Israel Tal
Maj. Gen. Tal at the front lines
Text size

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Israel Tal, one of Israel's greatest military commanders and strategists, will be laid to rest this afternoon in a military funeral in Rehovot. Tal died in Rehovot's Kaplan Hospital on Wednesday, a week before his 86th birthday, after a prolonged illness.

In the 1950s and 1960s Tal was among the most important builders of the Israel Defense Forces, serving as commander of the Officers' School, the 7th Armored Brigade and the armored forces and as a member of the General Staff under Yitzhak Rabin. He played a leading role in victories over Syria in the "war over water" in the 1960s, and over Egypt in Sinai and Gaza in the Six-Day War.

Tal is known as the father of Israel's primary battle tank, the Merkava, overseeing its design, development and manufacture. He was deputy chief of staff and the commander of Israel's southern front against Egypt in the final stages of the Yom Kippur War.

In one famous incident Tal, as commander of the southern front, refused an order by Chief of Staff David Elazar and Defense Minster Moshe Dayan to engage Egyptian forces after the war had ended, insisting on receiving authorization from prime minister Golda Meir and the Supreme Court. While Tal eventually won the argument, the incident virtually eliminated his chances of being appointed chief of staff after Elazar stepped down in the wake of the report by the Agranat Commission, which investigated the conduct of Israeli political and military officials during the war.

After leaving the IDF Tal was appointed deputy minister of defense under Shimon Peres, and remained in that position even after returning to active duty during Ezer Weizman's stint as defense minister. During this period Tal, at Weizman's request, prepared plans for a central ground forces command, a proposal that was thwarted by two chiefs of staff, Mordechai Gur and Rafael Eitan, fearing Tal would be named chief of staff following the command's establishment.

Later, Defense Minister Moshe Arena established a scaled-down version of Tal's command, which was later restructured as the IDF army headquarters.

President Shimon Peres said in response to Tal's demise on Wednesday that regardless "of which rank he bore on his shoulders he was, and will remain, a man above others. In his eyes, moral considerations were equally important to technological advances."

"The tank he designed was meant to be the best in the world, and it seems that it is regarded as such," Peres added, saying that Tal, above anyone else, was able to articulate a "strategy that distinguished between the need to save the country and to fortify it."

The president added that the former IDF officer knew that "there wasn't an alternative to victory, but he also believed that the alternative to war is the sought-after peace, which was at hand."

"He was Israel's inexhaustible dew ['Tal,' in Hebrew]. May his memory be blessed," Peres said.

In 1999 Tal suffered a stroke, following an argument over the Yom Kippur War with Maj. Gen. Doron Almog. Rehabilitation restored some of his capabilities. Several months ago he fell ill. Tal is survived by his wife, Hagit, a daughter, Pnina, a son, Yair, and grandchildren.