Obituary: Maj-Gen Aharon Yariv
Tuesday 17 May 1994
AHARON YARIV died just at the time when his 'revolutionary' ideas for talking to the 'extremist' Arabs were coming to fruition. When Minister of Information in 1975 in an Israeli government dominated by Mapai, Labour's predecessors, he shocked his colleagues by suggesting that, under certain conditions, Israel should be prepared to have talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat.
His conditions for negotiations were almost identical with those demanded by the present Labour prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, for recognising the PLO - and accepted by Arafat. However, Yariv 20 years ago was reprimanded by the then Foreign Minister, the redoubtable Yigal Allon. Realising that his ministerial post had no independence and merely required him to voice government orthodoxies, Yariv resigned.
Although his three principal conditions were the same as Rabin's, Yariv laid more emphasis on the PLO's renouncing the clause in the Palestinian National Charter calling for the destruction of Israel:
As long as they stand for the covenant, we cannot even start to negotiate; there is no starting point. You have to to have some basis. I am fully prepared to negotiate at any time with Egypt and Syria, although I know we disagree with them, because there is some kind of framework. With the PLO at present there is none.
However, Rabin was to lay more emphasis on Yariv's third condition - the elimination of terrorism. Israel is still awaiting the excision of the offensive clause in the PLO covenant, even after the signing of the historic agreement in Cairo the week before last.
Yet Yariv's lasting fame depends not on his prescience as a politician, though he was both an astute negotiator and an excellent communicator. Israelis, so predominantly concerned with security and of knowing or guessing the evil schemes being concocted by their enemies, will always put him on a special pedestal for being the architect of the Israel Defence Forces' modern intelligence doctrine and apparatus. His cool and meticulous collection of facts about the Arab armies, their strength and their weakness, the characters of the Arab generals and leaders and the use of both technological hearing and photographic devices, allied to dependable agents on the ground, provided the Israeli forces with immense advantages. He recognised that even some apparently trivial facts could be of outstanding use. Thus, the devastating strike by Israel's air force against the Egyptians air fields at the start of the Six Day War in 1967 was made more effective by the knowledge that the Egyptian pilots and anti-aircraft gunners would be absent from their posts at a precise time in the morning - away enjoying their breakfast.
After Israel's great triumph which led to the occupation of the Golan Heights, Sinai, the West Bank and Gaza and, above all, the old city of Jerusalem, Yariv was accused by a journalist of having exaggerated the dangers facing Israel in order to put pressure on the doves in the Cabinet of Levy Eshkol reluctant to give approval for the army's pre-emptive strike. This charge was duly investigated by a judge but Yariv was cleared of all blame.
Israeli ministers and generals saw it was a tragedy for the nation that Yariv retired from his post of Chief of the Intelligence branch of the IDF; a post he held from 1961 to 1972, during which time he won the respect and even admiration of Western military and intelligence officers, before the Yom Kippur war in 1973. He was succeeded by General Eli Ze'ira who, according to the commander of the Intelligence Branch's Data Compilation Unit, consistently dismissed all indications - and they were numerous - of the coming damaging war. 'You should have come to me,' Yariv remarked to the commander. This was not a vainglorious comment. The IDF believed that it would not have been taken so humiliatingly by surprise and suffered so many casualties had Yariv still been in charge of military intelligence.
Emerging from the shadows of intelligence, Yariv became a well-known figure to the Israeli public and media during and after the war. Even hardened, cynical media men were impressed by his handling of a press conference after the first days of disasters on the Suez and Golan fronts. Admitting that ministers had given too optimistic and inaccurate assessments he yet managed to convince the anxious reporters that all was not yet lost, stressing that he was 'cautiously hopeful'. After Israel's dramatic crossing of the Suez Canal and trapping of a whole Egyptian army, Yariv was asked to negotiate on 'Kilometre 101' the disengagement of forces with the Egyptian Chief of Staff, General Mohamed Gamassy.
Intelligence remained Yariv's main preoccupation and he found an ideal vehicle for utilising his gifts by establishing the Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Yariv was regarded as Israel's premier civilian strategist, breaking the defence establishment's monopoly over strategic studies and debate in Israel. The centre is now recognised as one of the foremost of its kind in the world.
He was born Aharon Rabinovich in Latvia in 1920 (but became Yariv as all those serving in the Israeli armed forces were required to adopt Hebrew names). Having arrived in Israel as a youngster from Latvia in 1935, he joined the Hagana, the Jewish communal defence force, and, on the outbreak of the Second World War, the British army. He transferred, when the opportunity arose, to the Jewish Brigade.
He was profoundly moved when he helped in the freeing of Jewish concentration camp victims in Europe. He had a successful career in the Israeli army, reaching the rank of major-general, and then became military attache in Washington and Ottawa.
Aharon Yariv owed a great deal to his brother Gutman (Gutka) Rabinovich, general manager of the Israeli evening newspaper Maariv. When their father died at an early age, Rabinovich took over responsibility for the young Aharon. Different political views did not spoil their mutual affection. Gutman Rabinovich, father of the present Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Professor Itamar Rabinovich, was a fervent right-winger. Yariv remained a mildly left-wing dove but one with sharp claws.
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