Moshe Dayan, Israel's greatest military hero and architect of its peace with Egypt, personified his country's struggle to independence, its exhilarating victories on the battlefield and, finally, its growing isolation.

He was one of the most brilliant, most famous and most controversial Israelis of his generation -- a swashbuckling figure who gave the world the image of the first generation of Israeli leadership born in what became the Jewish state.

With his distinctive eye patch, the result of a wound suffered while serving with the British in World War II, Mr. Dayan's was a striking, commanding presence.

Until the 1973 war, Mr. Dayan was undoubtedly the most charismatic figure in Israeli public life. Then, when the Israeli armed forces, under his direction, suffered their first humiliating setback against the Arabs, he found himself the target of national scorn and of wrath from anguished parents of fallen Israeli soldiers -- at a time when his country was rapidly losing the reservoir of international good will it had enjoyed since gaining independence.

In a final hurrah in 1977, Mr. Dayan, who had taken political zig-zags before, once again left the Labor Alignment, joined the Cabinet of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and played a leading role in devising the Camp David accords that led to the ground-breaking peace treaty with Egypt.

Mr. Dayan was born on a kibbutz, joined an illegal Jewish militia as a teen-ager, was imprisoned by the British and emerged, with the Jewish state, into full respectability.

In this -- but in little else -- he resembled many Israeli military and political leaders of his generation. He differed -- and became Dayan -- in his utter disregard for public sensitivities, his attachment to the life of a loner and, in an attribute that lifted him into the realm of statesman, his understanding of the Arab world.

In a speech to Israeli Army officers in 1969, he articulated the pragmatism that guided him throughout his public life. "What we have to ask ourselves is not, 'What will be?' but rather 'What is?' " he said.

Mr. Dayan was "both more pragmatic and more innovative than our other politicians and is not bound by preconceptions," Jerusalem's longtime mayor, Teddy Kollek, wrote in his memoirs. But Kollek also recalled seeing the former military hero at the funeral of his political mentor, David Ben-Gurion, two months after the October 1973 war.

"I remember Dayan standing by himself, almost an outcast," Kollek wrote, adding, "It is very sad that the one man who showed such outstanding leadership brought about his own temporary political eclipse."

But Mr. Dayan had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, for seizing the moment to his own advantage and for capturing the public spotlight in the process. He came to symbolize for fellow Israelis the spirit of their country -- a fierce determination to prevail despite handicaps and seemingly overwhelming odds.

He was born May 20, 1915, to Russian immigrant parents at Dagania, an early kibbutz in the Jordan River Valley, in what was then still part of the collapsing Turkish Ottoman empire. Six years later his parents moved, helping found Nahalal, a farming collective near Nazareth.

The young Dayan took up arms against the Arabs at the age of 12, serving in a group that guarded the collective against troublesome Bedouins. When he was 14 he joined the Haganah, the illegal Jewish militia operating in British-administered Palestine.

The British arrested him in 1939 for his involvement with the Haganah and sentenced him to five years in prison. But he was released 16 months later because Britain, then at war, needed his intimate knowledge of the region to guide combat forces against the Vichy French forces in Syria and what is now Lebanon.

It was during a British-French battle near the Litani River in southern Lebanon that Mr. Dayan lost his left eye. As he was looking through a telescope, a bullet hit it, driving it into his eye with such force that the socket was too damaged to be fitted with a glass replacement eye. So he began wearing the black eye patch that later gave him instant worldwide recognition.

"The attention it drew was intolerable to me," he wrote in his autobiography, "Story of My Life," but the only times he ever removed it in public were the few occasions that he wanted to move about unrecognized, usually on sensitive diplomatic missions.

In the 1948 war that established Israel's independence, Mr. Dayan first performed the dual military-diplomatic role that came to be his trademark.

After brilliant advances as a battalion commander, he was promoted by Ben-Gurion to the command of Jerusalem's defense. He negotiated cease-fire lines with Jordan and then joined the Israeli delegation to the Rhodes armistice talks.

He studied at Britain's Senior Officers School and, in 1953, when he was only 38 years old, he was made chief of staff.

"I felt an understandable pride in becoming the number one soldier in the Israel Defense Forces," he wrote in his autobiography. "But even at the height of the ceremony, when Ben-Gurion pinned on my badges . . . I had no sense of elation. I realized the weight of the responsibility and I was ready to shoulder it faithfully."

This unemotional devotion to duty, which continued through his career, may have stood Mr. Dayan in good stead as a soldier, but it strained his personal life. His daughter Yael wrote an autobiographical novel about a woman whose father was a military commander with a face like "an expressionless wax mask."

Mr. Dayan was chief of staff in 1956 when Israeli troops, aided by British and French air cover, swept across the Sinai and routed the larger Egyptian Army.

Although critics were to claim later that the military success was due to the planning of an aide, Mr. Dayan got the credit and the Israeli public's adulation. He quickly converted that adulation into political capital, gaining his first Cabinet position, as minister of agriculture.

Mr. Dayan's political career was tied to that of Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and when Ben-Gurion broke with the ruling Mapai Party, the forerunner of the Labor Party, in 1965, Mr. Dayan reluctantly went into political exile with him.

Mr. Dayan might have stayed in political limbo forever, had it not been for the crisis of May 1967 and the seemingly faltering response of the Israeli leadership. While Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was threatening to drive Israel into the sea, Israel's prime minister, Levi Eshkol, who was also defense minister, appeared unable to demonstrate the resolve his countrymen expected in their moment of crisis. The Israeli public demanded that Eshkol turn the country's defense over to Mr. Dayan.

Eshkol did and Mr. Dayan took up his new duties on the eve of the war -- a campaign for which the Israeli Army had been preparing for years. It was over in six days.

Israel again had routed the Egyptian Army from the Sinai, captured the West Bank from Jordan and driven the Syrians from the Golan Heights. As minister of defense, Mr. Dayan became a national hero and a world figure. Although many officers shared in the credit for Israel's victory, none received more than Mr. Dayan -- who had been a civilian two weeks before the battle began.

After the war, Mr. Dayan set about constructing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a densely populated Arab region that had been under Jordanian rule since 1949. Moving boldly and with authority, he opened a dialogue with many of the Arab leaders.

His most important decision was to leave open the bridges to Jordan -- literally -- so that relatives could visit their families and the produce of the West Bank could continue to find its way to Arab markets. The Israeli occupation, under Mr. Dayan's stewardship, was widely described as one of history's most humane.

Mr. Dayan might have achieved his ambition to become prime minister had it not been for the disaster of the 1973 war, when Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal while Syrian forces attacked Israel from the north. Israel suffered, in terms of its small population, horrendous casualties before it drove back the invasions. When the war was over, Israelis lost confidence in their military -- once considered to be its one institution free of the inefficiency that infected the rest of the society -- and in Mr. Dayan.

Although a commission appointed to investigate the war did not call for the defense minister's resignation and his chief of staff, David Elazar, instead was forced to quit, Mr. Dayan finally stepped down in response to public outrage and demonstrations against him.

Although he continued to serve in the Israeli Knesset, his star clearly was fading. Political leadership passed to a new generation of Israelis -- men who were Mr. Dayan's juniors and far less illustrious.

Menachem Begin's election as prime minister in 1977 restored Mr. Dayan to the spotlight.

Begin sensed, according to a biographer, Eitan Haber, that Mr. Dayan was not motivated by a sense of history and that the restored territorial integrity of the Jewish homeland "meant little to a man who was too cold-blooded for simple emotion." But Begin, for years an outcast in Israeli politics and a man with a reputation as an extremist, needed the luster and respectability that Mr. Dayan could give a Begin government in the eyes of the international community.

Mr. Dayan, always eager to be at the center of power, accepted the post of foreign minister and became a driving force toward the peace treaty with Egypt.

Even when he was in power again, Mr. Dayan -- as always -- remained something of a loner. Although one of the highest officials of the Begin government, he said later, his relations with Begin were proper and correct but never intimate.

Mr. Dayan quit as foreign minister in 1979, criticizing Begin's hard-line policies on the West Bank. He continued to air his views in public, but he had become a man without a party.

As his political career faltered, Mr. Dayan's body began to fail him as well. Once a robust, active man, he became frail and enfeebled. He developed cancer. His vision in his remaining eye began to fail. When he appeared in public, he needed help getting about.

His first marriage, in 1935 to Ruth Schwarz, ended in divorce in 1971 after years of estrangement and three children. In 1973 he married Rachel Korem.

Rachel, 55, and daughter Yael were at Mr. Dayan's bedside when he died. He is also survived by his first wife and two sons, Assaf, a movie actor, and Ehud, a farmer.

At the end Mr. Dayan remained a mystery and a riddle to his fellow Israelis, who could admire him or loathe him, without ever fully penetrating to a full understanding of the inner man.

He was an inspiration to Israelis, with his boldness, his informality, and his will to prevail. But he did what he pleased whether he had the authority or not.

A passionate amateur archeologist, Mr. Dayan possessed a fine private collection of antiquities that he had gathered from digs around Israel despite clear prohibitions against private citizens keeping such finds.

He appeared to contradict himself on occasion, but his positions summed up the massive dilemmas and conflicts embedded within the state of Israel. Desiring peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, Mr. Dayan also believed that Israel could not be secure without maintaining effective control over the West Bank. He wanted neither to establish Israeli sovereignty over that territory nor to relinquish it totally.

Mr. Dayan coined the maxim, "Sharm el-Sheikh without peace is better than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh." Yet when Anwar Sadat offered peace in return for the restoration of Sharm el-Sheikh and the rest of the Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty, Mr. Dayan was among the first to advocate accepting the offer.

Mr. Dayan's place in Israel's history seems assured. He provided a role model for the young men of the new Israeli state. In moments of extreme peril in 1956 and 1967, his presence helped provide calm.

Although he outlived his towering popularity, his early victories and his support of the peace treaty with Egypt -- which assured Israelis that an experienced military figure found it acceptable -- endure as a measure of the legend of Moshe Dayan and the considerable man behind it.