- - Friday, September 21, 2012

By Mordechai Bar-On
Yale University Press, $25, 264 pages

Shortly after Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War, a cartoon appeared simply showing the fabled Egyptian Sphinx sporting a black eye patch. It was one of those wonderful images that needed no words: the man behind his nation’s triumph was Moshe Dayan, who had worn that patch ever since losing his eye during World War II, making it an integral part of his very high public profile. Dayan may not have been a physical giant, but on his country’s stage he was a titanic figure. Zionist pioneer, war hero, statesman, he was another example of how lucky the fledgling Jewish state was in the quality of its leaders.

Like many larger than life figures, Dayan was an extremely complex man and so, as this latest of his biographers, Mordechai Bar-On notes, his “life story has attracted many biographers.” Not to mention what his ex-wife and children have had to say about him. But how many can claim the combination of qualifications that this latest chronicler of his life can offer:

“Having served as his bureau chief in the Sinai campaign in 1956-57, I, like so many, was captivated by his charm and, like only a few, was privileged to know him personally. I spent many hours in his company, followed him into battle, and attended all his meetings with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. I also acted as the secretary of the top-secret meetings held in Paris in preparation of the Suez War and wrote the only existing records of them.”

Suffice it to say that this brief, incisive, elegantly written book is full of up-close and personal glimpses of and insights into the many pivotal roles Dayan played in his nation’s military and political affairs. For me, Mr. Bar-On’s account of those negotiations with the French and the British that set the stage for the Suez War of 1956 and that, astonishingly, remained a secret for decades is worth the price of the book — and more — by itself. Among other jewels it contains is the revelation that the way the beginning stages of the war unfolded was according to Dayan’s plan.

Indeed, as Mr. Bar-On tells us, at a crucial sDiscussing why Dayan never became prime minister, Mr. Bar-On gives us this superbly informed and measured judgment:

“It seems that he was unwilling to make the compromises and sacrifices of his personal freedom that were necessary to reach the top. tage in the talks, “it was clear to Dayan that his problem was not convincing the British, but rather convincing Ben-Gurion.” Here, as elsewhere in his long and distinguished career of service to his nation, Dayan’s supple capacity for strategic and political planning was apparent. As Mr. Bar-On sums up, “Dayan possessed brilliant intuition and often had a grasp on a situation, understanding the problem better than most of his colleagues.” But, of course, as is always the case with any brilliant iconoclast within a bureaucratic structure, such qualities cost him dearly. Discussing why Dayan never became prime minister, Mr. Bar-On gives us this superbly informed and measured judgment:

“It seems that he was unwilling to make the compromises and sacrifices of his personal freedom that were necessary to reach the top. Even had he wanted the premiership, however, Dayan was unlikely to have gotten it because he turned too many of the Israeli political elite against him, enraging them with his outspoken and nonconformist attitudes.”

Close as author and subject were, they grew apart, as Mr. Bar-On, with characteristic acuity and honesty, writes:

“In the 1970s, however, our political paths diverged, and both my fascination with and my criticism of Dayan’s course after the Six Day War find expression in this book.”

But readers need not fear a text bogged down in the minutiae of Israeli political crises and disputes. What Mr. Bar-On’s distancing from Dayan does bring this study is a salutary critical stance that prevents its very justifiable praise and encomia making it simply hagiography. Mr. Bar-On completes his verdict on Dayan by saying that he “always remained true to himself and to the values he held dearest all his life: his love of the land and devotion to Zionism. In his own words, Dayan claimed he only knew how to ‘plow to build the homeland and hold a sword to defend the earth.’” We can accept this as a true epitaph of one of Israel’s great patriots.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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