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Storyville: Moshan Dayan

THURSDAY 30th October 2003

Our three-part series on Israeli leadership begins with the legendary one-eyed general who set the tempo for Israel's occupation of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza in the years following the 1967 Israeli-Arab war.

Profile

"I don't know anything which is more exciting than war." Thus Moshe Dayan described what led him to become one of Israel's most revered generals, and a distinctive figure during some of the nation's key moments. As his first wife remembers, "At one time, the eye patch was a symbol for the country".

Six-Day War

The patch was a testament to Dayan's long military career. Raised to be a village farmer in northern Israel, he was a fighter even in his youth, taking on Arabs in his home region. He lost his eye in 1941 when Israeli forces took on the Vichy French in Syria. But his injury did little to impede his rise through the ranks, and much to add to his personal charisma.

Already a war hero after his country's 1956 victory in Egypt, Dayan really captured the imagination in 1967. As the newly appointed defence minister, he supervised Israel's part in the Six-Day War and set the tempo for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which followed.

At the helm of a confident army, Dayan was happy to let Palestinians back into Israel. He tried to temper reports of brutality at the hands of his troops with personal encounters with Arab families, what one observer called "having his hands on both the taps".

Political exile

But, in 1973, Dayan, like other Israelis, was confounded when Egypt and Syria surprised Israel with an attack that carried them across the Suez Canal. The Yom Kippur War devastated Israeli forces and the defence minister's image was forever tarnished. For the first time in the nation's history, the government resigned and Dayan went into political exile.

He later crossed the political floor to serve the right-wing Begin as Foreign Minister. Dayan worked towards the Camp David peace agreements with Egypt, but resigned over Begin's hesitation in dealing with the Palestinian issue. When he died from cancer in 1981, he was still searching for a solution, meeting even PLO fighters to do it.

History obsession

For controversy, Dayan's personality matched his politics. In a book, his own daughter detailed his womanising and greed, which included using the nation's military resources to satisfy his legendary passion for archaeological artefacts.

This hunger to dig for the nation's roots was never far away from his lifelong campaign for his ancestors' land. In 1980, Moshe Dayan described the only two things he could do, "reap the wheat, and fight back the guns".