Lt General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak: Decorated Israeli soldier who became an advocate of peace


Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Israeli army chief of staff, twice won Israel's Medal of Valour in battle but the last years of his life were spent advocating peace. In 1973, he led one of the commando teams that landed at night on Beirut's shore a year after the murder of 11 Israel athletes at the Munich Olympics. The raid would be best remembered for the female disguise adopted by several of the men in another team – including the future prime minister Ehud Barak, who wore a wig and high heels. Lt Col Lipkin-Shahak's team was in civilian dress, but not in drag.

Emerging from rubber boats at the water's edge at 1am, the raiders were met by Mossad operatives who, posing as tourists, had reconnoitred the targets and rented vehicles. Lipkin-Shahak's team squeezed into three vehicles and were driven through empty streets to an assembly point near their target, a seven-story building housing the headquarters of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a dormitory for dozens of fighters. The 19-man team included a doctor and Mossad drivers.

Two scouts carrying pistols with silencers walked ahead. As they approached the target, Lipkin-Shahak heard the muffled sounds of the pistols and bursts of automatic fire. The scouts had been cut down by guards sitting in a car. Lights in the upper floors of the building were thrown on and fire opened from windows. Instead of aborting the now compromised mission, Lipkin-Shahak ordered covering fire and led his men forward at a run into the lobby of the building. They carried with them the scouts lying outside, one of them dead, the other mortally wounded. When an elevator filled with Palestinian fighters reached the bottom floor, the commandos riddled it with gunfire.

By radio, Lipkin-Shahak summoned a car carrying explosives. The scouts were placed inside and the driver was directed to take them to the doctor at the assembly point. Meanwhile, the men in the lobby placed the explosives and activated the delay mechanism. As they headed back to the vehicles, they heard the explosion behind them.

Lipkin-Shahak was dismayed to discover that the car with the scouts had disappeared. When the commandos reached their pick-up point on the shore, they found the missing car. The Mossad driver, a middle-aged man, said he had believed all was lost.

The Medal of Valour Lipkin-Shahak received for his role in the operation came five years after he won his first citation, at the battle of Karameh in Jordan. An Israeli punitive force had met unexpectedly heavy resistance and was forced to retreat. The then paratroop captain was cited for continuing to fight and to evacuate his solders "in a composed and courageous manner despite the difficult conditions his force faced." Lipkin-Shahak's own sardonic take on medals was that "they are usually given in places where things don't go according to plan."

He was born in Tel Aviv in 1944 and attended a military preparatory school. Joining the paratroop brigade, he worked his way up the ranks rapidly. For five years he headed military intelligence and was then appointed deputy Chief of Staff. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who admired his professionalism and amiable personality, chose him in 1993 to head the Israeli delegation to peace talks with the Palestinians that would lead to the Oslo Agreements. A photograph showing the Israeli officer walking along the beach at Taba in Sinai with the head of the Egyptian delegation, Dr Nabil Shaath, was published around the world, seemingly signalling a peace breakthrough. That hope would founder soon enough.

Shaath published a tribute to Lipkin-Shahak in the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Achronot, a rare salute by a Palestinian leader to an Israeli general. Recalling their first meeting, Shaath wrote that the Israeli officer had said, "Dr Shaath, you're better than me at writing and delivering speeches. I would be happy if you'd glance at the speech I've written for the opening of the talks." Terming him "the peace general", the former US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said "There wasn't anybody the Palestinians trusted more than Amnon."

Lipkin-Shahak would succeed Ehud Barak as Chief of Staff. His relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, who became prime minister, were strained as Netanyahu distanced himself from the peace process. Retiring from the army in 1998, Lipkin-Shahak helped form the short-lived Centre Party. At his introductory press conference his first sentence was "Netanyahu is a danger to this country." It was also his second sentence.

He served briefly in minor ministerial roles in a subsequent Labour government headed by Barak but abandoned party politics after two years. He would sign on, however, to pro-peace initiatives. He supported J Street, a liberal, largely Jewish, advocacy group in Washington opposed to Israeli settlements. He also helped draft the so-called Geneva Accord, an outline of a peace treaty proposed by former Israeli and Palestinian officials.From his death bed in hospital, Lipkin-Shahak, who died of leukaemia, telephoned friends to say goodbye. One call was to President Shimon Peres, who refused to say goodbye on the phone and drove to the hospital to take his leave there. Lipkin-Shahak did not call Netanyahu but the prime minister telephoned him.

The general was aware that the Knesset to be elected next month will almost certainly be even further to the right than Netanyahu himself. In a protocol of their conversation printed in the media, Lipkin-Shahak urged the man he once called "dangerous" to alter his course. "I wish for you to have the strength, wisdom and courage to make the right decisions," he said. "You can make important decisions for this country. It's only you. Just you alone."

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, soldier: born Tel Aviv 18 March 1944; twice married (five children); died Jerusalem 19 December 2012.

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