Rechavam Zeevi

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rechavam Zeevi, soldier and politician: born Jerusalem 20 August 1926; counter-terrorism adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister 1974-77; Minister without Portfolio 1991-92; Minister of Tourism 2001; married (five children); died Jerusalem 17 October 2001.

To the end, Rechavam Zeevi was a soldier in mufti. Alone among the Israeli generals who went into politics, he continued to sport his army identity tag around his neck. It was a statement: the battle for the Jewish state was not over, and one of its most aggressive commanders was still fighting.

Zeevi and Ariel Sharon were the last of the Palmach generation, the unconventional warriors of the 1948 War of Independence, still in public life. Both adhered to an implacable strain of Zionism for which compromise, as Zeevi once put it, meant that Israel was ready to abandon its ancestral claims to the east bank of the Jordan. But unlike Sharon, Zeevi never even pretended to have mellowed.

He resigned as Tourism Minister from Sharon's national-unity coalition two days before his assassination because his old comrade was being too flexible towards the Palestinians and too accommodating towards the Americans: evacuating Israeli troops from a strategic Hebron hilltop, hinting at recognition of a Palestinian state.

From his Palmach days onwards, Zeevi was known as "Gandhi". In his youth, he had been lean and dark. He once dressed up as the Mahatma, and the nickname stuck. Yet he was the first to acknowledge that any affinity with the apostle of non-violence ended there. "There is nothing similar in our outlooks," he boasted. "We're 180 degrees apart."

He entered politics in 1988 at the head of the tiny Moledet ("Homeland") party, which was never more than a vehicle for his ideas. Its doctrine was the "transfer" of all Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza because there was no room for two nationalities between the Jordan and the sea. "We see the reality," he said. "Transfer is the most humane and just thing for the two peoples."

He never, of course, asked the Arabs. As a fifth-generation sabra, born in Jerusalem, he knew them well, their towns and villages, names and clans, but as objects not subjects, as obstacles to Zionist nation-building. It was only because Moledet did not explicitly call for the expulsion of Israel's own Arab citizens that the party was not banned under anti-racism laws.

In parliament, Zeevi revelled in speaking his mind. He accused President George Bush senior of preparing the ground for a second Holocaust; he branded an American ambassador, Martin Indyk, a "Jewboy"; and Yasser Arafat "Hitler incarnate". When Israel began handing parts of the West Bank to Palestinian rule, he vowed to shoot the first Palestinian policeman who tried to stop him.

Rechavam Zeevi was born in Jerusalem in 1926 into a poor religious family. His father was a Hassidic rabbi, but also the secretary of the Jewish Workers' Council. The younger Zeevi drifted away from strict observance of Jewish law, joining a Labour youth movement and then the Palmach, where his first mission was to blow up a British railway line in northern Palestine.

As a boy, he hiked the length and breadth of the land, claiming to know every hill and track. As a commander, he taught his men the same love of landscape. "A soldier who knows his country well and loves it," he said, "who knows its past and its history, becomes a better fighter." He named his eldest child Palmach, and a daughter Massada, after the site of the first-century Jewish zealots' last stand against the Romans.

A military career came naturally to him. It was, he explained, not just a profession but "a complete identification with a purpose". As the ruthless chief of central command after the 1967 war, he kept a lion cub in his West Bank headquarters. Legend has it that when a barking dog disturbed a staff meeting, the major-general went outside and shot it.

Typically, as a minister, Zeevi rejected advice to vary his habits, change hotels when he came to Jerusalem for Knesset sessions from his home in Ramat Hasharon, near Tel Aviv. He kept his room at the Hyatt, breakfasted on the dot, and spurned the very idea of a bodyguard. He was ambushed yesterday in his hotel by gunmen. It was a soldier's death, but a soldier in mufti, unarmed and, as it proved, defenceless.

Eric Silver

Comments