Rafael Eitan

Israeli general turned politician
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The Independent Online

Rafael Eitan, the earthy Chief of Staff who led his troops to a devious war in Lebanon in 1982, was the least complicated of Israel's generals turned politician. Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister who appointed him to head the armed forces in 1978, hailed him as "a soldier's soldier". Zeev Schiff, the dean of Tel Aviv military correspondents, wrote in Haaretz after Eitan's drowning this week that he was "unequalled in his bravery, but naive in his behaviour".

Rafael Eitan, politician, soldier, carpenter and farmer: born Tel Adashim, Palestine 11 January 1929; Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army 1978-83; Minister of Agriculture 1990-91; twice married (three daughters, and two sons deceased); died Ashdod, Israel 23 November 2004.

Rafael Eitan, the earthy Chief of Staff who led his troops to a devious war in Lebanon in 1982, was the least complicated of Israel's generals turned politician. Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister who appointed him to head the armed forces in 1978, hailed him as "a soldier's soldier". Zeev Schiff, the dean of Tel Aviv military correspondents, wrote in Haaretz after Eitan's drowning this week that he was "unequalled in his bravery, but naive in his behaviour".

For Israelis, he personified a Zionist myth: a son of the soil, born in 1929 to pioneering farmers at Tel Adashim, a smallholders' co-operative in the Jezreel Valley; an inspirational military commander who fought in every war from 1948 to 1982 and was wounded four times; a politician who cherished modesty and railed against the self-serving corruption of Israel's multi-party system; a man of few, but often blunt, words who loved poetry; a patriot who, in his seventies, took a job as project director of a commercial harbour being built in Ashdod.

Few were aware of his new career, but no one was surprised that he drove alone to the port at 6.30am on Tuesday to check damage caused by a storm the night before. A freak wave swept him away in mid-conversation on his mobile phone. "It might sound strange," his old comrade-in-arms Ezer Weizman said, "but it suits him to die at work."

Like many of his generation, Eitan combined a readiness for self-sacrifice with a blinkered nationalism. The Arabs were a nuisance, an enemy you couldn't trust. "They want neither partnership nor partition," he said. He once dismissed the Palestinians as "drugged cockroaches scurrying in a bottle". Only the strength of Israel's armed forces, he argued, could reconcile them to the existence of a Jewish state.

His insensitivity to Palestinian interests brought his military career to a cloudy end. An Israeli commission investigating the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinian refugees by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies in September 1982 condemned the Chief of Staff for "a breach of duty and dereliction of duty". Only the fact that he was due to retire two months after the commission reported in February 1983 saved him from dismissal.

Ironically for an Israeli super-patriot, he revealed late in life that his ancestors were Russian peasants, who moved to the Holy Land out of Christian zeal. One relative was a nun.

Rafael Eitan's military career began at 16 when he joined the Palmach, the commandos of the Hagana Jewish defence force. He rose steadily for the next 37 years. As a sergeant, he led a platoon in the 1948 battle for Jerusalem. Eight years later, in the Suez war, he commanded paratroopers who dropped in the Mitla Pass deep in Sinai. In the 1967 Six Day War, he was severely wounded commanding the paratroop brigade that captured Rafah in the Gaza Strip. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Eitan led a division that turned the tide by blocking the Syrian tanks driving across the Golan Heights.

After that war, Eitan served as chief of Northern Command, but his appointment as Chief of Staff in April 1978 came as a surprise. He was a bold, but under-educated, field commander with little experience as a staff officer. Although he himself sported an Australian bush hat, he tried to impose order on the notoriously undisciplined Israeli soldiers by forcing them to wear their caps and berets.

With Ariel Sharon, the Defence Minister, he plotted the Lebanon War, which evicted Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but failed in its second aim of fostering a Phalange-led government in Beirut.

After demobilisation, he founded Tzomet, a right-wing party. Eitan, first elected to parliament in 1984, was its greatest, perhaps its only, asset. In 1990, he joined Yitzhak Shamir's government as Minister of Agriculture. Two years later, Tzomet astonished the chattering classes by winning eight seats on a platform of right-wing nationalism, anti-clericalism and clean government. It soon began to disintegrate. After doing a deal with Likud, Eitan combined the agriculture and environment ministries. But he was wearying of politics and politics was wearying of him. In the 1999 election, Tzomet failed to win a single seat and Eitan withdrew from public life.

He married twice, and had two sons and three daughters. One son, Yohanan, died of leukaemia at the age of 10. Another, Yoram, an airforce pilot, was killed in a training accident. When a grieving friend came to console him, the old warrior rebuked him. "No one," he snapped, "cries in this house."

Eric Silver

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