Kelly Johnson, Artem Mikoyan, Marcel Dassault. Who does not recognize the names of these great aeronautical engineers who designed and developed some of the finest fighter aircraft of the second half of the twentieth century? Ovadya Harari belongs right there with them. He had the talent and the genius to manage the development in Israel of what was the most advanced fighter aircraft in its day - the Lavi. But there is one great and tragic difference: Harari's aircraft was shot down - not by enemy aircraft, but by Israeli politicians.
Six weeks ago Ovadya Harari was accompanied by thousands of his colleagues at work, his friends and admirers, to his final resting place in the cemetery of Hod Hasharon. Many more, throughout Israel, who had followed with passion and pride the Lavi project, who had shared his dream of an Israeli-produced fighter aircraft, mourned his passing. They all still bear the scars inflicted by the decision to cancel the program 25 years ago, just when the aircraft's prototypes were demonstrating in flight their ability to fulfill the hopes which had accompanied the Lavi project throughout its development.
It is a unique Israeli saga. Ovadya Harari was born in Egypt and arrived in Israel as a young boy. He completed his studies in aeronautical engineering at the Technion, and immediately upon graduation, first in the Air Force, and then at Israel Aircraft Industries, impressed everyone with his great talent for successfully tackling the most complicated engineering problems. He was one of many hundreds of young proud talented Israeli engineers enamored with flight and dreaming of turning Israel into an aerospace superpower. He was destined to lead them in the most ambitious technical undertaking in Israel.
It was one of the miracles of the State of Israel. Starting from scratch, within a few short years these young engineers proved that Israel was capable of competing with the aerospace giants of the United States, the Soviet Union, and France. Seeing this accomplishment, aeronautical experts throughout the world stood in awe and disbelief.
Strangely enough, the skeptics were to be found at home, in Israel itself, who argued that the fate of Israel's weapons acquisition program should not be left in the hands of "overambitious" Israeli engineers. With little understanding of the process of aircraft design and development they claimed that developing a fighter aircraft in Israel was beyond Israel's capability, that the aircraft would not meet its performance specifications, and that cost-overruns were going to kill the project.
Those who led the campaign for the cancellation of the Lavi were the very same people who opposed the development of an Israeli reconnaissance satellite, and the development of the Arrow ballistic missile interception system.
Fortunately those programs were rescued from the fate of the Lavi, which fell victim to narrow-minded and uninformed views. There is a myth that it was American pressure that led to the cancellation of the Lavi program. Nothing is further from the truth. It was a self-inflicted wound, a shot in the foot.
The decision-making process in the Israeli government at the time is a story in itself. The cabinet was lied to by those arguing for cancellation of the project, and a one-vote majority was achieved in favor of cancellation after the Labor Party turned the Lavi project into a political football and ordered all Labor members of the National Unity government to vote against the project.
Ovadya Harari, who was seen shedding tears of disappointment, continued to serve the Israeli defense establishment for many years thereafter. He was instrumental in rescuing the Arrow project during a period of crisis and has many other accomplishments to his credit. He was awarded the Israel Defense Prize and, as a consolation for the Lavi cancellation, the Israel Prize.
Israel Aircraft Industries and the Israeli economy missed a great opportunity. If not for the aborted Lavi project, IAI could have become a large Israeli industry, competing with the best and greatest aeronautical industries, producing the world's finest aircraft. The decision led to a gradual deterioration in the skills needed for what used to be the core industrial activity of IAI - aircraft development and production.
The Arrow, the Iron Dome, Israeli reconnaissance satellites and many other developments of recent years have by now silenced the skeptics of yesteryear. But the damage has been done. Ovadya Harari's dream was not to be realized.
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