Ezer Weizman

Air-force commander who became Israel's pragmatic seventh president

Tuesday 26 April 2005 00:00

Ezer Weizman, Israel's seventh president, defied pigeon-holing. He was a pilot with his feet on the ground; a visionary who harboured some distinctly old-fashioned prejudices; an earthy, irascible charmer; a chivalrous male chauvinist; an Anglophile who once plotted to murder a British general. When he was nominated for the presidency in 1993, he said: "Throughout my life, I've done things my way."

Ezer Weizman, military commander and politician: born Tel Aviv 15 June 1924; Commander, Israeli Air Force 1958-66; Deputy Chief of Staff, Israel Defence Forces 1966-69; Minister of Transport 1969-70; member, Knesset 1977-92; Minister of Defence 1977-80; Minister Without Portfolio 1984-88; Minister of Science 1988-90; President of Israel 1993-2000; married 1950 Reuma Schwartz (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Caesarea, Israel 24 April 2005.

Ezer Weizman, Israel's seventh president, defied pigeon-holing. He was a pilot with his feet on the ground; a visionary who harboured some distinctly old-fashioned prejudices; an earthy, irascible charmer; a chivalrous male chauvinist; an Anglophile who once plotted to murder a British general. When he was nominated for the presidency in 1993, he said: "Throughout my life, I've done things my way."

When he was accused, frequently, of shooting from the hip, he replied that the gunslinger who didn't shoot from the hip was the one who ended up in the sawdust with a bullet through his heart. In 1996, he had to apologise to homosexuals after telling an assembly of high-school pupils: "I like a man who wants to be a man and a woman who wants to be a woman, but not a man who wants to be a woman."

Weizman retired in August 2000, midway through his second term as President. It was a chastened exit from more than half a century of public service, in and out of uniform. He admitted to having received hundreds of thousands of dollars as gifts from two businessmen, one French, one Israeli, while serving either as minister or member of parliament. At best, he was allowing rich men to buy his friendship. At worst, although nothing concrete was proved, he was peddling influence. Either way, he did not declare the payments and escaped prosecution for tax evasion only because the statute of limitations had expired.

At different stages of his political life - he was a cabinet minister in Likud and in Labour colours - Weizman was a dove among hawks and a hawk among doves. As Science Minister in Yitzhak Shamir's 1988 administration, he became the first Israeli minister to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organisation - at a time when such contacts were barred by law.

Long before Ehud Barak cast himself as "everybody's prime minister", Weizman played "the people's president". During his first term, from 1993 to 1998, he spent three days a week showing the flag in remote, neglected communities that never saw a politician between election campaigns. He visited prisoners in their cells, Ethiopian immigrants in squalid transit camps. Within the limits of his ceremonial role, he listened to their troubles and lobbied for solutions, never promising more than he could deliver. During his second term, when he was in his ailing seventies, the President and his wife, Reuma, comforted almost every wounded soldier helicoptered out of Lebanon, every family bereaved by war or terror.

Weizman was a more assertive president than any of his six predecessors, beginning with his legendary uncle Chaim. He refused to rubber-stamp Justice Ministry recommendations to pardon murderers, Jewish or Arab, political or criminal. He campaigned openly in late 1993 for a national unity government. After bus bombings, he called on successive Labour prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, to halt peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Yet, after Benjamin Netanyahu returned the Right to power in 1996, Weizman publicly scolded the Likud leader for dragging his feet.

In the longer sweep of Israeli history, Weizman made two major contributions. Between 1958 and 1969, as Commander of the Air Force and later Deputy Chief of Staff, he transformed the Israeli air force into a modern, professional fighting unit and schooled it for the dawn strikes on Arab air bases that won the 1967 Six Day War on its first morning. He steadied the command bunker on the tense eve of that war when his chief, Yitzhak Rabin, suffered a temporary nervous collapse.

As the Likud Defence Minister under Menachem Begin from 1977, Weizman established a rapport with President Anwar Sadat that more than once saved the Camp David peace negotiations from breakdown. Weizman, who had grown up in the mixed city of Haifa, where his agronomist father entertained Arab, as well as Jewish, friends, was the Israeli Sadat would still talk to. "Ezra", as Sadat insisted on calling him, coaxed and cajoled, smiled and schmoozed. Sadat melted. Weizman's brother-in-law Moshe Dayan, then Foreign Minister, did most of the devious diplomatic spadework. But it was the Levantine Weizman-Sadat chemistry that gave the talks another chance.

As President, Weizman filled a similar role, in October 1996, when Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat were no longer on speaking terms. He invited the Palestinian leader to his private residence in Caesarea and broke the ice.

Ezer Weizman was born in Tel Aviv in 1924, the second child of Yehiel, an immigrant from Russia, and Ida, the locally born daughter of pioneering farmers, but he grew up in Haifa. Yehiel owned one of the first cars in northern Palestine and would drive the family to Damascus or Beirut for lunch at the weekend. As a child Ezer met Orde Wingate in his father's house and was captivated, but his own dreams lay not with the Jewish commandos the charismatic British colonel was training, but in the sky above them.

In 1942, he joined the RAF, and graduated as a fighter pilot two years later, serving in the Middle East and the Far East. In 1947, he was one of the founders of what became the Israeli air force, ferrying in the first squadron of second-hand Messerschmidts from Czechoslovakia. In January 1949, at the end of Israel's War of Independence, Weizman and three comrades shot down five Egyptian-based British Spitfires in a dogfight over the northern Sinai desert.

The air force was Weizman's life for the next two decades. It remained the focus of his affection and nostalgia. He boasted that he made one of his first dates with Reuma by dropping a note on to a Jerusalem tennis court from a Piper Cub. "The phones from Tel Aviv were down," he smiled. Asked in 1980 whether he aspired to be prime minister, he replied:

The thing I wanted more than anything in my life was to be commander of the air force. That was my piece of cake. Everything else is a little bit of cream.

He continued to fly a private black Spitfire after he retired from active service. He climbed into its cockpit for the last time in 1998, when he visited the air force museum in Hatzerim to celebrate the force's 50th anniversary. By then 74 and President of Israel, he had to be restrained from taking it up for one more spin. Whenever he needed a metaphor, flying supplied it. Asked once if he was a hawk or a dove, he replied:

A hawk is like a fast plane, and a dove is like a slow plane. A fast plane can go slow, a slow plane cannot go fast. Therefore, a hawk has better manoeuvrability. As a hawk, I can always open up my motor, or I can shut off my motor. A dove cannot do that.

Until Sadat flew to Israel in November 1977, Weizman's predatory credentials had been unimpeachable. Soon after his discharge from the RAF at the end of the Second World War, he secretly joined Begin's militant underground group Irgun Zvai Leumi while studying at London University. He volunteered to assassinate General Sir Evelyn Barker, the notoriously anti-Jewish British commander in Palestine. The plot was nipped in the bud by Scotland Yard, who gently advised the young conspirator that it was time he went home.

As an air-force officer, Weizman did not conceal his opinions. He lectured trainee pilots on "the straitjacket of Israel's 1948 borders". After joining Begin's Herut party (a forerunner of Likud) when he hung up his uniform in 1969, he once told a group of Israeli editors, worried by his party's rigid opposition to territorial compromise on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan: "Of course we're flexible. The Arabs can keep the East Bank."

Given a free hand as Begin's manager in the 1977 elections, Weizman won his party's first victory after 29 years of opposition, broken only by a short spell in an emergency coalition from 1967 to 1970. But Begin was never comfortable with Weizman, a younger man with a mind and ambitions of his own, and their partnership ended in 1980 with recriminations on both sides.

Unlike Begin and his ex-underground colleagues, Weizman was a pragmatic rather than an ideological nationalist, with a staff officer's instinct for focusing on attainable goals. Once Sadat had in 1977 offered peace - "no more war, no more bloodshed" - the issue for Weizman was how to achieve it, not whether.

Sadat's initiative struck an emotional chord for the Israeli Defence Minister. When his son, Shaul, was posted to the Suez front as a 19-year-old paratrooper during the now barely-remembered 1969-70 war of attrition, Weizman wrote to him:

When you were born, I said to your mother that I just had one hope - that you didn't have to go to war as we did. Now, as you set out for battle, I ask myself, "What was the mistake my generation made? Where did we sin that you too have to go to war?"

Shaul was shot in the head by an Egyptian sniper, but recovered enough to accompany his father on negotiating missions to Cairo. He died in a road accident in 1991. During the Camp David era, it was fashionable to attribute Weizman's impatience for peace to the trauma of Shaul's injury. But Weizman dismissed such amateur psychology as too facile. "Regardless of Shaul's injury," he told me when I interviewed him in 1978,

I would still use arms today if I thought it necessary for the good of the country. The injury was a turning point in Shaul's life and a crisis in my life, but I wouldn't like anyone to think it affected my thinking.

His credo, expounded in 1980, was: "The State of Israel, within these or other borders, must be part of the Middle East. We must find a way a way to live with the Arabs." That quest remains his legacy.

Eric Silver

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