Mike Mareen - stock.adobe.com
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In 1975, while I was on a trip to Israel for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then-defense minister Shimon Peres made the mistake of asking me what I would like to see in Israel.

Prior to meeting Peres, I had visited the Israeli tank factory south of Tel Aviv and received briefings on the relative merits of different tanks Israel either had in its inventory or had been captured. Enemy tanks of the time were mainly Soviet.

I learned a lot from the briefing. The senior tank commander explained some of the problems of Soviet tanks, especially the very cramped conditions which meant (at least then) that tank drivers had to be five feet eight inches or smaller and not too chubby. He pointed out problems with the automatic loading mechanism, a feature of Soviet tanks. Its proximity to the tank crew was such, he said, that it could and did cause injuries.

The American tanks also came in for criticism, especially the M-60 Patton tank. He explained the technical problems and some measures Israel had taken to fix them. One particular invention, the gun shroud, prevented gun barrel warping, a major problem in combat. These fixes were later briefed to the Pentagon. Some of them it accepted, others not so much.

The best tank was the British Centurion because it was reliable and could withstand hits even by anti-tank weapons.

I asked him about the new tank Israel was building. He said he did not know what I was referring to. But a friend of mine in the US military had tipped me off. There was no point in pressing the colonel; but when I met with Peres and he asked me what I wanted to see, I told him point blank, “the new tank.” He didn’t blink an eye.  He asked when I could see it. I said “now.” He ordered a car and sent me back to the tank factory.

At the tank factory, the senior colonel gave me a briefing on security. Next “the boss” came in. He was General Israel Tal, commonly referred to as Tallik. A little man, he was tough as nails and very smart. As I got to know him I realized two things.

First, he was a genuine student of armored warfare, a student of – of all people – Rommel and Guderian and an expert on tanks as they battled in North Africa and in Europe.

The second thing was about his politics. You would think a tank commander would be very conservative. In fact, Tal was well to the left of the then-ruling Labor Party in Israel, especially when it came to the idea of trading territory for peace.

Tal took me to “the tank” which would soon be named Merkava Mk 1. (Now Israel is producing the “Barak” or Lightning tank, Merkava Mk 5.) “The tank” was in pieces on the factory floor. So we stepped in and out of the tank’s shell, and Tal laboriously explained all its features.

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