Israel’s Security Men: The Arab-Fighting Political Careers of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak
by Thomas Mitchell (McFarland 2015) pp. 256 $35
Since the Six Day War in 1967, the tendency of IDF chiefs of staff to enter the political bearpit has been accentuated. Those who left under a cloud, such as David Elazar and Dan Halutz, probably were unlikely to pass over into this unholy of unholies; recent members of this elite, such as Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, may well be biding their time. While Dan Shomron went on to chair Israel Military Industries, it was only the lanky Moshe Levi – Moshe v’hetzi – who had the good grace to retire to his kibbutz. In the past, figures such as Mordechai Maklef and Haim Laskov entered public life to make a non-political contribution to Israeli society, but since 1967 the honored post of IDF head has been transformed into a shoo-in for a ministerial position. Accordingly the author of this interesting tome, Thomas Mitchell, argues that generals are given too much authority on departure from the military – and this, he believes, is demonstrated by the roller-coaster politics in which they immediately involve themselves.
In Israel’s Security Men: The Arab-Fighting Political Careers of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, Mitchell looks at these four “Arab-fighters” turned politicians. Sharon, of course, famously was not appointed to head the IDF because he was often economical with the facts.
As Rabin told him when accepting him back into the fold: “Your trouble is, – though, that people tend to believe you’re not a decent human being. I don’t know you well enough to say, I want to promote you, but I’ve got to be sure that your accusers aren’t right.”
Yet while Mitchell attempts to project a psychoanalysis of the inconsistent and often insulting Sharon in terms of his family background, “The Bulldozer” was revered as prime minister, someone who silenced the Islamist suicide bomber and broke the stranglehold of the official Left and Right.
Rabin – whom Sharon compared to Marshal Petain, the leader of Vichy France, shortly before his assassination – is depicted by the author as “an Israeli Eisenhower.” On his return to Israel from his post as ambassador to the US, Rabin criticized both Dayan and Golda Meir for implying the Palestinians had no right to control their destiny; he never cared for the kippa-wearing West Bank settlers – whom he referred to as “propeller heads.”
Rabin’s first term of office was anything but a success; the Labor Party was in moral as well as political decline. Yet his willingness to resign after his wife’s misdemeanor in possessing a bank account in Washington marked him out from other politicians. Rabin’s inability to act out the public perception of programmed politicians endeared him to many – not least when he publicly flinched before shaking Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn in 1993.
The author is light on elucidating the ideological approach of each of his chosen subjects. Both Dayan and Sharon were admirers of David Ben-Gurion – and they followed him out of the right wing of the Labor Movement into a liaison with Menachem Begin’s camp. Sharon was the midwife in the birth of the Likud in 1973.
Dayan joined Shimon Peres, Teddy Kollek, Chaim Herzog and others in forming Raft in 1965, and ended up as foreign minister in Be-gin’s first administration in 1977. Dayan’s views on the future of the West Bank after 1967 changed regularly – and he would have seen this as embracing Ben-Gurion’s understanding of political reality. This was part of the attraction of both Dayan and Sharon to their supporters; indeed, Sharon’s volte-face in withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 can be understood in this light.
Rabin on the other hand was a member of Yitzhak Tabenkin’s Ahdut Ha’avoda, which advocated constructing a matrix of kibbutzim on the West Bank after its conquest in 1967; ideological Marxists could also be territorial maximalists. Unlike other members of Ahdut Ha’avoda such as Yigal Alton, Moshe Carmel, Israel Galili and Uzi Narkiss, Rabin did not feel so ideologically deeply attached. When his old commander Alton turned towards dovishness in the 1970s, Rabin followed suit.
Barak, who came from a succeeding generation to the other three, also shared in a common belief – not to be entrapped by the ideology of the past, but to be sufficiently flexible in considering the reality of the present. When they came to power – like Begin – they began to understand the limits of treasured past principles. The transformation from slogan-spouter for the faithful to hard-nosed problem solver for the masses was most noticeable in the figure of Sharon.
Yet Sharon’s transformation in the mid-1990s from pariah to statesman is still shrouded in mystery. Indeed, Mitchell has difficulty in explaining this change. Sharon always considered Benjamin Netanyahu “a political lightweight” – was it this perception that allowed him to become “the wise elder statesman”?
Barak’s time in the Prime Minister’s Office was originally based on the public view that he too was “Mr. Security.” His stewardship of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit was well-known – and he was the one who brought the news of his brother’s death at Entebbe to Netanyahu. But at the same time, he did not exude fidelity to yesterday’s “red lines” that many others, including Netanyahu, exhibited. In negotiations with the Palestinians, he was ready to officially divide an already divided Jerusalem.
The author shows that Barak commissioned a couple of opinion polls each week. Did Barak alter his approach in accordance with the latest poll findings? If not, why the obsession with polls? Was this flexibility or opportunism? Stanley Greenberg, his American pollster, collected $1.5 million during Barak’s short tenure in office.
This is a popular history of these four generals, and a panoramic appraisal of these men – with all their faults and flaws – who understood that the course of Jewish history had changed after 1948.
Jerusalem Post 12 June 2015