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Ezer Weizman, 80; Ex-President of Israel

April 25, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Former President Ezer Weizman, a warrior-turned-statesman who helped build his fledgling state's air force and later played a key role in peacemaking with Egypt, died Sunday at his home in the Israeli coastal city of Caesarea. He was 80.

The cause of death was not immediately disclosed by his family, but Weizman had been suffering for some time from a variety of debilitating ailments. Earlier this month, he was treated for pneumonia at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the Mediterranean port city where he spent much of his youth.

In the classic mode of many leaders of Israel's founding generation, Weizman -- a nephew of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann -- held hawkish views for much of his adult life, shaped by harsh battlefield experience in his country's many wars.

Eventually, however, he came around to the idea that achieving peace with Arab neighbors was the ultimate key to Israel's long-term survival.

In 1979, as defense minister, he helped secure a treaty with Egypt, the first between Israel and an Arab country

"In war, he was an extremely, extremely capable soldier, and eventually he became a great statesman in the search for peace," said veteran Israeli diplomat Avi Pazner, who had known Weizman for decades.

A colorful, larger-than-life character, Weizman was given to cantankerous off-the-cuff utterances that often landed him in controversy. His presidency, from 1993 to 2000, was tarred by personal financial scandal, though formal charges were never brought against him.

Weizman once advised a young female would-be pilot named Alice Miller that she might be better off knitting socks. Instead, she went to Israel's Supreme Court and won the right for women to take the Air Force pilot's test.

"He had a very sharp tongue, which many times got him into trouble -- he could be very abrupt," Pazner said. "But he was also a warm person who knew how to engage others, to draw them in."

Weizman was born in 1924 in Tel Aviv, in what was then British-ruled Palestine, to an old-line family of European descent that was considered Zionist aristocracy. Flying was his first love, and his natural skill as an aviator was readily apparent from early on.

He was only 18 when he joined the British Royal Air Force and became a fighter pilot serving in Egypt and India during World War II.

He would soon put his skill into service during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. With a small group of other young pilots, he formed a ragtag armada known as the Air Service of the Haganah, the pre-state army.

Before he was 35, Weizman was in charge of the Israeli air force. Convinced that air superiority was the only way his vulnerable young state could protect itself, Weizman engaged in concerted international deal-making to assemble an array of fighter aircraft that played a pivotal role in Israel's victory in the 1967 Middle East War.

Aviation remained a lifelong love. In his 70s, he took a World War II-era Spitfire, by then a museum piece, up for a spin.

Weizman's tumultuous tenure as president, a post that was supposed to be sedately ceremonial, marked the beginning of a political and personal twilight. Already frail by the time he left office, he was little heard from after his premature exit from the presidency. Many considered it a sad ending to what had been an energetic and distinguished public life.

But he shrugged off criticism. "I will behave as I think I should, and not change anything," he said after being reelected president in 1998.

Weizman entered politics in 1969, almost immediately after leaving the armed forces. His hawkish views were still in full force. He quit Golda Meir's coalition Cabinet in 1970, angry over the Labor Party's acceptance of a United Nations resolution he considered anti-Israeli, calling for a withdrawal from territories seized in the 1967 war.

In the following decade, his political views were colored by events including his son's near-fatal war wound and an unlikely friendship with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, nurtured by Sadat's landmark visit to Israel in 1977.

Several Israeli diplomats said Weizman and Sadat's rapport and mutual respect were a crucial factor in the success of negotiations that led to the 1978 Camp David accords and the landmark treaty between Israel and Egypt a year later.

By the 1980s, Weizman's dovish views had advanced to the point that he walked out of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government in protest of what he considered foot-dragging in establishing diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians.

Later, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir threatened to fire Weizman for engaging in then-banned contacts with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Although Weizman's death was announced on the first full day of Passover, a national holiday for which the country had shut down, word spread quickly. Soon, Israeli television newscasts were carrying blurry old archival footage of Weizman as a dashing young fighter pilot.

Tributes poured in from those of his own generation, together with younger Israeli politicians.

"He always searched for the original, the innovative," Vice Premier Shimon Peres, at 81 a contemporary of Weizman, told Israel's Channel Two television.

"Sometimes I argued with him and made up with him and then fought with him again and made up with him again because it was impossible not to like Ezer," said Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A state funeral is scheduled for Tuesday outside Haifa.

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