Born Ezer Weizmann, June 15, 1924, in Tel Aviv, Israel; died of respiratory infections, April 24, 2005, in Caesarea, Israel. Politician. For 50 years, as Israel's air force chief, defense minister, and president, as a leader and a political maverick, a warrior and peacemaker, Ezer Weizman provoked his country with his bold, brash personality. Like many Israeli politicians, Weizman first became famous by leading Israel to a military victory in a war with its Arab neighbors, then became an advocate of peace later in life. But Weizman's transformation was even more dramatic than most: he helped plot a bold pre-emptive attack on Egypt in 1967, then helped forge a peace treaty with Egypt eleven years later. In politics, he was an unreliable ally, pushing prime ministers on the right to negotiate with Israel's Arab foes and pressing left-wing prime ministers to be cautious of them. "A commander should have some kind of personal hallmark, which sets him apart from everyone else," he wrote in On Eagles' Wings, his memoir, according to the Washington Post. His outspokenness and unpredictability became his signature.
Weizman was born in 1924 into one of the most prominent Jewish families in what is now Israel. His uncle, Chaim Weizmann, became the first president of Israel, and many of his aunts, uncles and other relatives were leaders in charities and schools across the country. His father, Yehiel Weizmann, was an agronomist who taught at the Technicon, a prominent school. Weizman dropped the second "n" from his last name to distinguish himself from his famous uncle.
During World War II, when Israel was part of the British mandate of Palestine, Weizman volunteered to join Britain's Royal Air Force with the help of his uncle, president of the United Jewish Organization. He flew a fighter plane in Egypt and India, returning home in 1946. A year later, Weizman helped organize the beginnings of what became Israel's air force and he flew missions against Egyptian forces during Israel's war for independence in 1948 and early 1949. After the country was founded, he helped build up the air force, purchasing modern fighters from Europe. Rising quickly through the ranks, he became commander of the air force from 1958 until 1966, and personally led the training of many Israeli fighter pilots.
In 1967, as deputy chief of staff of the military, he helped plan the pre-emptive strike in the Six-Day War that practically destroyed Egypt's air force. In two hours, 300 Israeli fighter planes attacked 600 Egyptian planes on the ground, destroying 200, and they destroyed 200 more in a few hours of air combat. Commentators said Weizman's raid won the Six-Day War in its first six hours. The raid made him hugely popular in Israel.
After the war, the outspoken Weizman pushed for Israel to annex Arab areas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. His outspokenness hurt his military career; it became clear he would not become the military chief of staff. He resigned from the army in 1969 and joined the conservative party Gahal, which led to him becoming minister of transportation for a short time. Throughout the 1970s, he engaged in a respectful power struggle with fellow conservative leader Menachem Begin. Weizman worked with Begin to build up the new Likud party and managed Begin's winning campaign for prime minister in 1977. Weizman became defense minister in Begin's cabinet.
Both men negotiated a historic peace treaty with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Begin and Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize for the 1978 deal, but Weizman did much of the secret shuttle diplomacy that kept the negotiations going. His friendly approach to Sadat and Egyptian negotiators at Camp David, the American president's retreat, helped make the talks there a success.
The stark change from hawk to peacemaker was evident in his two books, On Eagles' Wings, written in the mid-1970s, and The Battle For Peace from 1981. In the first, he argued Israel should annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but in the second, he defended the peace accord and seemed sympathetic to Sadat's argument that the West Bank and Gaza Strip belonged to the Palestinian Arabs who lived there. Some attributed Weizman's change of heart to the serious wound his son, Shaul, sustained in 1970 during the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, but Weizman dismissed such speculation as amateur psychology. (Shaul died in a car accident in 1991.)
In 1980, when tensions with Begin grew into open hostility, Weizman left the cabinet. He formed a new party, Yahad (which means Together), hoping to create a moderate force in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Yahad did not do well in the election, but still became influential because Likud and the left-wing party, Labor, had almost the same amount of strength in the Knesset. He joined the cabinet of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, but Shamir fired him in 1990 for meeting with a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) when negotiating with that group was illegal. Other members of the cabinet convinced Shamir to reinstate him, but he left again in 1992 to protest the government's refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians.
The Knesset elected Weizman president in 1993. Although the presidency is supposed to be mostly ceremonial, Weizman often expressed his opinions on how the prime ministers were doing. He disagreed with the Oslo peace accords of 1993 and pushed Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to stop negotiating with the Palestinians after suicide bombings. But when hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996, Weizman took the opposite approach, expressing unhappiness with Netanyahu, inviting Yasser Arafat to his home, and asking the United States to help Arafat and Netanyahu resolve their differences.
Weizman also took a broad view of his ceremonial responsibilities as president, visiting prisoners, refugees, and wounded soldiers returning from Lebanon and traveling to small, remote towns in Israel three days a week to display the Israeli flag. He stepped down before his second term as president ended, under pressure from an investigation into $300,000 in unreported gifts he had received from a French businessman and an Israeli businessman when he was a government minister in the 1980s and early 1990s. Weizman once claimed politics had never been his biggest ambition. "The thing I wanted more than anything in my life was to be commander of the air force," he said when asked in 1980 if he wanted to be prime minister, according to the Independent. "That was my piece of cake. Everything else is a little bit of cream." Weizman died of respiratory infections at his home in Caesarea, a resort town on the sea in Israel, on April 24, 2005. He was 80. He is survived by his wife, Re'uma Shamir Schwartz, and his daughter, Michal. Sources: Independent, April 26, 2005, p. 36; New York Times, April 25, 2005, p. B8; Washington Post, April 25, 2005, p. B5.
— Erick Trickey