The original plan was to interview Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil when the two peace activists visited New York this fall to promote “An Improbable Friendship,” a book written by Anthony David about their 40-year friendship.
I was eager—Ms. Dayan is the ex-wife of the late Israeli general, defense minister and war hero Moshe Dayan—but skeptical. She’s 98 years old, after all. And as robust mentally as she was purported to be, international travel these days can be enervating for someone half her age.
So when I was informed a few weeks ago that Ms. Dayan wasn’t making the trip, I was disappointed but not surprised. A phone interview was proposed instead, though if my experience with ancient relatives is any guide, much of the time would be spent repeating questions as they adjusted their hearing aids.
But when Ms. Dayan’s granddaughter Amalia Dayan, a Manhattan gallery owner, was offered as a go-between, I hoped it might work out.
“We became close as two adults,” Ms. Dayan told me as she sat in Luxembourg & Dayan, her elegant, minimalistic Upper East Side gallery and prepared to call her grandmother in Israel, seven hours ahead. “She tells the best stories. She remembers everything—her life story, the story of Israel.”
Not going as far back as Moses, perhaps, but a few years after she was born in Haifa in 1917.
And what, if any recollection, did Amalia, who is 43, have of her grandfather Moshe Dayan?
Her grandmother divorced him in 1971 because of their political differences, she has said. Her husband wasn’t just a hero in Israel but also in the U.S., gracing the cover of Time magazine, in his trademark eye patch, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
“I was 8 when he passed away,” Ms. Dayan recalled. “I remember his aura. His charisma. The way people near me perceived him.”
Ms. Dayan said she’d never met Ms. Tawil, now 75 years old, who wasn’t just any Palestinian peace activist. She was also Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law.
“They met secretly,” Ms. Dayan explained.
The time had come for our phone call. When Ruth Dayan picked up in Tel Aviv her voice, over the speakerphone, was strong, confident and crystal clear.
“I will be 99 at the beginning of March,” she boasted.
Amalia said, “I was telling Ralph that you have more energy than me.”
“I have to count my minutes now,” Ruth joked. “Especially with this book. I read it a bunch of times in order to see if it’s OK.”
She’s not optimistic about the state of the Middle East, believing peace suffered a severe blow back in 1995 with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who embraced the peace process. “Every day it gets worse,” she said.
She hopes the book offers a sort of case study, through her friendship with Ms. Tawil, of how things could be different. Even though it didn’t get off to an auspicious start: Ms. Tawil encountered Ms. Dayan in 1970 delivering toys to a hospital in Nablus on the West Bank and gave her a piece of her mind, blaming Moshe Dayan for the wounded children.
Ms. Dayan refused to accept responsibility for her husband’s actions. “I’m very close to the Palestinians I like and work with,” she explained. “But I feel a lot could have been done over all these years to see two states. Or one state even. The point is to talk to each other. It’s so easy. We look alike. There are very big similarities between Israelis and Palestinians.”
While Ms. Dayan didn’t make it to the U.S., two weeks earlier she visited Ms. Tawil in Malta, where she lives.
“I didn’t know you were going,” Amalia said. “Suddenly I get this text.”
Ruth Dayan recounted how Israeli tourists recognized her at her hotel—“I don’t know why they put my face on TV all the time,” she said—and reacted in disbelief to discover that Ms. Tawil, who joined her, wasn’t Jewish.
“They couldn’t believe—she looks like an Ashkenazi,” Ms. Dayan said, referring to Jews who came mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. “She spoke with them half an hour, talking about peace. She was talking Hebrew to them. They didn’t want to leave.”