thing that bound Lavon, Dayan, and Peres together, however, was a deep disdain for Sharett, whom they regarded as a weak sister lacking the credentials to oversee the military and security establishments.
Under the direction of Lavon and Dayan, Israeli commando forces crossed borders and blew up Arab villages, set ambushes, laid mines, and assassinated suspected infiltrators. Their “activist” strategy—that was their euphemism for the new militarism—was popular among Israelis who wanted to strike back every time the newspaper headlines announced that a Jew had been killed or shot at in the border regions. It was especially popular with the right-wing parties, whose members were adamant that Israel become strong enough to seize the whole of biblical Israel.
In the Tripartite Declaration of 1950, the United States, Britain, and France had opposed “the use of force or threat of force” between any of the Middle Eastern states, and, as members of the United Nations, they recognized their obligation to take action to prevent such violations. They condemned Israel’s raids as uniformly disproportionate and destabilizing. As a result, in Western capitals, Ben-Gurion was the face of Israeli aggression.
Ben-Gurion had formally returned to government in early 1955 because, despite all of Sharett’s efforts to conduct peaceful diplomacy, Lavon had detonated like a time bomb. Within months of his takeover, Lavon embroiled Israel in a major espionage flap in Egypt, which the government dared not acknowledge and which led to the execution of Israeli agents in Cairo in January 1955.
Israel’s military intelligence chiefs, with Lavon’s encouragement, planning, and approval—though the question of whether he gave a final order to proceed became a matter of lengthy dispute—had activated a network of operatives in Egypt to bomb targets in Cairo and Alexandria where American and British citizens gathered, such as cinemas and libraries. The goal of this scheme of sabotage and terror was to make Nasser’s regime look unstable and force Britain to reconsider withdrawing its troops from Egypt. Those troops—eighty thousand of them encamped along the Suez Canal—provided a buffer for Israel against any aggressive move by the Egyptian army, the largest in the Middle East.
Israel’s covert operation went awry. No Americans or Britons were killed. Shockingly for the Israeli high command, most members of the Israeli military intelligence team were arrested after Philip Natanson, one of the agents, set his clothing on fire (his explosive device ignited in his pocket). Natanson came running out of a movie theater in agony, and Egyptian police, already on alert, arrested him. Under interrogation and torture, he gave up the rest of the team, whose leader, Avri El-ad, had fled to Europe, an act that prompted Mossad chief Isser Harel to conclude that he had been a double agent all along.9
The scandal of Israel’s terror campaign against Americans and Britons would have undermined Western support for the Jewish state. That is what made it so sensitive during the twenty years in which it remained a state secret, censored in the Israeli press. Sharett’s government, meaning Meir and Eshkol and other ministers, felt they had no choice but to cover it up. Lavon threatened to commit suicide if the cabinet fired him, and it took weeks to negotiate his removal from office because ministers insisted on extracting a pledge that he would not embarrass the cabinet by taking his own life.
The Israeli public did not learn the truth for many years. The incident was referred to in the newspapers as “the mishap.” But the terrible reality for Sharett was that Nasser dragged the “Jewish spies” before a military court that convicted them. Two were sentenced to the gallows.
Sharett could do nothing to save those who were thrown into prison or put to death. One female agent committed suicide after torture. Nasser was going to hang Jews. Sharett was forced to lie publicly, protesting the innocence of Israeli saboteurs to an Israeli public fraught with anger and demands for retribution.
This was the tawdry state of affairs when Sharett, in a moment he almost immediately regretted, responded positively to a suggestion from his cabinet that Ben-Gurion be asked to return to government to replace Lavon. With Mapai facing elections in the summer of 1955, Ben-Gurion agreed to come back from his retreat at the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev to serve in Sharett’s cabinet, but everyone knew that it would be impossible for the older man to play a subordinate role to Sharett after twenty years leading the Zionist movement. And needless to say, Ben-Gurion had no intention of doing so.
In his first week back in February 1955, Ben-Gurion went on the attack. He and Dayan had planned their first move in a tight circle, tapping Sharon to lead an assault and excluding Sharett from all but a vague understanding of what was going on. The plan was to invade the Gaza Strip and to destroy the Egyptian military garrison. Two companies of Israeli paratroopers under Sharon’s command shot their way into Gaza City. They laid siege to Nasser’s military headquarters and the train station. They engaged in running battles into the evening. By midnight, when the force was ordered to withdraw, the Egyptian base was burning and in ruins. Thirty-eight Egyptian soldiers lay dead, with as many wounded. Eight Israeli paratroopers were among the dead. The ostensible pretext for this military engagement, the largest since the armistice, was the death of a single Israeli who was shot down by an Egyptian intelligence squad that had penetrated the Negev.10
* * *
The Gaza raid, which the Israeli military called Operation Black Arrow, was a turning point in the Middle East. It sent out a new and bellicose message from Ben-Gurion that he was back and that he preferred war to compromise. The military and its sabra spirit were behind him. The raid locked Israel into an inexorable cycle of escalation. The New York Times called it an “overt invasion” and a “ghastly mistake.” The newspaper said, “This is precisely the way to alienate world opinion and also to unify the Arab states” in an anti-Israel alliance. “Furthermore, it is taking the inexcusable risk and the onus of setting off the spark of open war in a region that needs peace more than anything else it needs on earth.”11 The Times made reference to the hangings in Cairo, but unaware of the truth behind the charges, the newspaper suggested that the executions were not based on any judicial finding of fact but rather on a “political” decision.
Ben-Gurion’s aggressive stance was wildly popular at home, fueled as it was by the public anger over the hangings in Cairo. The sabras in the military and throughout the country cheered Ben-Gurion’s “activism”; so did the immigrants living in camps on the frontier exposed to the Arabs.
The Gaza raid wrecked the plans of the great powers to impose a new peace in the Middle East. President Eisenhower and British prime minister Anthony Eden had formulated a set of compromises—Project Alpha, they called it—that would require Israel to accept the return of Arab refugees and to give up a wedge of the Negev Desert so as to reconnect the Arab world, which had been split in half by Israel’s creation.12
Only Ben-Gurion and Sharett and a few others knew of Project Alpha and its threat to hive off part of the Jewish state. The difference between the two men was that Ben-Gurion was prepared to go to war to explode the plans of the great powers. Nasser was hanging Jews in Cairo, and the public believed they were innocent. What better time to attack and throw Nasser off balance and destroy any chance that Project Alpha could succeed?
Ben-Gurion’s Gaza assault also wrecked the most promising diplomacy with an Arab state since Israel’s founding: Sharett, with the help of the CIA, had opened a secret channel to Nasser. With encouragement from the Eisenhower administration and with logistical support from the CIA, Sharett had exchanged messages with the Egyptian leader; they had agreed to appoint high-level emissaries for talks that Sharett believed might lead to a reduction of tension on the border and, eventually, peace negotiations.
For Nasser, it was a significant risk. He told CIA officials that he would become a target for assassination by his own people if word leaked out that he was in secret talks with the Zionists. Yet he saw in Sharett a potential partner. They had exchanged proposals on gestures each might make, such as allowing Israeli-flag vessels to transit the Suez Canal (a step that would recognize Israel’s legitimacy), purchasing Egyptian cotton, lobbying for aid to Egypt in Washington, and curtailing border violence.
It is impossible to say whether the promising back-channel contacts that Sharett and Nasser had initiated the year before might have led to a different and more peaceful future, but it is unmistakable that the carnage that Ben-Gurion inflicted on Egyptian forces that winter profoundly affected Nasser’s outlook. Indeed, Egypt’s search for a major arms supplier in the Soviet camp began in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Gaza.13
* * *
Facing the international fury, Ben-Gurion seemed buoyed by new energy. He wasn’t oblivious of the negative world opinion about Israel’s excessive use of force, but he knew that he had delivered a lethal blow to Eisenhower’s and Eden’s plans to redraw the map of the region; he also knew the great powers were loath to act against Israel, most of all the United States, where five million Jews and millions of other admirers of the Zionist enterprise functioned like a political shock absorber.
So Ben-Gurion ignored the criticism. “This will be a fighting generation,” he had boasted to his military assistant after the Gaza raid. To his colleagues in the government and in the leadership of the ruling party, Mapai, the aging leader had been arguing that there was a window of opportunity for Israel to profit from weakness and disarray in the Arab world—a chance to seize more land and strengthen the Jewish state. He denounced Sharett’s moderate approach to the Arabs as cowardly. Sharett bristled at the criticism from the militants. After all, Sharett had embraced the new international order of Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and the United Nations following the two most destructive wars in history. The new order stood for conflict resolution by means other than war; it stood for negotiation and compromise. Statehood, as far as Sharett was concerned, required Israel to align its policies with those of the great powers and with the new UN Charter, and central to the charter was the inadmissibility of conquest as a means to resolve disputes.
But Ben-Gurion believed in Zionist exceptionalism, and so he and the youthful sabra military establishment stood to fight.
What motivated them? For the sabras the answer was less intellectual than visceral. They had grown up on the land; they had built a competent army beyond anyone’s expectation, and their victory in 1948 propelled them to greater military ambition. Yet Ben-Gurion, a highly developed intellectual who had lived through a century of war and the internal battles of the Zionist movement, seemed motivated by a personal ideology that had been hardened significantly by the Nazi onslaught against European Jews. At minimum, he had succumbed to an innate fear that the catastrophe could be repeated and, therefore, the best defense was a large and well-armed state and a highly mobilized populace. Both were essential to keep the Arabs at bay while Israel acquired the land and water resources it needed. Ben-Gurion’s worldview had migrated toward that of his intellectual rival, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, whose iron-wall philosophy had urged Jewish pioneers to abandon their romantic notions that the Arabs of Palestine would welcome their return to the Holy Land. In a series of essays in 1923, Jabotinsky pointed out that no indigenous people had ever welcomed an invasion, however peaceful.14
The father of right-wing Israeli politics, Jabotinsky predicted a long conflict with the Arabs that would end only when the Arabs understood that the iron wall of Israeli defenses could never be breached or defeated. Only then would the Arabs sue for peace.
But thirty years after Jabotinsky’s seminal work, Ben-Gurion’s vision had expanded to take in a broader perspective of the Zionist state not imagined in Jabotinsky’s time. With the advent of the cold war, Ben-Gurion saw that an Israeli declaration of loyalty to the West could transform Israel’s status from that of a marginal state outmatched by the influence of thirty million Arabs to a higher, strategic plane as an indispensable ally of the United States and the victorious European powers already engaged in a cold war with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Ben-Gurion made such a declaration of loyalty to CIA director Walter Bedell Smith during a visit to Washington in 1951. Israel, he told the American official, “would pull our weight” in the worldwide struggle against Soviet power.15 In 1956, he conveyed to the French leadership a willingness to conduct joint, clandestine warfare against Nasser’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Thus Israel’s natural affinity with millions of Jews in the Americas and Europe created an opportunity for the Jewish state to aspire to a transcendent status: inclusion in the Western camp. Ben-Gurion began to imagine a larger and more powerful Jewish state, one that was more scientifically advanced than many European states and that was integrated with the West economically, technologically, and militarily. In this sense, he reached past Jabotinsky’s world; he extended Zionism beyond the romantic vision of its founders, beyond the kibbutznik dream of an agricultural nation ensconced in a Middle Eastern federation with the Arabs.
* * *
Moshe Dayan lived and walked the landscape of the Old Testament in awe not of its spiritual narrative but of its martial and human drama.
Most people looked for God in the Bible; to Dayan, the Bible was a textbook, a guide to war, to the battlefields of the ancients, to the vanities, the romances, and the treachery that pervaded the patriarchal clans out of which kings arose—Solomon, Saul, and David.
Self-taught in the topography of war and conflict, Dayan, like most of the sabras of his generation, grew up wholly without the influence of Jewish faith but in the grip of Jewish history nonetheless.
“The patriarchs were independent beings who walked alone,” Dayan wrote, and that image became the inspiration for his own life, a life devoted to war and military preparation but ruined for politics by a loner’s deep psychological disdain for the diplomatic arts and, as time went on, by a compulsion for his own narcissistic passions: the pursuit of women, money, and antiquities.
Indeed, it was on the flight back from France, rushing to reach Ben-Gurion’s side, where Dayan met the Polish-born beauty Rahel, with whom he carried on a public affair for nearly twenty years at the sufferance of Ruth Dayan, the pioneer whom he had married in youth when his greatest ambition was to be a successful farmer and father.
To Ben-Gurion, Dayan was a thing of beauty. Nearly thirty years separated the two men. Dayan’s life personified the sabra ethos of tough and practical realism, impervious to criticism. His generation was marked by an ascetic lifestyle, a sensual connection to the land, an idealized self-reliance, and a language that was blunt and spare as if chiseled in the native stone. Dayan was born near the Sea of Galilee but grew up in the Jezreel Valley—that fertile swath that traverses northern Israel—on a farming cooperative called Nahalal. Seen from the air, Nahalal was laid out in a giant circle of greenery, its fields bounded by footpaths that radiated as spokes of a wheel from the hub of the village. There was never enough rain. Harsh winds raked the fields, and the dust sent up an eternal haze. Money was scarce and the cycle of farmwork was brutal. The village design aided defense as the farmers lived in close quarters with their fields, which served as a buffer against Arab marauders. Sabras learned to fight with their fists and, if need be, with a hoe, a rake, or a knife.
The rank poverty of farming life and the conflict with the Arabs, who brandished weapons against the Israelis over land and grazing rights, shaped the adolescent Dayan. During the decade of Arab rebellion in the 1930s, he became a scout, a fighter, and a strategist against the intimate enemy.
Of the Arabs, he wrote, “They would brazenly bring their herds into the cultivated fields among the crops and fodder.” The young men of Nahalal would set upon them in wild fistfights. “They were rough fighters and used stones and knives,” but as often as not the Arabs would just flee on their camels, leaving younger brothers to steer their herds to safety. Dayan and his comrades would give chase on horseback, beating and humiliating the ones they captured. “There was sheer artistry in the way they fled,” Dayan wrote. “They would first prod the camel to get it going, and mount it while it was on the move by first jumping on its neck and then crawling on to its hump; or they would seize one of its hind legs, get a grip on its protruding kneecap with their bare toes, and haul themselves up by their finger nails on to the back of the galloping beast.”16
Dayan’s self-image was that of a rough-hewn farm boy who excelled at combat, and although his military career would open the world to him, his life and outlook were imprinted by the horizons of that valley where the Carmel Ridge runs to Haifa in the west, the Hills of Moreh rise modestly beneath Mount Tabor in the east. And in the near distance, the path at the village end leads to Tel Shimron, the ancient knob where Nahalal’s families buried their dead.
When the Arabs of Palestine revolted against Jewish immigration in the mid-1930s, the teenage Dayan—recruited as a guide for British military units—observed at close quarters how an imperial power imposed its will on a restive population. The British assigned him to a Yorkshire Rifles battalion protecting the Iraq petroleum pipeline, which crossed Palestine to reach British tankers in the Mediterranean. Dayan wrote as if he were repulsed by the arrogance and tactics of a great power, but these tactics, too, were imprinted on him.
“They moved in noisy armored cars, and when they waited in ambush, they smoked and cursed,” allowing the Arabs to slip past them. The balding British commander, a heavy drinker with brass-colored whiskers, instructed Dayan to present an ultimatum to an Arab chieftain. “Tell the bastard that if there is further sabotage of the pipelines, I’ll blow up his house; and if the sabotage is repeated, I’ll go on blowing up the rest of the houses of the village.”
That night, the pipeline was torched again. The next morning, the British troops blew up the headman’s house. To Dayan’s suggestion that the Yorkshire Rifles acquire more stealthy tactics, the commander retorted, “I did not come here to teach British soldiers how to crawl in your bloody country. I am here to teach the bloody Arabs how the British operate.”17
There is a photograph in the Israeli military archives from 1938 of Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon standing on either side of the Haganah’s field commander, Yitzhak Sadeh, a veteran of the Russian army.18 The young men exude energy, self-confidence, and ambition. Allon went on to command the Palmach, clashing with Ben-Gurion over strategy in 1948 and giving allegiance to Ben-Gurion’s political rivals in the Mapam, the left wing of the labor movement. Dayan, on the other hand, devoted himself to Ben-Gurion and to Mapai. He joined the party and became chief of staff of the army. His rivalry with Allon carried over decades, but it arose in the adrenaline of youth.
Dayan’s parents had come from Ukraine, like many others in flight from persecution, and in a single generation, they produced offspring who were less worldly, less educated, but fiercely attached to their fields and livestock, the things that sustained their lives. Their world was small and brutal, and their outlook was in the main pessimistic because they, too, foresaw a long conflict with the Arabs.
“There was no God in our lives to pray to,” wrote Dayan’s daughter, Yaël, in a memoir. “By nature and upbringing, my father was a patriarch. He didn’t mind who was in the kitchen, as long as somebody was there, and he didn’t resent the idea of women working at anything. He wasn’t concerned with questions of equality and took it for granted that the last word would be his.”19
Dayan identified with biblical heroes, but he evaluated their lives as a realist and a cynic. He relished the story in the Book of Samuel of young David’s mercenary instincts in negotiating a king’s ransom for slaying the lumbering Philistine, Goliath; he marveled at the contradictions of Samson, a Hebrew warrior who slew, with the jawbone of an ass, a thousand men from the army of Gaza. Yet Samson was “ambivalent” about his enemy, rushing to “pay court to a harlot in Gaza” after “smiting” her kinsmen on the battlefield. And when Delilah’s treachery brought Samson low—his eyes plucked out, his head shorn, and his back bent in slavery at his enemy’s granary—he prayed to God “that I may be at once avenged.” He stood between the pillars of their temple and cried out in a suicidal rage, “Let me die with the Philistines!” and in the moment pulled down the house on the lords of his enemy. “So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life” (Judges 16:30).20
In Dayan’s world, survival was a matter of strength and guile, and these qualities, along with his thirst for combat, drew him into the Jewish militias that formed during World War II and became the core of the Israeli army. In 1941, Dayan slipped into Lebanon as part of the flanking forces supporting the Allied invasion of Syria. Up against the Vichy French, he scouted enemy gun emplacements for Australian soldiers and, while peering through binoculars, he attracted a bullet that smashed through the eyepiece. The fragments destroyed his left eye and splintered the socket. The injury marked his life with pain and fretful reconstructive surgeries that left him with the black slash of an eye patch across his sharp, avian features.
As in everything, Dayan resorted to cynicism about his injury. He bragged that he needed only one good eye to shoot straight, and he once told a policeman who pulled him over for speeding, “I have only one eye. Do you want me to look at the road or at the speedometer?”21 In truth, he hated the patch and pulled it off as soon as he reached home at the end of the day. Yet it made Dayan instantly recognizable around the world. Together with what seemed a perpetual Dayan sneer, his was the face of Israeli military cunning.
Ben-Gurion had spotted him early. Dayan came from a political family and, when it came to military affairs or strategy, insights flew out of Dayan like switchblades.
The older man was in love with the idea of youth, of young sabras building the Hebrew state, but Ben-Gurion was foremost a political man, and he used them to weaken the Mapai old guard and to perpetuate his own rule.
For Dayan, Ben-Gurion, too, was like a biblical figure. As an architect and a visionary, there was no one like him, or no one left like him. What Ben-Gurion and he shared was an ethnocentric outlook: the Jews were on the land, heavily armed and protected by an undefeated army; let the great powers say what they will. They shared a basic pessimism about the long war, a pessimism that did not extinguish hope or opportunism but girded the senses for the violence that enveloped their lives and bolstered morale in a culture of militancy.
Dayan had never stopped fighting the War of 1948 despite the armistice, which he termed “transitory.”
“For a long time we thought we could redraw the armistice lines with lower-scale operations than full-fledged war,” he explained years later in a moment of exceptional candor. “In other words, capture a piece of land and hold on to it until the enemy gives up.”22
The victory over the Arabs in 1948 also had a psychological effect.
“It [the victory] seemed to show the advantages of direct action over negotiation and diplomacy,” wrote Nahum Goldmann, the World Zionist Organization chief.23 After all, the Jews had vanquished the armies of their enemies for the first time in two thousand years. They had triumphed, unexpectedly, in the face of the Arabs’ numerical superiority. The psychological impact was pronounced and was especially reflected in the vernacular of the right wing, where one leader who had emerged from the Jewish underground, Menachem Begin, emblazoned his version of the historical exegesis with heroic prose: “Out of blood and fire and tears and ashes a new specimen of human being was born, a specimen completely unknown to the world for over eighteen hundred years, ‘the Fighting Jew.’”24
The sabra generation looked with discomfort and more than a little contempt at the remnant of European Jewry, the Holocaust survivors who had refused to flee or fight in Europe and who allowed themselves to be led to slaughter.
There were nonsabras, such as Shimon Peres, who spent much of their lives trying to overcome personal histories that left them out of sync with the pioneering core of the country. Born Szymon Perski in Poland in 1923, Peres immigrated to Palestine with his family in 1934, and in the following years, when Dayan and many of his cohorts were fighting Arabs or scouting for the British army, Peres stayed in school, joining the Working Youth of the Mapai. Peres had none of the grit or chiseled features of the sabras. His sweeping brow and aquiline nose conjured a pompous visage accentuated by an equally pompous manner of speech. He was a linguist and an intellectual who exhaled European sophistication. But he lacked personal courage and wilted at the notion of combat. During a climbing outing to Masada near the Dead Sea, he suffered a panic attack during a fall that left him with an intense fear of heights.25
In Israel’s small society, Peres had caught Ben-Gurion’s attention as a talented propagandist. Peres and a group of scouts had made a trek through the Negev in early 1945, and when they returned, Peres rendered a photo album for Ben-Gurion, documenting how the scouts had nearly reached Eilat, proclaiming a kind of manifest destiny over the sandy expanse that Israel conquered three years later in war.
The following year, in December 1946, Ben-Gurion sent Dayan, then thirty-one, and Peres, twenty-three, to the Twenty-second Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Dayan was already a military veteran who had seen the inside of a British prison and lost an eye, whereas Peres was a service-avoiding neophyte writing flattery and heroic Zionist prose for the party organs.
* * *
It took Dayan two days to get back from his vacation in France to Jerusalem, and when he reached Ben-Gurion’s bedside, the older man was still profoundly agitated about the news from Egypt. Sharett had departed for Paris to negotiate the purchase of Israel’s first modern jet fighters from the French, but before he departed Sharett had made it clear that he opposed an “initiated war” by Israel.26
Propped up in bed, Ben-Gurion told Dayan that Israel could not just attack Egypt out of the blue. He, too, was not in favor of an initiated war. They would need a pretext. Nasser’s troops were shooting across the border every day, and the shooting had gotten more intense since the February assault into Gaza. Nasser was sending fedayeen (“self-sacrificers”) guerrillas over the line to murder and maim. A pretext was taking shape. All they had to do was respond with increasingly large-scale attacks and then escalate to full-scale war.
The immediate goal of the campaign would be to seize the demilitarized zones on the Egyptian frontier in the south and then to move rapidly into the Sinai Peninsula to secure the Strait of Tiran and the Egyptian shore of Sinai along the Gulf of Aqaba. All this was to be prepared so that the moment Ben-Gurion reentered the prime minister’s office, Israel would be ready to strike.
Ben-Gurion had come back to government with another vision: Israel as an atomic power. The scientific effort, led by the German-born chemist Ernst Bergmann and Peres, who was serving as director general of the Defense Ministry, was so secret that Ben-Gurion made only oblique references to it in his diary. “It may be that our ultimate security would rest on [science]. But I will not talk about it any further. This could be the last thing that may save us.”27
* * *
Ben-Gurion’s intellectual ferment had begun in May 1953. That spring, he began talking openly about his desire to withdraw from public life “for a few years.” In truth, he was exhausted. His Ménière’s disease induced spells of dizziness. But worse, his political fortunes were sinking. Sharett and the Mapai “old guard” referred to him as “a spent force.” The achievement of 1948 had faded. Jewish immigration was falling off rapidly as the realities of nation building had sunk in: repetitive and backbreaking work across waterless vistas of stony, unyielding earth.
Ben-Gurion understood that politics was corrosive; no leader was immune to popular disaffection and leader fatigue. He abruptly announced that he was taking a long vacation in July. Levi Eshkol observed that the older man was in search of a stand-in who could take the heat while Ben-Gurion rested on the sidelines. “Why should I be the guilty party from whose clutches Ben-Gurion will save the country when he returns?” he asked his colleagues.28 The Mapai leaders nominated Sharett as acting prime minister, disregarding the fact that Ben-Gurion had criticized Sharett’s judgment and had insisted that Eshkol, an agronomist who had little worldly experience, was more qualified. Golda Meir called Sharett “the obvious heir,” no doubt infuriating her mentor. But Lavon, with Ben-Gurion’s encouragement, enthusiastically accepted the Defense Ministry.
In such a small country and in such a small leadership circle, everything was personal, and so when Ben-Gurion withheld Defense from Sharett that summer, giving it to the untested Lavon, it was Ben-Gurion’s way of saying that he did not see Sharett as having that combination of political and military acumen necessary to lead the country.
Ben-Gurion had said to Nahum Goldmann something that was really directed at Sharett: “The difference between you and me is that I never shrank from giving orders which I knew would mean the death of hundreds of wonderful young men. You would probably have hesitated. And therefore, I can lead a people in war time. You could not.” Sharett would have agreed with Goldmann’s retort: “You are right, but maybe I could better prevent a war than you, which is still more important.”29
Sharett took Ben-Gurion’s disparagement in stride as just another slight from the man to whom fate had bound him in the Zionist cause. Ben-Gurion and Sharett had worked together for thirty years, but the relationship was complex, and not just because Sharett was eight years younger and subordinate in the hierarchy of the movement (Ben-Gurion was chairman of the Jewish Agency and Sharett headed the political department). More important, there was a broad psychological difference: “I am quiet, reserved, careful,” Sharett observed. “Ben-Gurion is impulsive, impetuous, and intuitive. My capital C is Caution; Ben-Gurion’s capital C is Courage.”30 But even this description was a gloss on the deeper conflict.
Goldmann best captured the contradictions of Ben-Gurion’s character: “The dominant force in Ben-Gurion is his will for power, but not in the banal sense, that is, not power for personal advantage. In this respect he is above reproach. I mean power in the sense of wanting to enforce what he believes to be right, of ruthlessness in pursuing his goals,” he wrote in his memoir.31
Sharett had mediated the great struggle between Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, the European Zionist leader, during the crucial years of the world war, when the Zionist dilemma was how to make the transition from supporting the Allied effort against Germany to a postwar goal of declaring Jewish statehood in confrontation with the British.
Weizmann put his faith in British diplomacy. Ben-Gurion did not, and it was during the war that his militancy intensified as the reports of mass extermination of Jews began filtering in from Europe in 1942. Ben-Gurion pushed through the Biltmore Program—named for the meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in New York—that committed the Zionist movement to setting up a state in Palestine even if that meant a violent break with the British and even if the Jews did not get the whole of the biblical Land of Israel.
Weizmann tried to hold Ben-Gurion in check, and the two men clashed in 1943. Sharett aligned himself with Weizmann’s diplomatic approach. Ben-Gurion exploded with recrimination and sulked for months. Sharett later told family members that the Weizmann–Ben-Gurion struggle had inflicted a deep wound in his, Sharett’s, relationship with Ben-Gurion. Like a cracked crystal vessel, it would never be the same. “[The vessel] remained usable as before, but the crack, an irreparable one, remained.”32 The two men were barely on speaking terms until Ben-Gurion returned to head the Jewish Agency again in 1944.
Weizmann’s political base—European Jewry—was all but extinguished. The war had shifted the center of gravity of the movement to Palestine, where Ben-Gurion was in charge. He had bested all of his rivals. He had co-opted or outmaneuvered fellow travelers from the Socialist camp such as Yitzhak Tabenkin, who leaned toward Moscow’s orbit; he had humiliated Menachem Begin, the right-wing underground leader, by shooting up the Altalena, the arms supply ship that Begin had landed on Tel Aviv’s beach. He had outlived Jabotinsky, Begin’s mentor, and Chaim Arlosoroff, the brilliant political strategist of the Jewish Agency, who was murdered in what appeared to be a political assassination on Tel Aviv’s waterfront one night in 1933. (Right-wing extremists were suspected.)
Sharett and Ben-Gurion clashed repeatedly in the first years. Sharett was more attuned to great-power diplomacy in the postwar environment. Israel’s membership in the United Nations required the abandonment of brute force, which had marked the colonial era. Sharett was deeply committed to normalization of relations with the Arab states. Ben-Gurion was not.
Nonetheless, the Foreign Ministry under Sharett was a hive of diplomatic initiative. And though the differences between Sharett and Ben-Gurion were stark, they both possessed that political gene for collaborative tension, the ability to carry on notwithstanding their profound disagreement.
In the wake of the 1948 victory, Israel faced a cascade of Arab infiltration across the armistice lines. The vast majority—90 percent or more—were desperate civilians seeking to recover homes, property, or crops.33 Ben-Gurion feared that without a brutal policy on the border, the Arabs would simply return, first as a trickle, then as a flood. Throughout 1950, the Israeli army rounded up Arabs in villages and towns and pushed them across the frontier, but even this was not enough. Soon the IDF escalated the assault, issuing shoot-to-kill orders against returning Arabs along the frontier, mining pathways, and carrying out large-scale cross-border strikes to deter infiltration.34 To the sabras, these cruel actions were a somber requirement for their generation, and they had to be willing to absorb the world’s condemnation without being deflected from the task. Dayan was a leading advocate for roundups and expulsions and, in May 1950, his troops marched 120 Arab infiltrators into the blistering Wadi Arava, firing guns over their heads to make them run and forcing them to walk dozens of miles into Jordan on foot, without food or water. A quarter of them died from dehydration in the scorching wasteland.35
When the Jordanians found the survivors, their story set off broad condemnation of the Jewish state. Dayan was called before the cabinet, where Sharett lectured him about Israel’s moral standing in the world. Dayan stood defiantly, in effect daring Sharett to say that the army did not have the right to shoot Arabs who crossed the border.
“We shoot at those from among the 200,000 hungry Arabs who cross the line—will this stand up to moral review?” he asked. “Arabs cross to collect the grain that they left in the abandoned villages and we set mines for them and they go back without an arm or a leg.” Such brutal facts might not measure up on Sharett’s moral yardstick, “but I know of no other method of guarding the borders,” Dayan said. “If the Arab shepherds and harvesters are allowed to cross the borders, then tomorrow the State of Israel will have no borders.”36 This was sabra dictum.
* * *
In his early years, Dayan mistrusted diplomacy and despised Sharett for pursuing secret contacts with Arab leaders even though these contacts had raised hopes for a modus vivendi with the Arab world.
In 1948, King Farouk had signaled that Egypt would be willing to reach a peace settlement with the Jewish state in exchange for an Arab corridor through the Negev that would reconnect the two halves of the Arab world. Farouk sent a senior court official, Kamal Riad, to Paris to meet with Elias Sasson, Israel’s specialist on Arab affairs in the Foreign Ministry. Sasson drafted a peace treaty, which Riad passed to Cairo. Sharett was ready to enter negotiations, but Ben-Gurion remonstrated, refusing to bring the proposal before the cabinet as he plotted with Israel’s military chiefs to attack the Egyptian army in early 1949 and drive it out of the Negev altogether.37
In 1949, Syria’s military strongman Colonel Husni al-Za’im, who had taken power in a bloodless coup, startled the region by proposing that instead of an armistice with Israel to end the fighting, he was ready to conclude a full peace that would include an exchange of ambassadors, open borders, and trade relations. Za’im proved to be a remarkable leader: a member of Syria’s Kurdish minority who promoted voting rights for women. American diplomats in Damascus encouraged him to extend his hand to Israel. Za’im responded that he was ready for a personal meeting with Ben-Gurion and made a remarkably generous offer to solve half of the Palestinian refugee problem by settling at least three hundred thousand of them in northern Syria with Western help. In return, he asked for a share of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.
Ben-Gurion told his negotiators to reject Za’im’s offer, demanding that Za’im first sign the armistice that recognized the international border. But Za’im persisted, reiterating his offer through a secret United Nations channel. When Sharett brought the proposal to the cabinet on May 24, he described it as an important breakthrough. But Ben-Gurion would have none of it; he warned of a diplomatic trap and preempted the overture with a letter to the top UN mediator, Ralph Bunche, insisting that Syria first withdraw to the prewar lines.38
Israel signed an armistice agreement with Syria on July 20, 1949. It proved to be one of the weakest of the cease-fire instruments. Za’im, for his efforts, was overthrown and executed in another military coup.
Of all the Arab leaders, King Abdullah of Jordan was the most inclined toward an accommodation with Israel, and he carried on secret negotiations with the Jewish state from 1947 to 1951. He had met secretly with Golda Meir in November 1947 to apprise the Jewish Agency leadership that he planned to send Jordan’s army, the Arab Legion, across the Jordan River to occupy the West Bank. The king aimed to annex the Arab portion of the West Bank and thus expand his realm to Jerusalem, where he could displace the grand mufti as the protector of the Old City and the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the thirty-five-acre central plaza on which stand the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque. This plaza is also sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of ancient synagogues dating to King Solomon’s time. The plaza is girded by the Western Wall, part of the Temple foundations that still exist and where Jews write messages or prayers to God and push them into the cracks.
King Abdullah came out of the war a winner. The Arab Legion defeated Israeli attempts to wrest control of East Jerusalem and the Old City. In armistice negotiations, Abdullah, whose kingdom was flooded with Palestinian refugees, raised the price of peace. He demanded the return of cities—Ramle and Lod among them—whose Arab populations had been driven out; he also sought an Arab corridor connecting Jordan to Gaza. Ben-Gurion blew hot and cold on making any deal with Abdullah, and in the event, the Jordanian leader was gunned down by an Arab assassin in July 1951 on the steps of the al-Aqsa mosque.
* * *
There was a biblical quality to Ben-Gurion’s retreat to the desert in 1953, for this sabbatical was the genesis of Israel’s first national military strategy. At the tiny Sde Boker kibbutz, Ben-Gurion wandered for months in the desert, at times in the company of one of the former Stern Gang assassins, Yehoshua Cohen, who had been pardoned for his role in the death of the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte.39
Ben-Gurion buried himself in books and briefings about national defense and the theory of war. He read voraciously about tactics and armor on the modern battlefield and the advent of atomic weapons; he examined the problems of the Israeli army in detail, meeting frequently with Dayan and the other generals to hear their views. The problems were formidable: half of the army’s conscripts were immigrants who didn’t know how to fight; Israel was isolated and still surrounded by thirty million Arabs, and the prospects for an alliance with a great power were bleak.
Israel urgently needed an arms supplier, but most fundamentally, it needed a defense concept that would deflect war from the most vulnerable population centers. Israel needed a nimble and lethal army that could strike across borders in retaliation for any attack, and in the event of war, move the battle quickly to the enemy’s territory and inflict disproportionate damage so the Arabs would understand that Israel could not be defeated.
At Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, complained about the dust. A guard’s tent was pitched in front of their modest house because Ben-Gurion was under threat from Jewish extremists for accepting reparations from Germany as a way to finance the urgent requirements of the Jewish state. But during those months, the older man found a new voice of urgency; he came back to warn his colleagues that war was coming and it was imperative that Israel divert its scarce resources to prepare itself.
The synergy between Ben-Gurion and Dayan was crucial during this period. The young general had become a leading proponent of taking any opportunity to strike the Arabs. A “second round” was inevitable, in his view. To the sabra military establishment, it was the government that was lagging. Ben-Gurion and his intelligence chiefs, Harel and Harkabi, had come to the conclusion that the Arabs would attack as soon as their armed forces were up to it, probably in the summer of 1956. The Israeli army needed an overhaul.
Since 1950, a number of small reprisal raids had been poorly executed against the Arabs. Some had resulted in excessive Israeli casualties. In the summer of 1953, Mordechai Makleff, the British-trained chief of staff who preceded Dayan, had come to Ben-Gurion with the idea of creating a secret commando unit staffed by the best soldiers in the army and to use this force against the Arabs.40
The proposal echoed the formation of the “night raiders” under the legendary British officer Orde Wingate, a fundamentalist Christian who became a deep believer in the Zionist cause and who trained Jewish commandos in mobile warfare in the late 1930s. Wingate had been a powerful influence on young fighters such as Makleff, Dayan, and Yigal Allon.
Makleff was a tough and seasoned commander, a sabra who as a boy had witnessed the murder of his family when Arab rioters entered a newly established Jewish settlement outside of Jerusalem in 1929. Makleff escaped by jumping out a second-story window. He had served with the British army in World War II and, during the War of Independence, he commanded Israeli forces that conquered the Galilee and secured much of the northern part of the country.
Makleff and Dayan already had in mind a young officer to lead the commando unit: Ariel Scheinerman, a brash and battle-hungry soldier who had fought in the 1948 war. Scheinerman was at that moment on trial in military court for conduct unbecoming an officer; he had slapped and handcuffed a quartermaster who, instead of promptly delivering new boots for Scheinerman’s paratroopers, had dallied for an hour with a girlfriend. Dayan had suspended the trial because the army needed more bulldogs like Scheinerman. Known as Arik, the diminutive with which his Russian-speaking mother had addressed him, Scheinerman quickly assembled an irregular force of volunteers from among his friends and comrades with whom he had fought. It was just a couple dozen fighters, and by summer’s end they were ready. The army gave them the secret designation of Unit 101.41
In August, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that “Contrary to Moshe’s [Sharett’s] opinion…, reprisals are imperative. There is no relying for our security on UN observers and foreign states. If we do not put an end to these murders [by infiltrators] now, the situation will get worse.”42
It did get worse. On October 12, 1953, Arab infiltrators tossed a grenade into a house in the Yehud settlement east of Tel Aviv, killing a young woman, Susan Kanias, and her two infant children. The perpetrators were believed to have come from the village of Qibya on the ridge north of Jerusalem. When the news came, Ben-Gurion, Lavon, Makleff, and Dayan were in the north of the country observing a military exercise near the Sea of Galilee, where Ben-Gurion had been taking a vacation. The four of them agreed that a major reprisal was in order.
Two nights later, Scheinerman’s force of twenty-five commandos from Unit 101 and another one hundred paratroopers assigned to him assembled in a forest opposite the border. He loaded twelve hundred pounds of explosives into trucks, enough to level an entire village.
The least-informed person in the leadership was the acting prime minister, Sharett.
On the day the raid was set to launch, the Israeli-Jordanian armistice commission blamed the grenade attack on Arab guerrillas from Jordan. The commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, Sir John Bagot Glubb, pledged to bring the murderers to justice. He appealed to the Israelis to remain calm in the meantime.
That was enough for Sharett. He told Lavon to call off the attack. “I told Lavon that this will be a grave error … that it was never proved that reprisal actions served their declared purpose,” Sharett wrote in his diary. “The Jordanians were taking observable steps to stop infiltration.” But Lavon had “just smiled” and said that Ben-Gurion “didn’t share my view.”43
Sharett felt the sucker punch. Ben-Gurion had gone around him. He had been running security through his protégés and leaving Sharett to deal with the consequences. Sharett dispatched a message to Ben-Gurion saying that he would resign his position if the IDF carried out the attack.
But Ben-Gurion ignored the threat. The raid went forward. Major Scheinerman and his men shot their way into Qibya late at night. They went house to house, shooting occupants and flinging grenades through windows. Then the sappers began setting explosives, destroying house after house in eruptions of smoke, fire, and plumes of dust while machine gunners laid down a steady rain of covering fire. Many villagers had run away, but many were hiding in their homes as the charges were set and blown. Outside the village, Scheinerman had laid an ambush so that Jordanian legionnaires rushing to intervene were cut down. When the night was over, forty-five houses lay in ruin and seventy civilians were dead, most of them women and children. The cry of “massacre” went out.
The airwaves brought the news to Sharett. “I was simply horrified by the description in Radio Ramallah’s broadcast of the destruction of the Arab village.” He said he had “walked up and down in my room, helpless and utterly depressed by my feeling of impotence.”44
Ben-Gurion drove in from Galilee for the reckoning. He was brimming with self-assurance. Europe, the United Nations, and America were all in an uproar. The chargé d’affaires and defense attaché from the American embassy had told Sharett that the raid had stunned the Eisenhower administration, where there was already talk of cutting off aid to Israel. The Americans asked pointedly whether Israel would disavow the action, but Sharett evaded the question. How could he tell them he wasn’t really in charge?
Before the cabinet, Sharett “condemned the Qibya affair that exposed us in front of the whole world as a gang of blood-thirsty purveyors of large-scale massacres, unconcerned it seems whether such actions may lead to war.”45
Ben-Gurion disagreed. He demanded the authority to write the government communiqué on the raid, and when the draft reached Sharett’s desk, he was astounded by Ben-Gurion’s nerve. He had invented the fiction that the army had nothing to do with the raid: rather, the massacre had been carried out by enraged civilians in the border region who had taken justice into their own hands.
“No one in the world will believe such a story and we shall expose ourselves as liars,” Sharett told government ministers. But Sharett also balked at telling the Israeli public and the world the truth. No majority in the cabinet favored confessing to a brutal mission carried out against defenseless civilians by a secret army commando unit. The army was sacrosanct. Ben-Gurion’s artifice allowed the cabinet to condemn the violence and protect the military establishment.
On October 19, Ben-Gurion’s communiqué, which he read out on national radio, informed Israelis and the world that “we’ve done a thorough investigation and found that no unit, not even the smallest of the IDF’s forces, was AWOL from its base on the night of the attack.” It was possible, Ben-Gurion continued, “that a group of civilians, tired of the fedayeen’s infiltrations, decided to avenge the blood of the fallen. The government of Israel had no part in the action, wishes to distance itself from such actions, and condemns the citizens who took the law into their own hands.”46
In the cabinet meeting, Ben-Gurion told the ministers that he had not been informed in advance of the Qibya raid—obviously an untruth given that he had presided over the planning in Galilee—but if he had, he said, he would have approved it. Sharett told the leadership of Mapai that he was going to resign as acting prime minister because it was a sham. Ben-Gurion was deceiving both the public and his colleagues.
The Qibya raid created an atmosphere of deception and duplicity in the upper ranks of the military. Hundreds of Israelis, because they participated in the raid, lived near the border, or knew someone who did, understood that Ben-Gurion was lying when he said on national radio that the army had not been involved in the massacre of civilians. In a small society, such news spread rapidly and invested much of the population in perpetuating a blatant falsehood in the name of security, a trait that would become ingrained in sabra culture. Military censors kept the truth out of the newspapers, and Israelis, as they had during the War of Independence, internalized the lie as part of the propaganda of the state.
At first, Major Scheinerman was offended by Ben-Gurion’s disavowal. In the midst of the Qibya outcry, Ben-Gurion had summoned the young soldier to his office in Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion surprised him by inquiring whether the men in his unit were politically reliable: Would they take orders and maintain discipline? In other words, were they loyal to Ben-Gurion and the Mapai? Or did they come from the right-wing underground, which might subject them to other pressures? Scheinerman gave him all the assurances he seemed to need.
When he turned to Qibya, Ben-Gurion said, “It doesn’t make any real difference about what will be said about Qibya around the world. The important thing is how it will be looked at here in this region. This is going to give us the possibility of living here.”47 Scheinerman felt that he had been indoctrinated into a great enterprise.
“I knew that Ben-Gurion was talking about the years in which we had had no answer to give to terrorism,” he later wrote. “But now we had an answer, a unit that would force those who wanted us dead to take notice and think again about what they were doing.”48
That was the day Ben-Gurion conferred an even greater honor on Scheinerman: “I think it’s time to give you a Hebrew name.” He took note that Scheinerman had grown up in Kfar Malal, part of the lush coastal Sharon Plain that runs to the Mediterranean. “You’ll be Sharon,” Ben-Gurion declared, pleased that he had connected two things he loved: the geography of Israel and brash sabra leadership. Thus Ariel Sharon was baptized by the father of the state.
Copyright © 2012 by Patrick Tyler
Map: Israel and Its Neighbors ix
Prologue: Murder in Tehran 3
Ben-Gurion: The Origins of Militarism 21
The Destruction of Israel's Second Prime Minister 49
Suez Crisis: Ben-Gurion Goes to War 78
Israel as "Detonator" 99
The Rise of the Generals 134
Six-Day War: The Military Revolts 160
War as Policy: Nasser and the PLO 191
The High Price of Militarism: Yom Kippur 229
Rabin: From General to Prime Minister 244
Begin: A Peace to Enable War 263
The Sabra Caesar: Sharon in Lebanon 303
Protecting the Ruling Elite 320
Intifada: The Intimate Enemy Awakes 329
Peace Strategy: The New Yitzhak 349
Oslo: Wary Generals Waging Peace 363
Bibi Against the Military Elite 382
Barak: The Arrogance of Power 412
Sharon: The Last Campaign Against Arafat 434
At Wit's End: Killing the Paraplegic Preacher 454
Olmerl: Putting Lebanon Back Twenty Years 463
War(on Syria)War(on Gaza)War(on Iran?) 477