schwimmer - Archive - June 12 2011
Schwimmer, left, showing then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion a Fouga jet in the mid-1950s. Photo by Archive
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Alon Ron
Al Schwimmer Photo by Alon Ron

U.S.-born Adolph "Al" Schwimmer, the first CEO of the company now known as Israel Aerospace Industries, died Friday at Sheba Medical Center on his 94th birthday. Under Schwimmer, IAI became Israel's leading defense firm, keeping the Israel Defense Forces supplied with advanced weapons.

"Al Schwimmer was a man and a legend," President Shimon Peres said in a statement. "He made a decisive contribution to Israel's defense and its aerial superiority."

In 1951, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion persuaded Schwimmer that Israel needed a plant for aircraft repairs. Schwimmer closed down the company he had set up in California and immigrated to Israel to build the factory as requested.

In 1953, Schwimmer became IAI's first chief executive and remained at the helm until 1977, resigning after disagreements with the newly appointed defense minister, Ezer Weizman.

Schwimmer was born in New York in 1917 and worked as an aircraft engineer for several American companies, including TWA. He served in the American air force during World War II.

After the war, he was approached in New York by future Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and representatives of the Haganah, the pre-independence underground army. They asked him to help the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine, which would become Israel in 1948.

Schwimmer helped smuggle weapons and bomber planes into Israel, including a B-17 Flying Fortress. The planes were sent from the United States to Czechoslovakia, where they were loaded with weapons, and from there to Tel Aviv, under the pretext that they would be used for a film. Schwimmer went so far as to set up a front production company in Hollywood.

Schwimmer's activities were eventually exposed by the FBI, and he was put on trial. In 1950, he was convicted and stripped of his American citizenship, which was restored 50 years later after years of Israeli lobbying when President Bill Clinton pardoned Schwimmer before leaving office.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Schwimmer was involved in the espionage operation that allowed Israel to secure the plans for France's Mirage fighter jet, after Charles de Gaulle's government placed a weapons embargo on Israel and refused to honor a deal on the jets signed before the war. The plans were obtained by an engineer for a Swiss company that worked with French firm Dassault Aviation. IAI used the plans to produce first the Nesher and then the Kfir fighter jets.

Schwimmer was known as a strict CEO who had few qualms about confronting his superiors, which included defense ministers like Weizman and Moshe Dayan. In 1985, Peres, prime minister at the time, appointed him as an unpaid special adviser.

Schwimmer also tried his luck in the business world, but several projects he took part in failed. He was also compromised during Irangate - the sale of American-made Israeli weapons to Iran at the request of U.S. officials. In exchange, the Islamic Republic intervened to release American hostages held by Hezbollah.

Schwimmer was involved in the affair along with businessman Yaakov Nimrodi and with the knowledge of Foreign Ministry director-general David Kimche. His role was to lease jets and deliver the weapons, though the deliveries stalled several times, irking the Iranians.

Although he was a founding resident of the town of Savyon in central Israel, Schwimmer spent his final years in Tel Aviv. He won the Israel Prize in 2006 for his lifetime of achievements and contribution to the society and state. Schwimmer "dedicated his life to the Zionist enterprise, to Israel and to the aerospace industry. Thanks to him, Israel is a member of the prestigious club of countries producing civil and military aircraft and pilotless planes, while launching satellites," the jury said.