He was the ultimate Israeli highflier, literally as well as metaphorically, shepherding and shaping the Jewish state through war and peace with a singular, sometimes mordant charm. And though Ezer Weizman, who died Sunday at 80, ended his public career tainted by scandal, to many Israelis he typified a national ideal.
“Ezer was a symbol and the embodiment of the Israeli sabra,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said of the former air force chief, defense minister and president. “I have lost a commander and a friend.”
Israel’s political and military establishment showed up en masse at Tuesday’s memorial service to listen as Sharon, President Moshe Katsav, Israel Air Force head Eliezer Shkedi and Weizman’s daughter, Michal Yaffe, eulogized him.
“Weizman will be remembered as a great patriot,” Katsav said. Directing his words to his dead friend, he added, “A sense of hope and resilience is following you, not that of despair and grief.”
As Sharon paid tribute to Weizman’s strength, importance and wisdom, he added, “There was also another Ezer, of the colony, the bottle of drink, the laughter, which all created a special spirit in the Air Force.”
Weizman was buried later Tuesday. By his choice, his final resting place is not on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, where many of Israel’s national leaders are buried, but in Or Akiva, next to his son Shaul and his daughter-in-law Rachel, both of whom died in a 1992 road accident.
The scion of Zionist aristocracy — his uncle Chaim was Israel’s first president — Weizman was born in Tel Aviv in 1924 and served in the Haganah underground. After earning a flying license as a teenager, he volunteered to fight alongside British pilots in the Royal Air Force during World War II.
The experience gave Weizman the knowledge needed to help found the Jewish state’s air force.
Weizman grew up in a multilingual home — Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, English and Hebrew all could be heard there — and spent time studying in London, where his sister lived. Those experiences combined gave him command both of the Queen’s English and European-style diplomacy, both of which proved useful in brokering Israel’s landmark Camp David peace accord with Egypt in 1979.
“Just as he fought bravely for Israel’s security, so too did he struggle spiritedly for peace,” fellow elder statesman Shimon Peres said. “He never ceased charming the country, from its first founding.”
Former President Carter, who brokered the Camp David agreement, called Weizman “one of the true heroes of Israel, in both times of war and peace.”
But Weizman always remained the scrappy sabra, indifferent to — and sometimes clearly delighting in — the offense his wit could cause among feminists, gays and the religious.
Approached by a young woman who wanted to become one of Israel’s first female fighter pilots, Weizman notoriously responded, “Maydele, have you ever seen a man darning socks?”
After the 1967 Six Day War, a victory in which the Israel Air Force that Weizman had created played such a key role, the deputy chief of staff doffed his uniform and joined Golda Meir’s coalition government. Yet Weizman resigned a year later to protest Jerusalem’s acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which called for Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured during the conflict.
That he was to become a key player in Camp David, when Israel agreed to return the Sinai to Egypt, heralded a rather contrarian style of politics on Weizman’s part. Having helped engineer the election victory of Menachem Begin’s Likud party in 1977, he later became a member of Labor.
Weizman quit parliamentary politics in 1992, shortly after his son and daughter-in-law were killed in a car crash. A year later he accepted Labor’s nomination to become Israel’s president, a post confirmed by the Knesset.
Following the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Weizman harangued Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for being too quick to negotiate with the Palestinians, and later criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being too slow.
Weizman relished the office of president, which allowed him not only to challenge Israeli leaders but also to represent the country abroad. Yet his tenure ended under a cloud in 2000 when Weizman, dogged by revelations of financial impropriety while he served in the Cabinet, became the first president to resign.
His health declined soon thereafter, and he spent much of this year hospitalized. Weizman is survived by his widow Reuma and their daughter Michal.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.