Ezer Weizman was symbol of Israeli sabra

Former president Ezer Weizman, in many ways a larger-than-life figure who played a key role in establishing the Israel Air Force and in forging peace with Egypt, died Sunday evening at his home in Caesarea, at the age of 80. “Ezer was a symbol and example of the Israeli sabra,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on learning that Weizman, who had been in declining health in recent months, had passed away. “Every station in his life was a cornerstone in the building of this country,” Sharon said in a statement. “Today, I have lost a commander and good friend.” Weizman, the nephew of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, was born in Tel Aviv on June 15, 1924. He learned to fly at 16 and volunteered to serve in Great Britain’s Royal Air Force at age 18, in the midst of World War II. He later became one of the founding officers and pilots of the Israel Air Force and undertook daring missions during the 1948 War of Independence. In 1958, Weizman was appointed commander of the IAF. He held the post for eight years, during which he laid the groundwork for the modern air force that spearheaded Israel’s lightning offensives in the 1967 Six Day War. Becoming deputy chief of staff to then-army chief Yitzhak Rabin, he also played a key role in the direction of the war. The shift from military service to political life came naturally to Weizman. In three decades in political life, he made a highly public transition from hawk to dove, saying the Jews had to learn to “share this part of the world” with the Arabs. Immediately after retiring from the IDF, Weizman joined Golda Meir’s government. Over the years, he resigned from his position in the Herut party due to differences of opinion with Menachem Begin, set up a new party, joined Labor, and later resigned from the party. His military experience enabled Weizman to be among the first in contact with Arab channels regarding peace processes. In the late 1970s he was in close contact with Egyptians ahead of the peace treaty between the two states. As defense minister in Begin’s government, he established close ties with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The personal chemistry between the two helped advance the treaty. In 1980, Weizman resigned from his post due to disagreements with Begin over the pace at which the agreement was being implemented. In the late 1980s, Weizman met with Palestine Liberation Organization officials in Europe, at a time when such activities were illegal. The prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, threatened to dismiss him. Toward the end of Chaim Herzog’s tenure as president, Weizman appeared to be the leading candidate for the position. Despite a certain lack of desire on his part, he agreed to take the post due to public pressure. Upon being selected, Weizman said he knew what a president was not allowed to do, but wasn’t sure what was allowed. Weizman served as Israel’s seventh president from 1993-2000. As president, he invited Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to his house, in an effort to advance the peace process. His casual style breathed life into the largely ceremonial office and endeared him to many Israelis. Weizman was forced to resign as president over a police probe into allegations of bribery while he had served as a lawmaker and cabinet minister. Charges were never pressed as the statute of limitations had expired. To be lain to rest on Tuesday Weizman had been hospitalized two months ago suffering from pneumonia and spent most of the time in intensive care in an induced coma and on a respirator. He was released from the intensive care unit at Rambam Hospital in Haifa 10 days ago and, according to a Rambam physician, he was fully conscious and breathing on his own. However, according to close associates, Weizman was released from the hospital in poor condition and had in fact returned home to die. Weizman will be buried in a state ceremony in the cemetery at Or Akiva, next to Caesarea, on Tuesday, according to a statement by President Moshe Katsav. Uri Levy, head of the municipal sports department in Or Akiva, and a close family friend for 30 years, said on Saturday afternoon that Weizman’s condition had worsened, and his family, who had been caring for him devotedly throughout his illness, made the decision not to take him back to the hospital. Weizman lost consciousness Sunday at 5:30 P.M. and he died at 7:30 P.M, Levy said. Mourners streamed toward the house on Hadekel Street in Caesarea where former president Ezer Weizman. Among them was MK Yaakov Edri, deputy minister of public security and former mayor of Or Akiva, another close family friend. “The first thing I said to ]his wife[ Reuma was that Ezer had returned home.” With regard to Weizman’s burial in Or Akiva, Edri said, “Ten years ago, when his son Shauli and daughter-in-law Racheli were killed in a traffic accident, Ezer came with a blank check and asked to buy a burial plot for him and Reuma next to their graves. Or Akiva was his protege. He used to sit in a restaurant and play backgammon with the locals. That was Ezer Weizman for us.” Yael Dayan, Weizman’s niece, who visited the family last night, said when she left, “The feeling of loss is like losing my father. Now Ezer too is gone. It’s a kind of leadership that’s very difficult to do without. I am glad he did not suffer at the end and was glad to have Passover at home.” Israel Air Force Commander Eliezer Shkedi, among last night’s visitors to the Weizman home, said, “We shaped and are shaping generations of pilots according to the heritage left to us by Weizman, a man with extraordinary vision.” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz defined Weizman as “a man of vision and a great political leader. “According to Mofaz, “Weizman’s vision combined military and political strength on the one hand, and an inexhaustible quest for peace with all of Israel’s neighbors on the other.” Weizman was a man who was not easy to be angry with, said Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on hearing of the death of the country’s seventh president. “His charm and uniqueness lay in the fact that he was not diplomatic. He tailored the president’s suit to his dimensions as a straight-talking sabra who doesn’t tone down what he thinks,” Netanyahu said. Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Weizman was unique. “In war, he showed incredible bravery, and when peace appeared on the horizon, he enlisted for it,” Peres told Channel Two TV. “He always searched for the original, the daring and the new. He knew how to warm the hearts of thousands.” BPI-info