Commentary Magazine

Dayan as Politician

It was, I believe, the Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk who, in a newspaper article published years ago, compared Moshe Dayan to the Kennedys. He was referring, as I recall, to a rough-edged elegance of action, a kind of democratic “class,” and perhaps, too, to that peculiar quality of fatedness that we associate with the lives of our heroes. The average politician who attains power over our lives does so, more often than not, through a combination of cunning, determination, hard work, and sheer luck, sometimes more luck than he deserves; yet luck is a different thing from Fortune, and few of our public figures are suspected by us of being protégés of the latter. We recognize them, it would seem, by their violent mishaps no less than by their successes, Fortune being a goddess whose favors the cautious beware. Dayan’s credentials seem authentic enough. They include an eye shot out by a sniper during a reconnaissance patrol for the British in Lebanon in 1941; an only brother killed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; being buried alive by a landslide during a private, and illegal, archeological expedition in 1969; romantic scandals; a divorce. But the clincher, of course, is that piratical eye-patch, worn almost jauntily, like a crack regimental beret. To make off with such a souvenir from death has always been a mark of the hero.

It may come as a surprise to learn from Shabtai Teveth’s newly-published and well-researched biography of Dayan1 that he has on several occasions resorted to painful and unsuccessful plastic surgery in an effort to be able to dispense with the eye-patch, yet rather than disillusion us as to his motives for wearing it, this is simply more likely to confirm our suspicion that once a man has taken on a public self he does not easily cast it off again. Not that Dayan has ever shown signs of feeling uncomfortably confined by this self, whose political benefits he obviously enjoys—yet just what he thinks of it is another matter. Indeed, watching him expertly play with the press on the television screen, with that lopsided, mischievous grin of his, that unflappable self-confidence, that barely perceptible sense of detachment that never seems wider than the crack between an accomplished actor and his role, one sometimes wonders what he thinks about anything. This too is part of his political charm. One often hears Israelis arguing over what Dayan really believes about this or that, which is not something they do with Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Yigal Allon, or Pinchas Sapir. The others, unjustly perhaps, are assumed to have minds like their speeches; and if they are keeping any secrets from the nation, these are presumably as untitillating as their public appearances. Dayan, on the other hand, has the excitement of a good mystery: one never knows, or at least one likes to think one never knows, just what he will say or do next. To his admirers, his behavior is brilliantly pragmatic; to his critics, dangerously inconstant. The public, as far as can be judged, approves of it well enough. A recent public-opinion poll to determine the most popular candidate to succeed Mrs. Meir, who has been threatening with increasing persistence to step down as prime minister either before or right after the November 1973 elections, showed Dayan ahead of his closest contender, education minister Allon, by 69 to 21 per cent, and of his two other most frequently mentioned rivals, foreign minister Eban and finance minister Sapir, by even more.

Teveth’s biography does not throw much light on where Dayan is heading politically, but it is informative about where he has come from, and it is certainly the first book about him to go beyond conventional panegyrics and attempt to deal with him in all his considerable complexity.2 The author, a reporter for the liberal daily Ha’aretz, had the advantage in this of a good working relationship with his subject (one presumably acquired while writing a previous book, The Cursed Blessing, a favorable study of Israeli military policy in the occupied West Bank), who agreed to make available to him a large number of private papers and sometimes surprisingly frank reminiscences, especially from the periods of his childhood and youth. It is the first part of Teveth’s book, in fact, which deals with Dayan’s early years as the son of Russian halutzim. in the malarial Valley of Jezreel, and later, with his initiation into the Haganah, that is the most interesting, not least because it nicely evokes an entire era of Palestinian-Jewish life which, though only a generation or two removed from us in time, already seems far more so in terms of human experience. As the biography nears the present, on the other hand, this richness of detail begins to thin; one can practically sense both Dayan himself and Teveth’s other informants growing more reticent by the page; and, forced to fall back on more conventional sources, the narrative suffers. This is especially true of the treatment of the years since the 1967 war, which have marked Dayan’s return from political limbo to a position of national power exceeded only by Mrs. Meir’s. It is here, precisely where one’s curiosity is greatest, that the man slips tantalizingly back again behind the legend.



Teveth is not one of those biographers who feel the regrettable compulsion to novelize their material, nor, less happily perhaps, does his style ever range beyond journalese, yet there is something novelistic nonetheless in his ability to sketch a credible character with a few broad strokes and then follow the lines of development over several hundred pages as they alternately branch off and converge. His portrait of Dayan’s parents, certainly, might almost have been taken from the pages of a European Bildungsroman: the stubborn, hard-nosed, egotistical father, his devotion to his Zionist work a frequently convenient mask for his own consuming ambition, and the gentle, long-suffering, artistic mother, striving to transmit a love of finer things to her children in the midst of a meager material life. In the typical novel, of course, the son grows up to be an artist, much to the chagrin of his father, who had dreamed of seeing him become a famous man of action and affairs. Curiously, however, Dayan himself seems always to have felt closer to his mother; as a child his chief talent was drawing, an ability he has retained to this day; and of his own children, one has become a competent writer and the other an actor and screen star. Even as a politician Dayan has on occasion been known to strike an unexpectedly lyrical note. Consider, for example, the following impromptu remarks made in 1969, which Teveth does not cite in his book. Asked by an Israeli reporter whether, as commander of the military occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he did not feel discomfited by the “looks of hate” directed at him by the conquered population, he replied:

As a boy, when I used to travel a lot about the Valley of Jezreel with my father, we often ran into Arabs. In winter especially they used to cover their faces entirely with their headcloths, so that only their noses and eyes were left showing. My father, who wasn’t born in this country—he came here from Russia when he was seventeen—used to say to me: “Just look at them, there’s murder in their eyes!” But those Arabs weren’t murderers, they were just simple peasants, and because it was rainy, and because they were cold, they wrapped their faces all around. All you could see of them were those glittering black eyes. To me they were beautiful. My father thought that he recognized in them the looks he remembered from [the Russian peasants in] his little village in Russia, but that still didn’t make murderers of those Arabs. . . .

One hardly knows which is more striking: the memory itself, the deft yet gentle rebuke of the reporter, or the fact that something so authentically if simply poetic should have survived in such a man and disingenuously chosen to surface, of all places, at a televised press conference.

Dayan generally has been associated with a “hawkish” line toward the Arabs, an identification that would on the whole seem to be correct as regards his positions on military policy and on returning or bargaining away the occupied territories. At the same time, as both Teveth and a number of other Israeli commentators have pointed out, there is a streak of stubborn caution in him that belies the reputation for recklessness that he has acquired. It is relatively little known, for instance, that during the Six-Day War Dayan gave the army express (and unobeyed) orders not to advance to the Suez Canal and was the last member of the cabinet to hold out against attacking the Syrian Golan Heights, or that he was highly skeptical of the wisdom of the Israeli decision to bomb Egyptian industrial installations during the fighting along the Canal in 1970—in all three cases, apparently, because of his fears of Russian reaction. Moreover, he has consistently argued for more liberal policies toward the Arab inhabitants of the “territories,” and has often enacted them on his own initiative by virtue of his powers as minister of defense. In this he has been more moderate than such “dovish” ministers as Eban or Sapir—or, for that matter, Mrs. Meir herself, who in a recent interview declared her view of Israel’s ideal borders to be, “The less Arabs [within them] the better, the less Arabs the better!”

Israeli attitudes toward both Arabs in general and the “territories” in particular are far more complex than some observers in Israel, and most outside it, assume. There are, of course, out-and-out annexationists who are perfectly oblivious of the rights or feelings of the Arabs involved, just as there are anti-annexationists who are deeply concerned about both; but there are also many Israelis who are willing to run the considerable risk of holding on to a large Arab population against its will because, on a human level at least, they are genuinely unprejudiced toward it and assume—naively perhaps—that a modus vivendi can eventually be worked out, just as there are many others who would return as much territory as possible, not because political morality demands it but because the mere thought of having so many Arab neighbors makes them uncomfortable. These conflicting attitudes have commonly been attributed to a “generation gap” in Israel between young and old, or between native-born Sabras and foreign-born immigrants (Dayan, in his reply to the reporter, seemed to imply both), but the reality would appear to cut across such simple categories and to rest upon a broader stratum of sensibilities, values, and beliefs.

Politically, too, the lines run every which way. Which, for instance, is to be considered the more “pro-” and which the more “anti-” Arab platform: that of the Israeli Right, which has called for immediate annexation of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, accompanied by the immediate offering of full Israeli citizenship to their inhabitants, or that of the Labor government, which pays homage to the principle of returning a maximum number of conquered Arabs to Arab jurisdiction, but seems content in the meantime to rule them indefinitely as stateless non-citizens of nowhere? And what, in theory at least, is one to make of the curious if no doubt superficial resemblance of the first position to the call of the revolutionary Left for a democratic, bi-national Palestinian state in which both Jews and Arabs are to live side by side and enjoy equal political rights? Dayan’s own attitude toward Arabs, as Teveth describes it, has been nothing if not ambivalent from childhood on, but he is probably the only high-ranking politician in Israel today possessing the capacity to empathize with them and with their culture in anything but the most abstract sense.

Though Dayan has spoken out repeatedly against the idea of making Israeli citizens out of the Arabs of the “territories,” arguing, undoubtedly correctly, that this is the last thing they themselves want, he has in the last year or two moved decidedly closer to the annexationist position of the Right. One need only compare his much-quoted remark made in the summer of 1967 about waiting for a “telephone call” from Hussein with his recent statements about the need to consider Israel the permanent authority in the “territories” and his intimations that he would oppose any peace treaty based on returning to Jordan even that truncated portion of the West Bank carved out by the so-called “Allon Plan,” whose terms are presently as close as the government of Israel has come to an official policy toward the “territories.” In part, no doubt, this shift reflects an inner evolution in his assessment of both the desirability and the feasibility of keeping the “territories” in one form or another, though just how he envisions this being done he has never made terribly clear. (To judge by his latest pronouncements Dayan seems to believe that the inhabitants of the “territories” should remain—or in the case of the Gaza Strip, become—Jordanian subjects, be ruled by Israel, and live in a Palestinian enclave open to Jewish settlement that would be part of neither country and whose exact status would be left to work itself out over the course of time.) In part, too, however, the change clearly stems from his desire to preserve the domestic political option of an “opening to the Right” should his bid to succeed Mrs. Meir as prime minister be stymied, as it shows almost every likelihood of being.



It might be deemed curious by some that the Labor party3 would be loath to nominate for the prime ministry its most popular figure, a military hero who has proved himself an able political strategist and civilian administrator and whose candidacy would be almost sure to turn out a record Labor vote, but this is merely to show an ignorance of the Byzantine ways of Israeli political life. Political memories die hard in Israel, particularly among the veterans of Labor, who remember the sins of their children unto the third and fourth generations. Dayan indeed has several generations of sins to atone for. The first was when, after retiring as chief-of-staff in 1958 and joining the cabinet as minister of agriculture under Ben-Gurion’s aegis, he let himself become a rallying-point for Mapai’s “young Turks” in a series of futile assaults on the party’s entrenched leadership, which included at the time both Sapir and Mrs. Meir. The second was his joining Ben-Gurion as second-in-command of the breakaway Rafi faction, which split with Mapai in 1965 but did poorly in the elections of that year and rejoined the mother party after the Six-Day War. (The formal cause of the traumatic break between Ben-Gurion and the party he had led for three decades was of course that sordid combination of foreign intrigue and domestic scandal known as the Lavon Affair, the repercussions of which led in the end to a factional revolt that pitted Ben-Gurion and a generation of younger politicians, most prominent among them Dayan, against the party whips and bosses who had once been his most ardent supporters. The “revolt” was beaten back by the party bureaucracy, led by Mrs. Meir, Sapir, and the late Levi Eshkol, who was prime minister at the time it broke out, and Ben-Gurion retired from active political life soon after the subsequent elections.) Dayan’s third sin was his willingness to be available for the defense ministry in the frantic weeks before the 1967 war, when an opposition front of Rafi, the National Religious party (NRP), and the Free Liberals or Gahal4 mounted a powerful campaign to force Levi Eshkol to surrender the post—traditionally in Israel a preserve of the prime minister—as the price for the formation of a wall-to-wall “government of national unity.”

It was this Putsch, as Eshkol bitterly referred to it to his dying day, that brought Dayan back into national life after the Rafi debacle. Even when he played an instrumental role in leading Rafi back into the merged Labor party in 1968, Dayan continued publicly to declare his intention of deposing the old Mapai machine. Since then he has grown a good deal more circumspect in his dealings with the Labor leadership, and especially with Mrs. Meir, with whom a relationship of grudging mutual respect is said to have been formed, but it is clear that even she has come neither to trust nor to forgive him entirely. In any case, the Labor party learned a clear lesson from its break with Ben-Gurion: the political leader who is too popular in his own right is not one to feel that he needs the party machinery to survive, and is likely, in fact, to turn on it one day and seek to devour it. Hence the further suspicion of Dayan, and the party’s clear preference for finance minister Sapir, a backroom politician of unsympathetic mien and a rather comical speech defect who is primarily associated in the public mind with the periodic raising of taxes, hardly a role to inspire affection in the hearts of a populace.



Should Mrs. Meir step down before the November elections, or else wait to resign until she has first guided Labor to its predictable victory at the polls, Dayan will be faced with three options. One is to seek to contest the prime ministership at Labor’s nominating convention which will meet to pick Mrs. Meir’s successor. As the delegates to this assembly, however, are not chosen in open primaries but through a complicated system of balloting in local clubhouses, labor unions, and other party organs, the terrain for Dayan—the same on which Ben-Gurion was beaten in 1965—would be unfavorable, to say the least. Short of an atmosphere of military crisis such as in 1967, his chances of mustering a majority in his favor would be practically nil. His second option would be to support Sapir or any other Labor candidate that the party might decide on for prime minister in return for a firm commitment that he will be allowed to keep the defense ministry for as long as he wishes. Such an accommodation would have obvious advantages for both sides. For the Labor party it would mean retaining Dayan’s talents and popular backing while neutralizing him as a political threat; moreover, should there ever be a show-down with the second Nixon administration over the disposition of the occupied territories, the “doves” in the cabinet would feel far more secure with Dayan there beside them. Dayan, for his part, would be able to avoid a bitter intra-party struggle in which he would not be at his best, and would retain the defense desk with its fiefdom of the occupied territories, whose unique legal status has enabled him to rule over them through a system of personal fiat enjoyed by no other politician in Israel. And yet, an arrangement of this sort might well spell the end of Dayan’s prime-ministerial ambitions. He is, after all, in his late fifties already, and although age has rarely proved a detriment in Israeli politics to date, his chances of capturing the party machinery could hardly improve as he grows older.

Dayan’s third option would be to bolt the Labor party at the right moment and run on a slate of his own, as did Ben-Gurion in 1965. Any number of scenarios can be imagined for such a move, but in almost all of them the issue of the occupied territories would be sure to play a crucial role. Soon after the 1973 elections, to take one possibility, Dayan might resign his position, declaring that he cannot conscientiously serve under a prime minister like Sapir, of whose policies he thoroughly disapproves. Some time in 1974, after a period of increasingly strained relations with Washington, the government gives in to heavy American pressure and agrees to a deal with Hussein, who is to get back most of the occupied West Bank in return for a peace treaty, Israeli retention of Jerusalem, and minor border alterations elsewhere. A fierce national debate breaks out; the government is dissolved and new elections are scheduled. Dayan joins the Right-of-Center parties in denouncing the proposed agreement and declares his candidacy for office. Of course, he campaigns on other planks too, such as the democratization of Israeli politics, the debureaucratization of government, rationalization of the economy, tax reform, increased social benefits for the poor—in a word, the very program with which the “young Turks” of Mapai, many of whom later went over to Rafi, were identified in the early 60’s. But it is the issue of the territories that would give his campaign its dramatic emotional thrust.

Even in the best of circumstances, Dayan could hardly be expected to gain anything like an absolute majority in the Knesset. His strategy would rather have to be geared to winning enough votes to be able to offer himself at the head of a Right-of-Center coalition that would include his own makeshift party, the NRP, Gahal, and one or two small splinter groups. Would such a realignment, without precedent in the history of Israeli politics, be feasible? There is a tendency in Israel to assume that any attempt to challenge the Labor machine is doomed from the start, the prime case in point being the failure in 1965 of Ben-Gurion, certainly a more popular figure at the time than any of his Mapai rivals who humbled him first within the party and then at the polls. The comparison, however, is of dubious value. In the first place, apart from the Lavon Affair, which the public neither cared about nor even understood, Ben-Gurion had no dramatic issue to run on; secondly, unjustifiedly perhaps, the public image he was stuck with in 1965 was that of a cantankerous old man opposed to change and the surrender of power. Finally, because years of personal feuding with the parties of the Right had ruled out in advance any chance of his forming a coalition with them, a vote for Ben-Gurion’s Rafi was automatically one for an ineffective and isolated opposition. Statistically, Dayan’s chances would have to be reckoned as good. The results of the 1969 elections, for example, show that his potential Right-of-Center allies received some 35 per cent of the total national vote and an equal share of seats in the Knesset. Suppose that running on a ticket of his own he might draw away a third of this vote; he would then need another third of the roughly 50 per cent of the electorate that traditionally votes Labor in order to make such a coalition possible. Half of this total could presumably be counted on to come from the same voters who cast their ballots for Rafi in 1965. In view of Dayan’s immense personal appeal, especially if he were running against an unpopular candidate like Sapir, the other half would not be beyond reach.

The effect on Israel of such a development would be little short of revolutionary. Its most immediate result, of course, would be the breaking of the hitherto uninterrupted hegemony over Israeli political life of the Labor bloc, which has governed the country continually since 1948, and indeed, going back to the Jewish yishuv of the pre-state era, since the late 20’s or early 30’s, when it defeated Jabotinsky’s Revisionists for control of the Zionist movement. (Perhaps the only other political party in a contemporary democracy that can be compared to Labor in Israel with regard to longevity in power is the Congress party in India, which has achieved its position through a similar combination of controlling a pre-state independence movement almost from its inception, implicating itself in numerous ways in the fabric of a planned, semi-socialist economy, and broadly straddling the political Center so as effectively to isolate both Left and Right and prevent either from mounting a serious political challenge.) No less than the objective upheaval, which would involve a highly complex readjustment of the many interlocking institutions of both Labor and the government, would be the psychological one, whose impact could be expected to be even greater than that caused by Ben-Gurion’s final dethronement in 1964-65. At that time the country discovered, not without a sense of relief, that it could live after all without the man who had stood almost continually at its helm since before independence. What most Israelis still do not feel, however, is any sense of confidence that they can survive without Labor. It is precisely this feeling, in fact, that has traditionally been Labor’s strongest ally at the polls, and that has helped prevent the development in Israel of a functioning two-party system with its regular and revitalizing alternations of power.



Yet once elected to office in so free-wheeling a manner, Dayan might have relatively little freedom of action. The idea is sometimes mooted in Israel, for example, that Dayan as prime minister could deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict as did de Gaulle with the war in Algeria—namely, by backtracking on his own campaign promises and making far-reaching concessions to the other side that no other politician in the country could propose without being pilloried for treason. But apart from the questions of just what concessions might be made, whether Dayan would be personally inclined to make them, and whether anyone on the Arab side would be ready to accept, such a course of action seems highly unlikely given the Right-of-Center coalition posited. Even in France, after all, Gaullism as a political technique was only made workable through the overthrow of the Fourth Republic, the consequent shift from a prime-ministerial to a presidential system, and the attainment of a Gaullist majority in parliament, changes whose parallels are hardly thinkable within an Israeli context. Nor does it stand to reason that Dayan, with his open distaste for the give-and-take of parliamentary maneuvering and political horsetrading, could be successful in forging out of the fragmented Israeli Right something approaching the political unity of the Labor bloc. It has been another of Labor’s consistent advantages, indeed, that the Right-of-Center parties in Israel have always been hopelessly split against themselves, partly along religious lines (the establishmentarianism of the NRP as opposed to the anti-clericalism of the Liberal faction of Gahal), partly on issues of foreign policy (the hard line of Herut against the softer one of the Liberals), and partly over personalities (particularly that of Herut leader Menahem Beigin, who has frequently been accused by his colleagues of treating the Israeli Right as his own private domain). In short, Dayan at the head of a Right-of-Center coalition might well find himself in a precarious parliamentary position, one that would be conducive neither to his own penchant for personal decision-making nor to the kind of authority that his supporters would expect him to exercise. It could spell disaster from the start.

. . . It may be this calculation, far more than any sense of loyalty to Labor itself, that is liable in the end to deter Dayan from bolting the party a second time. Indeed, he has repeatedly stated in recent years that he regards his present association with Labor to be a marriage of convenience that he would not hesitate to break off again if it suited him, an attitude, one gathers from Teveth’s book, that has characterized his relationship to nearly every group he has ever been part of. Ironically, the one time in his public life that Dayan allowed a strong sense of fealty to override his tactical sense was when he reluctantly followed Ben-Gurion into Rafi in 1965 despite his conviction that the new list would fail at the polls and had an unpromising political future. It was a decision that nearly cost him his political career, and he is unlikely to go against his better judgment again. If he is the gambler by nature that popular opinion asserts him to be, he is, as Teveth portrays him, a thoroughly professional one who dislikes betting against the odds and has a pronounced aversion to long shots.

Perhaps in the final analysis Dayan’s behavior in the future will be a matter of just how badly he wants the prime-ministership, and this is something that apparently even his closest associates do not profess to know. No doubt he prefers it this way; it is part of the mystery—and the mystique. Recently he has been quoted in the Israeli press as hinting that he is not really all that eager for the job; that the defense ministry is challenge enough for him; and that he fears that the task of running a nation of incorrigible civilians like the Israelis would both tire and frustrate him. Perhaps so; yet in view of the fact that in Israel it is generally considered to be in poor taste for a politician to express the desire to be elected to any office at all—it should rather be resignedly accepted as an unavoidable burden imposed either from above or below—such remarks need not be taken too seriously. All in all, it is likely that Dayan will sooner or later be driven to run, as much by his own native ambition as by his barely-concealed disdain for his potential rivals. It may simply not be in his blood to do otherwise. This too, like as not, is the price of being a favorite of Fortune. Such men may indeed gamble coolly, but in the end they are as compulsive as the most hapless hunch-player, and no more likely to get up from the table before either they or the bank have been broken. To walk away with one’s winnings, after all, is to admit that one has merely been lucky until now. Dayan will probably not be the first to succeed Mrs. Meir as prime minister, but it seems safe to hazard the guess that we will see him there yet.




1 Moshe Dayan, The Soldier, The Man, The Legend, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London); to be published here in February by Houghton Mifflin, translated by Leah and David Zinder, 373 pp., $8.95.

2 Unfortunately, much of this complexity is lost in the rather stiff English translation, from which close to 40 per cent of the original Hebrew text has been cut. In his introductory remarks to the English edition, Teveth gallantly takes the blame for this himself, stating that he wished to “select out certain passages which [are] of less vital interest to the non-Israeli reader.” But it is difficult not to suspect in all this the heavy hand of the publisher. On p. 39 of the Hebrew, for example, Teveth tells the story of how once, as a child, when Dayan wished to play with a ball that his parents had given another child as a present and was persistently rebuffed, he took it in his teeth and bit a hole in it; in the English text this episode, as well as many like it, fails to appear, though it is difficult to discern what about it was deemed inappropriate for the English reader. Even when passages have been cut that do deal at length with the intricacies of Israeli politics or history, these are often precisely the ones that are needed to place Dayan's actions in some sort of meaningful perspective. Surely the publishers might have let the English reader decide for himself what to read; failing this, they might at least have acknowledged that their editing was determined more by considerations of length and the economics of the trade than by their concern for the public's powers of concentration.

3 The current Israel Labor party is the product of a merger of several social-democratic parties that took place in 1968. The senior partner in the merger, the Israel Workers party or Mapai, had dominated Israeli-Palestinian politics ever since its foundation in 1930, and had controlled each of Israel's coalition governments since 1948.

4 A parliamentary bloc composed of the right-wing Herut or Freedom party, and the Right-of-Center Liberals.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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