Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon once said, “would wake up with a hundred ideas. Of them 95 were dangerous; three more were bad; the remaining two, however, were brilliant.”
The historian Mordechai Bar-On, who has published a new book on his former boss Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero (Yale, £18.99), would argue that the late Israeli defence minister’s strike rate was a little better. The tribute to the Labour politician from a staunch rival like Sharon, however, underscores the high regard in which the war hero is held. Whenever Israelis are polled, they consistently list Dayan as one of their greatest countrymen.
He was a deeply flawed man, politically and personally. The shine was taken off his capture of East Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967 by his perceived incompetence as defence minister during the Yom Kippur War six years later. Nonetheless, he was, along with Yitzhak Rabin, one of the last figures on the Israeli Left to command the respect of a broad section of the country. He combined the steel of a soldier with the wisdom of a man weary of war and became a powerful advocate for peace, helping to craft the Camp David accords.
Today’s Israeli Left could learn a great deal from Dayan. Shattered electorally by the Hamas — boosting disengagement from Gaza, the humiliating second Lebanon war, and the unspoken failure of the Oslo agreements, the Left continues to prefer infighting to political success. Shaul Mofaz’s decision to take his centrist Kadima party into Benjamin Netanyahu’s grand coalition has left Shelly Yachimovich’s Labour and Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid to scrabble for the left-wing vote. Former TV hosts Yachimovich and Lapid were colleagues at Israel’s Channel Two. Even the television personality wing of the Israeli Left can’t get together.
European commentators cite Likud’s strength as evidence of a rightwards lurch in Israel. They fail to understand that Netanyahu’s party sells itself to the electorate as the pragmatic choice. Rak ha-Likud yachol, its perennial slogan boasts, “Only the Likud can” — safeguard the nation, bring peace and create prosperity. Likud is the can-do party of Israeli politics, while the peace camp congregates in seminar rooms to debate the ethics of boycotting products from Judea and Samaria.
Moshe Dayan understood that the Israeli Left had to reassure people of its commitment to their security and sympathy for their aspirations before pursuing grand peace agreements with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has another year before he must call elections but even the gloomiest polls give the national camp a working majority in the Knesset. In its long road back to credibility, Left-Zionism will have to unite around a common platform and win back the confidence of Israelis. They will achieve neither if they do not look to the example of people like Moshe Dayan.