Obituary: General Matti Peled

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The Independent Online
Matti Peled was not the first Israeli public figure to seek peace with the Arabs, in particular the Palestinians, but he was the first army general with a fine combat record to devote his life to the vision of peace and to be ready to be the object of virulent attacks for doing so.

Peled's critics could not deny his achievements on the field of battle, and so persisted in denigrating him as an oddity. Yet informed Israelis never ceased to admire his courage and to appreciate his analytical mind. He was a welcome contributor not only to the liberal Haaretz newspaper but to Maariv, the mass-circulation hard-line nationalistic evening tabloid. President Ezer Weizmann, who himself went through a painful transformation from a hawk into a dove, described Peled as "one of the most outstanding and interesting figures of the 1948 generation. He was intelligent, wise and a good friend. Matti knew how to pound on the table when it was time to go to war, like the eve of the Six-Day War, and he strongly voiced the need to make peace when he thought it was possible." Peled should be remembered, Weizmann stress-ed, as a fighter, academician and peacemaker.

Peled's attitude followed Winston Churchill's dictum: staunch in war, magnanimous in peace. But even his closest admirers - and many remained silent - were surprised at his persistent call to make peace with the PLO when it was still involved in terrorist acts. His political enemies in the right-wing Likud, led by Menachem Begin and later Yitzak Shamir, saw him as a traitor whom they would have been glad to put on trial had they obtained sufficient evidence against him. He held meetings with PLO figures at a time when it was still illegal to do so.

Peled's career in the Israeli army began with the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 when he fought on the Jerusalem front. Ten years earlier he had been accepted into the Palmach, the lite group of the Haganah defence organisation. He displayed initiative and logical thinking similar to that which marked his contemporary Yitzak Rabin. This was particularly vital when Peled commanded relief convoys to besieged Israeli settlements. Sent to the south to face the advancing Egyptians in the Negev desert, he was twice wounded when his company was surrounded.

Acknowledged as a highly promising officer, Peled was later sent on a staff officers' course in England and was among the founders of the Israeli Defence Forces Staff and Command College which was to play a vital role in the development of the powerful army and air force.

So conspicuous was Peled's contribution to the Sinai campaign of 1956, led by Moshe Dayan, that he was appointed military governor of the captured Gaza Strip. In 1964 he was promoted major-general and put in charge of the Logistics Branch which brought about significant changes in the forces.

With the threat of an Egyptian invasion of Israel in June 1967, Peled was insistent on an immediate pre-emptive strike, as the Egyptians had broken their agreements and Israel could not for long retain mobilisation. The resulting devastating Israeli victory, leading to the capture of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, vindicated Peled's military judgement. But he felt that the victory gave Israel, for the first time, a chance to make peace with the Arabs by offering them land for peace. At first the Israeli government of Levi Eshkol took a similar view, apparently offering large-scale withdrawals; but when Arab leaders remained negative the offer died.

Peled felt that Israel must take the peace offensive even if the Arabs appeared reluctant to respond. He had first been struck by the intensity of Arab nationalist feelings when he served as governor of Gaza. He became convinced that the only way forward was not by dominating the Palestinians but by living alongside them.

Leaving the Israeli army in 1969, embittered by the failure of his peace advocacy, Peled began a unique academic and political career. Fascinated by Arab language and literature, he obtained a PhD at the University of California Los Angeles. He was given a senior post at Tel Aviv University and lectured there until 1990, an example of an Israeli institution taking a liberal attitude to a rebel opposed to the main Knesset parties.

Passionately entering politics, Peled became a close friend of Issam Sartawi, one of the many PLO officials he met despite legal objections. Sartawi was to pay with his life for his advocacy of peace with Israel. Refusing to be intimidated, Peled helped to establish the Israel Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Peled was also involved with two small left-wing Israeli parties, Ya'ad and Sheli, but for him the most significant move was the formation on the eve of the 1984 general election of the Progressive List for Peace which won two seats in the Knesset. Peled served as a member until the 1988 elections, always eloquent and frequently the target of abuse.

Even when weakened by cancer, Peled continued to wage his campaign for peace. He formed the Gush Shalom organisation and tried to mitigate the plight of soldiers jailed for refusing to serve on the West Bank.

At first Peled strongly supported Rabin's peace deal with the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Oslo, in 1993, but Peled became critical of Rabin, accusing him of not doing enough to make a real peace with the Palestinians. Yet Peled could now feel that his concept of peace with the Arabs, which had for so many years made him an outsider, had been accepted by a large section of the Israeli people and that he could justly join the late President Anwar Sadat as one of the prophets of Arab-Israeli understanding.

Joseph Finklestone

Matityahu Peled, soldier: born Haifa 20 July 1923; married (two sons, two daughters); died Jerusalem 10 March 1995.

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