Lt. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the 15th chief of staff of the IDF, who died Wednesday at the age of 68 after a long battle with cancer, was the last of the army’s princes. Shahak was a charismatic commanding officer, uncommonly brilliant, whose low-key, judicious leadership won him many admirers in the IDF. When he crossed the line from political to military life, he found it hard to fulfill his earlier promise. His brief political career left not only him but Israeli society as a whole with the sense of a wasted opportunity.
Shahak was born in 1944 in Tel Aviv and attended the military boarding of the Hebrew Reali School Haifa. He was a member of its eighth graduating class along with classmates Matan Vilnai and Giora Rom, both major generals in the reserves. When drafted in 1962, he enlisted with the Paratroopers Brigade where he served for most of his combat career. In the Six-Day War, he served as deputy battalion commander in the paratroopers. At the age of 24 he was appointed commanding officer of the Dukhifat reconnaissance company with which he participated in the 1968 Battle of Karameh in Jordan. For his conduct in this bloody battle, in which the IDF was stunned by the fierce opposition of armed members of the Palestinian organizations, he was awarded the Medal of Courage, the second highest Israeli military decoration, given for carrying out acts of gallantry at the risk of life during combat, the first of two such medals he was to collect. He was awarded his second for Operation Spring of Youth in Beirut in 1973 where he, as commanding officer of the paratroopers battalion in charge of the force attacking the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine demonstrated - according to fellow soldiers - exemplary bravery after two of his officers were killed in the initial engagement with the terrorists.
During the Yom Kippur War, Shahak served as Paratroopers Brigade Commander Uzi Yairi’s deputy in the battles fought in the Sinai Peninsula. In 1977, at only 33 years old, he was himself appointed commander of the Paratroopers Brigade and served in that capacity a year later during Operation Litani in Lebanon. In those years he commanded many other brigade operations in Lebanon.
During the First Lebanon War he served as commanding officer of Division 162. A year later he was appointed GOC of the Central Command. He was head of military intelligence of the General Staff from 1986 until 1991, a position of which he was particularly fond, and served as deputy chief of staff under Ehud Barak for four years. In 1995 Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed him the IDF’s fifteenth chief of staff.
War on Hezbollah
During his tenure as chief of staff, foremost on the agenda were fighting Hezbollah in the security zone in southern Lebanon and confronting Palestinian terrorism coming from the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority ran aground. Shahak was the first chief of staff who viewed the fighting with Hezbollah as genuine warfare against a guerilla organization and demanded greater professionalization of the IDF. He made sure units acquired the skills needed to go up against the Shiite organization by changing unit training and forming the Egoz Unit of the Golani Brigade specifically to concentrate on the fighting in southern Lebanon.
In the book “War Without Sign” he wrote about his IDF service in the security zone, Brig. Gen. Moshe (Chico) Tamir said Shahak declared the conflict in Lebanon a “war, not routine security enforcement,” thereby “changing the fundamental working assumption of the entire army.”
In those years, the public debate about the need to stay in southern Lebanon was growing more divisive. A series of accidents - chiefly the February 1997 helicopter crash and the September 1997 commando disaster - generated a shift in Israeli public opinion and led to the founding of the Four Mothers anti-war movement.
But it was only two years later, during the tenure of Shahak’s successor Shaul Mofaz, that Israeli leaders became convinced of the need for withdrawal in the wake of a roadside bomb that killed the commanding officer of the Lebanon liaison unit, Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein. Though Shahak harbored doubts about the need to stay in Lebanon, he did not urge the first Netanyahu government to decide on the retreat. The decision was left to the next prime minister, Ehud Barak.
Close to Rabin
Shahak had a close relationship with Rabin, who liked and admired him very much. As deputy chief of staff at the start of the Oslo peace process, Shahak was sent to negotiate with the Palestinians in Taba. The publication of a photograph of Shahak strolling on the beach deep in conversation with the senior Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath was one of the first steps meant to prepare the Israeli public for accepting the new reality of the country’s relations with the PLO. At a later stage, Shahak conducted the chief of staff talks with the Syrians.
Shahak’s tenure as chief of staff is memorable also because of the speech he gave in honor of the slain prime minister on the first anniversary of Rabin’s murder. In his address, Shahak expressed harsh criticism of Israeli society and its attitude to the army, which he said had become the country’s punching bag.
“In the great confusion that has overcome us, the IDF is losing its status. ... The unmediated connection between the IDF and civil society, which was the very lifeblood of the army, part of its unique character and an important part of its might - this connection has turned oppressive, suffocating, its motives suspect,” he said at the time....”Our strength comes from the justness of our cause, from the full understanding, from the deep inner conviction that we can’t manage without the IDF, and that a strong and empowered IDF is a precondition for living in peace and safety. But, oh how far we’ve come from the time when an army uniform was a source of pride and respect.”
At the beginning of 1996, after the assassination of Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash (aka “the Engineer”), the IDF and the General Security Service had to respond to a series of horrific suicide bombing attacks by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Israel.
As chief of staff, Shahak was very different in his approach from his predecessor, Ehud Barak. Barak had promised a “small, smart army,” but part of his program wilted because of routine security needs and internal opposition in the IDF. When Shahak assumed the position in January 1995, he declared at the outset that there would be no revolutions. When he left office, he said in an interview with Haaretz: “Revolutions are necessary in extreme circumstances. It’s very populist to say, ‘I’ll transform; I’ll make the army into this, that or the other.’ But an army is like a ship at sea. It needs stability as long as it’s moving ahead. Storms interfere with its movement and frequent changes of direction slow down its progress. I don’t believe in unnecessary revolutions for populist needs.”
Shahak also stood out for the strong backing he gave commanding officers on trial for responsibility for training and operational accidents. In the 1990s, military advocacy issued many indictments against commanding officers in the wake of a rash of accidents. Though Shahak never tried to interfere with the issuing of indictments, he expressed his disapproval by demonstratively giving promotions to officers who’d been tried.
Brig. Gen. Tamir, tried for an accident in Lebanon during this period, told Haaretz a few years later that “Shahak stopped the avalanche... The public support he gave commanding officers changed the entire establishment’s attitude towards us... Even when facing public criticism, it’s necessary to maintain basic values and support those who were sent to undertake an mission. They didn’t commit any crimes; at worst the were negligent.”
Clashed with Netanyahu
Shahak’s last year as chief of staff was one of constant tension and frequent clashes with Netanyahu, who was then serving his first term as prime minister. To a certain extent, the tension stemmed from differences of opinion over the government’s approach to the situation in the occupied territories and the implications of the deadlock in the political process with the Palestinians. But there was also a lack of personal chemistry between the two and Shahak viewed the conduct of Netanyahu’s bureau as reckless and unreliable.
Shortly after his departure in July 1998, after a three-and- a- half- year term, Shahak announced his decision to enter politics. At a press conference he called, Shahak described the atmosphere in Israel under Netanyahu’s tenure as depressing and worrisome, and promised to “restore the smile” to Israel’s citizens. But after a long series of attempts, at which he showed no particular talent, to make deals with various public figures, he found himself only in the second slot of the Center Party, whose elected leader was Yitzhak Mordechai.
In the 1999 election, the party won only six Knesset seats and became a fairly junior partner in the government headed by Ehud Barak. Shahak played an active role in that government and was involved in peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria. He served as tourism minister and transportation minister, and when the Center Party collapsed he joined the One Israel party (one of Labor’s incarnations) headed by Barak. Shahak left politics not long after the fall of the Barak government in 2001.
A disappointing political career
Later on he served as chairman of the Tahel Group, but remained an active public figure, for example as one of the signatories of the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli-Palestinian initiative to end the conflict. Still, his short political career cannot be called anything but a disappointing wasted opportunity, certainly when compared to his stellar military career. He may have lacked the necessary ambition (or sharp elbows) to become prime minister, though he had the abilities and personality for the job.
Shahak, who consistently refused entreaties to reenter the political arena, granted a few interviews with the media and continued to present moderate positions, calling for advancing the peace process with the Palestinians. Senior figures in the political establishment and especially the military continued to consult him frequently on sensitive issues, including how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. He was considered a close confidant of former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. In June of this year, Shahak said that “Israel mustn’t rush” to try to confront the Iranian threat militarily on its own.
In the last few days, as his condition worsened, many of his friends and former subordinates came to Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, to say goodbye. President Shimon Peres was among the visitors, as was Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who enlisted in the paratroopers as a young man when Shahak was the brigade’s commanding officer.
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