Secret Shorts: Avner Shor’s New Book on Sayeret Matkal

Haim Watzman

When my son informed me Saturday night that he was taking all three of my pairs of walking shorts back to the army with him, I was left scratching my head. Why would a commando-in-training need three pairs of walking shorts? He wasn’t telling me, and I resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never know.

In shadowy, prestigious elite military units, not only operations, but mundane everyday activities remain secret pretty much forever. As if I needed to be reminded of that, Sefarim, Ha’aretz’s Wednesday book supplement, has a two page spread (in Hebrew) on a new book about “The Unit”—Avner Shor’s Crossing Borders: Sayeret Matkal and Its Founder, Avraham Arnan. Reviewer Yiftah Reicher-Atir, himself a veteran of The Unit, notes that Shor’s book contains little about the actual operations that Sayeret Matkal has carried out since it was founded in 1957. The large majority of them remain classified.

Reicher-Atir writes that Shor focuses in particular on The Unit’s carefully fostered culture of camaraderie and election. That’s not surprising—Shor’s previous book, the memoir Tzevet Itamar (Squad Itamar), was notable for not avoiding some of the less attractive aspects of serving in such a unit. Shor portrays himself and his fellow-commandos as dedicated, intelligent, patriotic, and surprisingly un-macho. But he notes that fostering special forces elitism—an unavoidable part of fostering and training these essential crack units—also inevitably produces arrogance and turf wars. Toward the end of the earlier book, Shor also reaches the regretful conclusion that the demonstrative, backslapping camaraderie is also something of a façade, a device that keeps men in such units from talking about their real feelings, both with their army buddies and with their wives, children, and civilian friends. According to Reicher-Atir, Shor returns to the theme in his latest book. He must have been burned.

Arnan founded The Unit in part because, as a top IDF intelligence officer, he saw that Israel could not obtain intelligence of the kind and quality it needed solely by operating native agents in Arab countries. But, sociologically, Sayeret Matkal and other such units were also ways of carrying the culture and experience of the Palmach, the elite pre-state fighting force, into an IDF that was quickly becoming institutionalized and socioeconomically integrated. It was certainly not an attempt to preserve Ashkenazi hegemony—Arnan sought out Sephardi men whose appearance would allow them to move unnoticed in enemy territory. But he emulated the Palmach inasmuch as he believed that for an elite unit to function well, its men needed, in addition to the best training and top physical condition, to feel part of a unique community.

Part of the Palmach mystique was a general regard for rules, law, and order, and that too was grandfathered into the new force. Clearly, a secret reconnaissance team must be flexible; its soldiers and commanders must think creatively and outside the box. Sometimes that means disregard for proper procedures. But in worst cases such nonchalance can decay into carelessness and disregard for property and life. That such cases are extremely rare is a tribute to the unit; that it happens at all should be a cause for concern.

The Unit’s veterans are dedicated, patriotic, and hardworking. So it’s not surprising that they have reached leadership positions in Israeli industry, culture, and politics. Two of Israel’s three major political parties are led by former officers from Sayeret Matkal—Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Ehud Barak (Labor, a former chief of The Unit). Both these men are textbook examples of what’s good and what’s bad about spending one’s formative years in special forces. They’re sharp, bold, and dedicated to public service. They also have a hard time working with people who weren’t part of the special forces culture, and don’t understand why procedures and rules are important in civilian life. Both failed as prime ministers in part because they never figured out that a government can’t be run like a war room.

Sayeret Matkal has secrets that we ordinary people will never hear about. But it seems like ordinary people know some things that many of The Unit’s veterans may never fathom. It’s our job to keep reminding them of that.