I had the great honor of working with Yigal Allon (1918-1980) – the man who had been appointed commander of the Palmah at the age of 27 and was one of the heroes of the War of Independence at the age of 30 – during the last two and a half years of his life.
I met him just after Labor’s defeat in the 1977 elections, when I was working as a research assistant for Lord Nicholas Bethell on his book The Palestine Triangle, about the last 10 years of the British Mandate. We came to interview Allon at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, several days after the elections. Like other Labor leaders, he was in a total state of post-election shock, and after realizing that I was Israeli, suggested that I should come to interview him after things calmed down bit. I came in September, and remained in close touch with him until his premature death on February 29, 1980.
Working with a myth can be difficult, especially since living myths are usually unbearable egocentrics. That was not the case with Allon – a mensch, open minded and with the ability to make anyone he happened to be talking with feel important and worthy.
Besides dealing with his correspondence with world leaders (on the day he died I was preparing letters to Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, Pierre Trudeau, who was to be elected prime minister of Canada several days later, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger), I also helped Allon write articles in English and prepare for the autobiography he was planning to write. We held long conversations on a wide range of issues.
There are four episodes in Allon’s life that I believe exemplify the man. The first was something he told me about his period in the Palmah, when he was involved in the “illegal immigration” not long after the end of the World War II. While preparing the Palmahniks, who were to man one of the immigrant ships that was to carry Holocaust survivors, he had more or less said to the young men, “There will be quite a few young women among the passengers. Before you start ‘messing around’ with them, please remember what they have just gone through, and unless your intentions are serious, watch your steps.” He was all of 28 or 29 at the time.
The second episode concerned the conquest of the Arab towns of Lydda (today’s Lod) and Ramle in the middle of July 1948. Among the commanding officers involved were Moshe Dayan, Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. When the operation was over, 30,000 to 45,000 of the two towns’ inhabitants were deported, on foot and by truck, to areas held by King Abdullah I’s Arab Legion in what later came to be known as the West Bank.
In the late 1970s the episode was still largely taboo in Israel, but in his autobiography Service Book, published in 1979, Rabin had originally devoted part of a chapter to it, which was subsequently deleted by the censor, but not before a translation of the chapter into English was published in the US by book’s translator.
I saw Allon on the morning that the story hit the news, and he was furious with Rabin. It was one of the few occasions that I allowed myself to openly disagree with him on a matter of principle. I said to Allon that some 30 years after the War of Independence it was time to stop trying to keep inconvenient facts secret. There were tens of thousands of Palestinians still alive to tell the tale of the deportation, and in my opinion, rather than deny the facts, or try to keep them under wraps, it was time to admit what had happened, and either justify the wartime policy of deporting the civilian population from conquered towns and villages, or alternatively admit that in historic perspective it had been a mistake and apologize for it. Allon listened to me in silence, and did not reply. He was capable of containing criticism. What he thought about what I had said he kept to himself.
The third episode is what is commonly known as the “Allon Plan,” devised by Allon, following the Six Day War as a basis of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Toward the end of the War of Independence, Allon had tried to convince prime minister David Ben-Gurion that the IDF should conquer parts of the West Bank. At the time this was militarily feasible, but Ben-Gurion rejected the idea, in part due to the demographic problem it would create. Now it was Allon who rejected any thought of Israel holding on to all the territories it had occupied during the 1967 war for the very same reason.
The Allon Plan was based on the principle that within the territory of Mandatory Palestine (western Eretz Yisrael and Transjordan) there should be two states: a Jewish state that would include pre-1967 Israel, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and the Latrun area, and a Jordanian-Palestinian state that would include the Kingdom of Jordan and most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would remain demilitarized (“one cannot demilitarize a whole state, but one can demilitarize part of a state,” he used to say).
Under this arrangement, Israel was to remain in military control of the Jordan Valley, and the Jordanian-Palestinian state on the two sides of the Jordan River were to have been connected by a passage near Jericho. In fact, back in 1974, the idea of handing over an enclave around Jericho to King Hussein of Jordan was seriously considered. A meeting was actually held on the issue by prime minister Rabin and Allon (as foreign affairs minister) with Hussein at a secret meeting in Aqaba. The Arab Summit in Rabat soon afterwards (October 1974) put an end to the initiative.
In the late 1970s I believed the whole concept, which Allon was still actively promoting, was far-fetched. Today, however, it seems much more realistic, given that the two-state solution west of the Jordan River doesn’t seem viable, and the one-state solution is liable to lead to the end of Israel as Jewish and democratic state.
The fourth and last episode I should like to mention concerns Allon and Dayan. The two men, who were not particularly fond of each other, were very different in temperament and in how they tackled political and military issues. However, when in 1979 Dayan was hospitalized after being diagnosed with cancer, Allon went to visit him, and spent several hours at his bedside. I asked him about this and his short answer was, “We fought together.”
As it turned out, Allon died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 61, before Dayan. In the dining hall of Kibbutz Ginossar, where Allon lived, just before the funeral I noticed Dayan sitting alone, sad and reflective. I am sure that had I asked him what he was feeling he would have given me an identical answer to that given by Allon the previous year.
A year and a half later, Dayan passed away at age 66; two War of Independence heroes gone prematurely.