Ezer Weizman

Ezer Weizman (born 1924) was an Israeli air force commander and statesman who became president of Israel in 1993. Weizman changed from a hard-liner to a leading advocate of peacemaking with the Arab nations.

Ezer Weizman's career was a stormy one, with a number of sharp personal transitions: from the professional military to civilian life, from politics to the private business sector and back to politics, and from membership in the right-wing Gahal party to affiliation with the left-wing Labour party. Throughout his life, Weizman remained one of the more colorful and controversial figures in Israel.

Love of Flying

Weizman was born in Tel-Aviv, Palestine (now Israel), in 1924. His uncle was Chaim Weizman, leader of the Zionist movement during the period before the two World Wars and later first president of the state of Israel. Soon after his birth Weizman's parents moved to Haifa where his father, Yehiel, taught agronomy. When he was 16 Weizman trained with the infantry of the Palestinian Jews' underground military organization, but he soon became fascinated with flying. "The air force is full of fine fancies, " he later wrote in his autobiography, On Eagle's Wings (1976). "Planes, flying, spreading your wings; the clouds and the roar of the engines; and that wonderful feeling of power, of being different."

In 1942 Weizman earned his pilot's license and saw service during World War II in Egypt and India as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. Demobilized in 1946, he became a strong advocate of the need for Jewish civil and military aviation as part of preparations for independence. In 1947 Weizman was given charge of a squad of Piper Cub aircraft. The squad supplied isolated Jewish settlements and became the nucleus for the modern Israeli air force.


Modernized Air Force

During the 1948 Israeli war of independence Weizman took part in Israeli's first air strike against Egypt, which then had a vastly superior air force. Following the war he remained as a career air force officer and helped build the fledgling air force into a strong, separate wing of the Israeli military. In 1950 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and chief of operations for the air force. In 1951 he studied in England at the Royal Air Force Air Command College. Back in Israel Weizman served as commander of an air base from 1953 to 1956, then became chief of the air force general staff. Weizman's efforts to make the air force more modern and independent culminated in May 1966 when he was promoted to chief of operations of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Weizman's advocacy of air superiority and the use of pre-emptive air strikes was vindicated in the dramatic success of the 1967 Six-Day War. During the first hours of the war Egypt's air force was virtually destroyed on the ground, assuring Israel victory. Nevertheless, Weizman did not hide his disappointment in January 1968 at being denied promotion to chief-of-staff.


Entry Into Politics

In 1969 Weizman, then a major general, resigned from the military. Known publicly for his hard-line stance, he entered politics, becoming minister of transportation in the government of national unity led by Golda Meir. Weizman was a member of the right-wing Gahal political faction of the Likud party. When Gahal protested Meir's call for a cease-fire to end the conflict with Egypt in January 1970, Weizman resigned his post. He engaged in a variety of business enterprises as well as in Gahal politics and maintained an uneasy relationship with Likud leader Menachem Begin because of his outspoken views. Weizman's hard-line policies were evolving into support of peace through power. In On Eagle's Wings he explained, "We must be sensitive to any hint of peace and open our hearts to any Arab attempt to put an end to the wars. But there is no prospect of this happening if we don't build up our military, economic and social might."

As director of Begin's 1976-1977 campaign for prime minister, Weizman was instrumental in engineering the political upset of May 1977, which saw Begin and his Likud party victorious at the polls after 29 years in opposition. When the new Likud-dominated coalition government assumed office, Weizman was named minister of defense. With typical energy and zeal, he continued the efforts of his predecessor, Shimon Peres, at rebuilding the armed forces. Weizman personally pursued a closer military supply relationship with the United States.


Promoter of Peace

Following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic peace initiative in November 1977, Weizman became an architect of Begin's strategy. He argued strongly that Egypt's willingness to recognize Israel and to negotiate a settlement of the Middle East conflict posed an historic opportunity. "My job had changed, " Weizman noted in his second book of memoirs, The Battle for Peace (1981). "Instead of a war room, I found myself in the negotiating chamber—and again I urged full speed ahead." During months of tedious negotiations Weizman used his warm personal relationship with Sadat to encourage the peace process, which eventually resulted in the 1979 Israel-Egypt Treaty. However, the process involved him in frequent sharp policy differences and heated exchanges with Premier Begin and other cabinet members. Finally, in 1980 Weizman resigned from the cabinet. He withdrew completely from politics, retiring to his home in Caesaria and various business projects.

In 1984 Weizman re-entered politics. He organized and headed a new political party, Yahad (Together), hoping to fill the center of the Israeli political spectrum. Expected to do well at the polls following an active campaign, the party did poorly, gaining only four seats. The two largest parties, Labour and Likud, were locked in a stalemate, and Weizman's seats were crucial. He helped form the National Unity government of both parties, becoming a minister in the Prime Minister's Office. Eventually, he completed his political metamorphosis by integrating his party into the Labour Alignment.

Weizman by the 1990s advocated Israel's withdraw from occupation of the Golan Heights, direct negotations with Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Weizman's advocacy of peace continually led to clashes with other officials. Named minister of science in the Likud-Labour coalition government headed by Yitzhak Shamir, Weizman secretly met with members of Arafat's PLO, which was then off-limits. Shamir threatened to fire him, then relented partially, but Weizman was drummed out of the inner cabinet, which decided on foreign policy.

In 1993 the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, named Weizman to a five-year term as president, a largely ceremonial office that carries prestige but little power. During peace talks in 1995 he questioned whether interim Prime Minister Shimon Peres could make decisions after many sleepless nights. He defied the prime minister by refusing for months to free some Palestinian prisoners because, Weizman said, they had "blood on their hands." With the peace process of the mid-1990s unraveling, Weizman pressured Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Weizman "sees himself as the voice of the people, " The Economist noted (August 31, 1996). Throughout his career in the delicate realm of Israeli politics, Weizman steadfastly remained his own man.


Further Reading on Ezer Weizman

Weizman's book On Eagles' Wings (1976) provides insights into his political career. His book The Battle for Peace (1981) details the long peace negotiations of 1977-1979 and his key role in them. A helpful source is William Stevenson, Zanek!: A Chronicle of the Israeli Air Force (1971).