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Eulogy of Truth

Public figures are rarely accused of truthfulness. This is the case in any country, but perhaps especially accurate in Israel where the truth is often too dismal to hear. Searching for the truth about our conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis would have to reach back far into our history to find the rare individual who spoke it. Yet the truth was spoken, nearly seventy years ago, at a heartbreaking event during an especially savage time, and by an individual famous for courage, audacity, indulgence, and capriciousness, but rarely, if ever, for candor.

The story opens on the morning of April 29, 1956, Lt. Roi Rotberg gazed through his binoculars at the top of the tower guarding Kibbutz Nahal Oz. The sun was already glaring in the cloud-free sky typical for this time of year along Israel’s southern border with Gaza. Rotberg, just twenty-one years but already married with a son, was in charge of the kibbutz’s security. He, too, was typical. Handsome, graced with the “blurit”—pompadour—admired by young Israelis of his generation, he’d served as a runner during the nation’s War of Independence eight years earlier, attended an agricultural high school, and, at age 17, joined the Nahal Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces. Nahal—a Hebrew acronym for the rather Soviet-sounding Fighting Pioneer Youth—was charged with establishing settlements along Israel’s largely uninhabited and vulnerable frontiers. Self-sacrificing, hard-working, driven by the love of the Land and its soil, Nahal embodied the essence of Zionism. So did Roi Rotberg.

Which was why, after peering through his binoculars, Roi unhesitantly descended the tower, hitched onto his horse, and galloped out to the fields opposite Gaza. There, he’d spied, several Palestinians were harvesting the kibbutzniks’ crops. This was not an isolated incident, and Roi’s intention was to drive the Palestinians off, not fight them. Approaching the infiltrators, though, Roi was shot dead and his body dragged across the border. Somehow—the record is unclear—the corpse was retrieved, and a funeral prepared on the kibbutz.

Violent death was shockingly common in 1956 Israel. Surrounded by hostile Arab states on all sides, its territory regularly penetrated by Palestinian Fidayeen—“self-sacrificers”—whose attacks ranged as far inland as Tel Aviv, Israel was the scene of almost daily bloodshed. During this period, terrorists killed as many as 400 Israelis—out of population of 1.6 million—a fatality rate one-and-a-half times higher than that of the Second Intifada of 2000-2005.

The Egyptian border was especially perilous. Under the charismatic leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt was spearheading the pan-Arab campaign to eliminate the Zionist Entity. Along the border between the Sinai and Negev deserts, Egyptian and Israeli forces regularly exchanged fire. Deadliest, though, was the armistice line separating Israel from Gaza. Occupied by the Egyptian military, the impoverished home of some 250,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948, the Strip became a wellspring of anti-Israel fervor and activity.

The most accessible target for that rage were the border kibbutzim like Nirim, Nir Am, Dekel, and Nahal Oz. These settlements were frequently infiltrated by Palestinians, some armed but most merely peasants attempting to work their former fields. Roi Rotberg’s death and the circumstances surrounding it, then, were hardly unusual. Nor was his funeral. What was and would remain deeply ingrained in collective Israeli memory, representing perhaps the truest words ever spoken by an Israeli official, was the eulogy.

It was delivered by Moshe Dayan. Brazen, dashing, at 41 Dayan was already a legend. Born on Degania, the first kibbutz, and raised on Nahalal, the first moshav, Dayan was named for the first member of Degania killed by Arab raiders. At age 14, he joined the Haganah—Israel’s largest pre-State defense corps—and learned guerrilla tactics from the storied British officer Orde Wingate. Later, when the British outlawed the Haganah, Dayan was imprisoned for two years but then served as a scout for Britain’s 1941 expedition against Vichy forces in Syria and Lebanon. There, fighting not the Arabs but the French, he lost his left eye. During the War of Independence, he commanded Israeli troops in Jerusalem and across the southern front. Finally, in 1953, Dayan was appointed IDF Chief-of-Staff.

His tenure would be characterized by large-scale retaliations for terror attacks. These, Dayan and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed, were precursors to the Arabs’ stated plan to mount a “second round” with Israel. Armed reprisals, Dayan believed, would throw Arab regimes off balance, and deter them from attempting further aggression. Retaliations, many of them led by a young paratrooper officer named Ariel Sharon, claimed many lives, civilian and military, on the Golan Heights, then still part of Syria, and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. All were condemned by the United States and by almost all the international community. This did not stop Dayan. On February 28, 1955, following a deadly Fidayeen attack in Rehovot, the paratroopers launched Operation Black Arrow, assaulting an Egyptian army base in Gaza. Thirty-eight Egyptians soldiers and eight Israelis were killed. Though deemed successful militarily, the action further exacerbated tensions in the area and pitched Egypt and Israel on a course toward the second Arab-Israeli War—the Suez Campaign of October 1956—and provided the immediate background to Roi Rotberg’s funeral.

The Dayan who arrived at a grief-stricken Nahal Oz on April 30 was indeed known for his mettle and fearlessness, but also for his less admirable attributes. I’ve often said that of all Israel’s founding figures, the one I’d never dare to write about in any depth was Dayan. Inscrutable, unscrupulous, he was an infamous womanizer, purportedly telling his first wife, Ruth, that she could either put up with his infidelity or leave. An amateur archeologist, he was also an experienced antiquity thief, at times using troops to conduct illegal digs and then selling his discoveries to wealthy collectors. Worldly and crass at once, he remained a peasant at heart who—according to what his former security guard once told me—preferred backyards to toilets for urinating. And if, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed, an intelligent person is one who can hold two opposite views at the same time, Dayan, capable of holding three or more and toggling between them, was a genius. Nobody, in fact, knew the real Moshe Dayan, but if there was ever a glimpse of him it appeared momentarily above the open grave of Roi Rotberg.

Surrounded by dour, khaki-clad kibbutzniks, reading in an uninflected voice from a sheet of paper, Dayan began his eulogy. Its opening line was astounding. “It's not among the Arabs in Gaza but in our own midst that we must seek Roi's blood.” Not the Palestinians but the Israelis were guilty of the young lieutenant’s murder for yearning for peace too desperately and forgetting their cruel fate.

Beyond this [place], hundreds of thousands of eyes and arms huddle together and pray for our coming weakness, so that they may tear us to pieces. Have we forgotten this?...Beyond the border lies a surging sea of hatred and vengeance, yearning for the day serenity will dull our alertness, for the day that we'll listen to the ambassadors of conspiring hypocrisy, calling us to lay down our weapons.

If Israel were to survive, Dayan avowed, if its citizens were to build homes and plow their fields, they would have to do so with guns and canons and bayonets. To ensure their children a future, Israeli parents must be “willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fist and our lives cut down.” Israelis must face up to the reality that the Arabs in Gaza would never reconcile themselves to watching their former fields being cultivated by invaders but were “longing for the moment their hands can get our blood.” Israelis must not delude themselves. The Arabs—the word “Palestinians” was not yet used widely—would not give up the fight and Israelis must always remain vigilant.

Dayan left the mourners, among them presumably survivors of the Holocaust, with a sobering task: “The millions of Jews who were exterminated and have no land are watching us from the ashes of Israeli history and command us to settle and rebuild a land for our people.” Then, with a shovel in one hand and rifle in the other, the settlers of Nahal Oz filed past and filled in Roi Rotberg’s grave.

Dayan would go on to achieve fame in the diplomatically disastrous but militarily successful Suez Campaign and then notoriety as a politician who served as agriculture minister before bolting the ruling Mapai party for the breakaway Rafi. After a highly publicized tour of Vietnam battlefields in 1966, he was called back into government—begrudgingly by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol who distrusted him—in June 1967, as Arab armies once again surrounded the Jewish state. During the Six-Day War, Dayan again proved his inscrutableness by first opposing then taking credit for the conquest of Sinai down to the Suez Canal, first opposing then taking credit for the liberation of Jerusalem, and, finally, for opposing then ordering, without informing either Eshkol or Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin, capture of the Golan Heights.

Once again achieving iconic status, his black eyepatch an internationally recognized meme for masculinity, Dayan became defense minister in the Labor Party-led coalition under Golda Meir. He was a hardliner, resisting American attempts to engineer a territory-for-peace agreement with Egypt. Then, on October 6, 1973, with Israeli forces surprised and overwhelmed by the invading armies of Egypt and Syria, Dayan suffered an emotional breakdown—live on national television—muttering about the destruction of the third Jewish commonwealth. Still, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Dayan managed to roll blame for the catastrophe onto the generals. He resigned from politics only to return in 1977 as the foreign minister in the government of Menachem Begin. The lifelong Laborite was now a leader of what would become the Likud, and the ex-hawk would transform into a peacemaker, an architect of the Camp David Accords with Egypt. With such a high-profile and vicissitudinous life, the memory of one short eulogy twenty years before was easily forgotten.

I could not forget it, though, nor could many Israelis of my generation. Many of us had read Zeev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist (later, Likud) Zionist, who early advocated for building an “iron wall” around the Jewish state and battening it until the Arabs made peace. Jabotinsky did not grow up among Arabs and did not speak their language, but Dayan did. Jabotinsky knew Europe. Dayan knew the Middle East, and the truth he told—unvarnished, bitter yet refreshing—held little hope for reconciliation.

I remembered the eulogy while volunteering on another Gaza-border kibbutz, Gvulot, in the early 1970s. A few years before, during the Six-Day War, Israel had occupied the Gaza Strip and supposedly pacified it, yet armed infiltrators continued to raid the border. The first night patrols I participated in were to guard against that “surging sea of hatred and vengeance.”

I remembered the eulogy again, in 1979, while working as advisor to Israel’s delegation to the UN. To my delight, I was tasked with assisting Foreign Minister Dayan in writing his last speech to the General Assembly. The man I met was much reduced—he would die two years later—and nearly blind in his remaining eye, yet he retained that combination of magnetism and enigmatism that had made him a focus of veneration, fascination, and controversy for many decades.

I remembered the eulogy but never had a reason to quote it, not until one very late night in 2010, in a conversation at the White House. I was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and accompanying Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Special Negotiator Yitzhak Molcho to talks with the Obama administration. We sat in the office of Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief-of-staff and argued about the Palestinian issue. The National Security Advisor, former Marine Commandant Jim Jones, who earnestly believed that solving that issue would resolve all other conflicts the Middle East, tried to speak but Rahm cut him off. “General, don’t you know better than to try to cut into a debate between Jews?” He then turned to us, his Israeli visitors, and asked us to explain what was so difficult about making peace. Barak spoke about security considerations, Molcho about Israeli political constraints, and then it came my turn. I talked about Dayan’s eulogy for Rotberg.

“What Dayan’s saying, Rahm, is that the conflict is not about this border or that, but about us—Israel—and our existence. It’s about the Palestinians’ refusal to accept our existence, their commitment to destroy us, and our need to internalize that. Peace, Dayan was saying, is seductive, but it must not blind us to our fate.”

The room went silent. Barak and Molcho, both of whom knew the eulogy well, shook their heads in agreement, and even Rahm seemed impressed. He asked that I get him a copy of Dayan’s text, assuring me that he’d distribute it among his staff.

I don’t know if anyone else in the White House ever received that text. Certainly, American foreign policy, predicated on the belief that the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem would effectively end the conflict, remained unchanged. Nor was it altered when the Palestinians made it clear that their dispute with Israel would continue even after their attainment of a state, and that they rejected America’s “two states for two peoples” formula because the Jews were never a people. No politician, it seemed, had either the desire or the will to tell the truth back then. But neither do they today.

Today, I listen as our leaders respond to every terrorist attack by swearing to track down, capture, and punish the killers, and to enhance our national security through force. I hear them say that terrorism can be defeated, and the enemy convinced, through repeated and well-aimed blows, to live alongside us in peace. I’m witness to all this and think to myself, where is Moshe Dayan now when we need him? Not the master of warfare nor the architect of peace, but the public figure who, one time and over a freshly-dug grave, told our nation the truth.

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