Moshe Dayan, by Martin van Creveld

A latter-day Nelson who changed history
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The Independent Culture

For more than three decades, Moshe Dayan bestrode the Middle East like a colossus. As the Israeli historian Martin van Creveld avers in this book, Dayan epitomised the kibbutz-born "New Hebrew" of Zionist lore. He effused natural charm, joined the Haganah militia at 14, lost an eye fighting alongside British troops in Vichy-ruled Lebanon, and served in every Israeli war until 1973.

Like a latter-day Nelson, his instant decisions changed history. Fashionable girls in London, Paris and Tokyo sported eye-patches after the Six Day War. Ten years later, in 1977, Dayan became foreign minister. Yet when he died in 1981, he left many unanswered questions. How was he in private? Did he really loot antiques? What was the human cost of his battlefield victories, and why did he never become Israel's prime minister?

Most intriguingly, could Dayan have resolved the current Middle Eastern quagmire? The author's affection for Dayan leads perilously close to hagiography, but his conclusion is compelling. Had illness not cut short his life, Dayan may have forged lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis.

This eminently readable book includes maps, photographs and chronology, along with vignettes like Dayan the penniless "country bumpkin" on his 1935 honeymoon in London. Van Creveld unearths nuances, using the hitherto unheard testimony of former mistresses. Dayan wrote poetry, adored history and archaeology. Yet he neglected his sons and bamboozled wives and lovers. Fearless on the battlefield, he could be erratic and loathed cabinet intrigue. He loved the Bible but denigrated Orthodox Jews and chaotic "Jewish thinking".

Dayan's earliest inspiration was not his socialist father, but the Briton Orde Wingate, sent to Palestine to frustrate Arab rebels. Dayan often fought Arabs ruthlessly; yet he spoke fluent Arabic, and enjoyed sipping coffee with Palestinian notables. As spectacular as his battlefield manoeuvres were, it was his diplomacy that encouraged peace with Egypt. The feeling was mutual: Egyptian POWs sought him out; Cairo sent a large delegation to his funeral.

Dayan was canny: Arabs joked that "Musai" could strip the socks off your feet while leaving your shoes intact. Why, then, was he so hoodwinked by the Arab attack of October 1973? If guilty of hubris, he was not alone. Even so, Israelis demoted him from saviour to scapegoat. All the more remarkable, then, his political rennaisance, when Begin appointed him foreign minister.

By minimising points of confrontation with Palestinians, argues van Creveld, Dayan delayed by 20 years the irruption of intifada . He felt occupation was ultimately untenable, and resigned in 1979 over Begin's "pretence" of autonomy talks with Palestinians. The younger Dayan had helped instigate the 1956 Sinai War. Now he rued Begin's bombast and Sharon's recklessness.

Van Creveld is nostalgic for the Israel Dayan once called "small but brave". However, his book summons up an unnerving sense of déjà vu: surely proof that Dayan's political insights are more valuable than ever.