Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Special Profile Dayan Sought, but Never Completed, His Dialogue with the Arabs

October 19, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

From a historical viewpoint, one task that Moshe Dayan did not complete was his dialogue with the Arabs. Not that Dayan himself ever hoped to complete it. On the contrary, at various stages of his military and political career he spoke about the conflict with the Arabs as a matter for generations.

At the height of the War of Attrition in 1968-9, Dayan, as Defense Minister, had no words of consolation as pictures of young fallen soldiers appeared daily in the press. He repeatedly told the people to be patient, to learn to live with the conflict. Perhaps for that reason he was described as a pessimist by nature.

The peace treaty with Egypt, in which he was involved from the early contacts which led to President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, was, undoubtedly, Dayan’s greatest contribution in this dialogue. However, even then, he never hid his skepticism and was a tough bargainer.


The feeling that Dayan did not complete the dialogue is accentuated by what the Arabs themselves expected from him. Gaza Mayor Rashad A Shawa said over the weekend that Dayan was the one Israeli states man who best understood the Arabs. Such expressions were common also during his life.

Arab leaders — and common people — often said that Dayan was just the person to conclude peace. Despite bitter criticism of Dayan’s role as an enemy, especially as Defense Minister, he was considered as the most favored partner for negotiations.

Unlike most Israeli statesmen, Dayan did not become acquainted with the Arabs only at the negotiating table or only in the battle field. He learned to know them from his early childhood in the fields of Nahalal.

As a child, he often went on excursions in the vicinity of Nahalal, meeting Arab children in fights, as well as in fun. He learned the language, although he never quite mastered it. In negotiations with Arabs later in his life he always preferred English.

He was the first in his class to join older boys and their fathers in skirmishes with the neighboring Arab and Bedouin population. As a youth he established a close friendship with a young Arab, until a major clash between the settlers and the Arabs caused them to break off ties.

From then on Dayan’s relations with the Arabs focused mainly on the battle fields. However, after the War of Independence, Premier David Ben Gurion chose him as his principal advisor on Arab affairs. As commander of the Sixth Brigade in Jerusalem, he was involved in prolonged negotiations with Jordan over the cease-fire. Later he took an active part in the Rhodes Armistice negotiations with Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.


In December 1953, Dayan became Chief of Staff. It was a period of changing rule in Egypt. A year-and-a-half after the overthrow of the monarchy by the “free officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Gen. Mohammad Naguib ruled the country, but four months later, Nasser removed him.

Some Arab affairs experts argue until today that Nasser would have been ripe for some political settlement with Israel. The same experts argue that Dayan was influential in preventing that settlement. Leftwing historian Meir Payil said over the weekend that Dayan probably felt that the War of Independence would not be over until the Egyptians suffered a major blow.

Dayan, of course, argued that the Egyptians were the ones who led to the deterioration. The frequent terrorist attacks from the Gaza Strip, then under Egyptian control, led to the major Israeli raid on Gaza in 1955 which, according to some historians, put an end to any possible compromise with the new Egyptian regime. The swift Israeli victory in the Sinai campaign in 1956 did not bring the Egyptians any closer to peace.


But Dayan retained his reputation as one who understood the “Arab mentality.” As Defense Minister during the Six-Day War he wanted the army to stop short of the banks of the Suez Canal, apparently to leave the door open for negotiations with the Egyptians. However, the fast pace of the war did not allow for such Israeli restraint.

Dayan succeeded in developing the “open bridges” policy with Jordan as well as opening the “Green Line” between Israel proper and the administered territories for a two-way traffic of people and commerce.

The idea which guided this policy was to maintain life in the territories as normal as possible and to create the framework for de facto peaceful relations with neighboring Jordan. But some critics of Dayan, such as Zvi Elpeleg of Tel Aviv University, argued that by opening the bridges across the Jordan River, Dayan actually opened the door to the gradual takeover of the West Bank by the Palestine Liberation Organization.


Dayan’s name was associated with the liberal military occupation of the administered territories His philosophy was to let the Arabs in the territories do whatever they pleased as long as they did not act against the security of Israel. “If they wis to close their schools or shut their shops, let them do so,” he used to say.

He developed a close relationship with Moham mad Ali Al-Jaabari, the Mayor of Hebron, whose role in the 1929 massacre of Hebron Jews is still controversial. Dayan removed Gaza Mayor Rashad A-Shawa from his post after he sheltered a wanted terrorist in his home. But later, Dayan reappointed him as Mayor.

Arabs on the West Bank do not remember Dayan for his “liberal occupation policy” but remember him for his collective punishment for terrorist acts; the demolition of houses whose owners or relatives of owners were involved in terrorism.

“As the Minister responsible for the territories,” said Anwar Nusseibeh, the former Jordanian Defense Minister who had frequent contact with Dayan, “he was responsible for negative acts, such as the demolition of houses and the deportation of (West Bank leaders). But he tried to moderate these acts with a human approach. ” Continuing, Nusseibeh said: “We were, of course, on opposite sides of the fence, but one could not help liking and respecting him. I wish we had him on our side.”

During the first Likud government, Dayan, as Foreign Minister, quietly engaged in what was described as “private talks” with local Palestinian leaders in a futile effort to find alternative partners for negotiations to the PLO. He met with PLO supporters such as Dr. Ahmad Natshe (whom he had deported in the early 1970s) and Khaidah Abdual Shafi of the Gaza region.


Dayan ran on the Telem ticket in the tenth Knesset elections last June with essentially one message: Impose a unilateral autonomy on the West Bank. It was a logical consequence of his old belief that the Arabs in the territories should run their own affairs, with Israel limiting her control to security.

But the Jewish voter, just as his Arab partners for the negotiations, did not show enthusiasm for the idea. Dayan won only two Knesset seats, much to his disappointment. Admitting the defeat, he said he would continue to work toward this end. But in the months after the elections his health deteriorated, and consequently his influence.


Undoubtedly, Dayan’s greatest achievement in the Arab-Israeli arena, was his contribution to the conclusion of the peace talks with Egypt. However, a subject for historical study continues to be what role he had in the failure to reach an understanding with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shortly after he became President in 1970.

In the spring of 1971, Dayan proposed an Israeli pullback from the western bank of the Suez Canal as part of an interim agreement with Egypt. The plan, which had Sadat’s support, was defeated by Premier Golda Meir with the backing of other senior Ministers.

Asked years later why he did not fight for his proposal, Dayan replied: “What would you want me to do, resign over it?” He argued that even his resignation would not have changed the decision against the pullback. Eventually, the Dayan plan was implemented but only after the Yom Kippur War.

It is easier to recognize Dayan’s contribution to Israel’s security than his contribution to the development of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The nature of these relations is still under a veil of secrecy. Time will probably shed more light on Dayan’s role in this respect.

Immediately after the Six-Day War, had one been asked which Israeli could lead Israel to peace with its Arab neighbors, the answer undoubtedly would have been Dayan. Dayan himself believed this. For a brief period, he said after the Six-Day War that he was waiting for a telephone call from Hussein — a telephone call which had never come, despite a number of secret meetings between the two leaders.

Had Dayan missed his chance? Could he have filled in the history of Israel the role that Sadat filled in the history of Egypt. This is an open question which will

probably intrigue historians for years to come. In many respects, Dayan’s death was a blow. In the present political establishment there are few influential Israelis who have the same potential to carry on a fruitful dialogue with the Arabs. Yigal Allon, who had similar qualifications, died two years ago. The only possible heir for this mission is Dayans’ former brother-in-law, former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who for the time being is out of the political scene.

Recommended from JTA