NEW YORK (Sep. 23)
It was October 1973, the Yom Kippur War was raging and Israel was facing the abyss.
Kalman Sultanik, a World Zionist Organization executive, was riding through New York City with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz, when Dinitz interrupted to call U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“Kissinger called him back right away,” Sultanik recalled. “They were like brothers.”
That relationship proved pivotal to Israel’s effort to convince the Nixon administration to airlift emergency military supplies to Israel, which helped save the Jewish state and launched a new era in U.S.-Israel ties — though Kissinger himself says that Dinitz’s efforts have yet to be sufficiently recognized.
“He was a superb representative of his country, whose role in saving his country in the 1973 war has never been adequately appreciated,” Kissinger told JTA.
On Tuesday morning, Dinitz, 74, died of a heart attack at his Jerusalem home. His death sparked an outpouring of grief from friends and former colleagues, who paid tribute to the Zionist leader from the generation of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.
Dinitz was “Mr. Diplomat,” said longtime aide and friend Zvi Rafiah. “I believe he was the best ambassador Israel ever had.”
Dinitz’s career of nearly 40 years in public service grew out of classical Labor Zionist roots.
Simcha Dinitz was born in 1929 in Tel Aviv and attended the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium Secondary School before joining the Jewish underground militia, the Haganah, which gave birth to the Israel Defense Forces.
He fought with the fledgling IDF in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, then studied political science at the University of Cincinnati.
He went on to earn a master’s degree in international law from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1957.
Dinitz got his start at the information department in Jerusalem of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before heading the office of the ministry’s director-general.
In 1966 Dinitz was named Israeli envoy to Rome, and in 1968 he became information minister at the Israeli embassy in Washington.
It was during that post-Six Day War period that some credit Dinitz with recognizing a split in American Jewish political views of Israel.
“The liberals in the United States preferred an Israel that was weak and needy — a perpetual, objectified victim,” Dinitz said, according to a June 2002 article in the National Review magazine.
Conservatives, on the other hand, “saw Israel defeat the Soviet-backed Arab states on three separate fronts and reached the conclusion that the Jewish state was an ally to be counted on,” Dinitz reportedly said.
“Political alliances switched overnight, throwing American Jews for a loop.”
In March, 1973, Dinitz was named Israel’s top envoy to Washington. It was there that Rafiah served as congressional liaison under Dinitz, a period that began with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ended with the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
Rafiah said Dinitz cultivated “excellent relations” not only with the White House but with “the senators, the media, the Jewish community — everything you would expect from a successful ambassador.”
During this era, Congress began approving major annual foreign aid packages to Israel, which since have reached $3 billion a year.
Upon returning to Israel, Dinitz became vice president of Hebrew University, and in 1984 he was elected to the Knesset from the Labor Party.
In 1988, Dinitz was elected to head the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization.
That’s when Norman Lipoff, a prominent Miami attorney, got to know him.
Lipoff, currently the president of JTA’s board or directors, had joined the agency board and chaired its finance committee, which was about to make some crucial decisions regarding Soviet Jews.
After the Soviet Union crumbled and Jews could leave, it fell to the Jewish Agency to work out the massive plan of getting them to Israel, which became known as Operation Exodus.
“Who was going to bring them to Israel, Aeroflot or El Al? If they had to stay somewhere on the way, where would it be?” Lipoff asked.
“There were major issues — luggage, people’s pianos — it was a major logistical challenge,”
By 1990, a “massive flow” of immigration from the FSU had begun, one that would bring more than 1 million Jews to Israel over the next decade.
Bernice Tannenbaum, who chaired the World Zionist Organization’s American section at the time and is a former president of Hadassah, credited Dinitz with motivating the agency to embark on the major FSU effort.
“He involved people to a greater extent in the workings of the agency, and they worked toward a goal,” she said.
In another sea change, Dinitz shifted the way immigrants were absorbed into Israel, moving them directly into housing rather than placing them in absorption centers.
Dinitz also headed Operation Solomon, which airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a single day in May 1991.
But Dinitz’s distinguished career came to an abrupt end in 1994, when he was charged with credit card fraud while heading the Jewish Agency.
A 1996 conviction was overturned in 1998 by Israel’s Supreme Court, but the incident left a permanent mark on Dinitz, who remained troubled about the affair.
“It bothered him greatly,” Lipoff said. “He had great pride in what he was able to achieve, and it was a major personal burden to have that occur at the end of his career.”
Many who knew Dinitz spoke of his personal warmth, his rhetorical eloquence and his ability to find compromise in conflict.
“He carried out his mission with intelligence, indefatigable energy and constant good humor,” Kissinger said. “I trusted him even when we had occasional disagreements, and I considered him a close, personal friend.”
Dinitz leaves his wife, Vivian; their children Michael, Na’ama and Tamar; and eight grandchildren.
He was due to lie in state on Wednesday in Jerusalem and be buried on Mount Herzl in an area set aside for Israel’s leaders.