Sixty Years Late, Centenarian Gets Promoted to Israeli Army Major General

Amir Oren
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Amir Oren

Reserve Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Pundak, who at one point commanded the Israel Defense Forces’ armored corps, will next week be awarded the rank of major general — one rank below that of the chief of staff. He was supposed to have gotten the promotion almost 60 years ago, but such an honor in Pundak's case hasn't come too late. Two months ago, Pundak celebrated his 100th birthday.

He is the first brigadier general in the history of the IDF to be promoted to major general as a reserve officer rather than on active duty. In doing so, he has wrapped up a successful battle to correct an injustice dating back to the 1950s.

On Saturday Pundak, who was born in 1913 and now lives in the Sharon-region community of Kfar Yona, got the news that IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz had decided at the beginning of the month to grant his request, which was also signed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. The promotion in rank will be marked at ceremony at the offices of the chief of staff, who was born the year that Pundak retired from the army. Ya'alon will be in attendance as well. Some officers in the IDF's manpower division have warned of the precedent Gantz's decision regarding Pundak would set, but the chief of staff figured that the chances that a brigadier general would demand similar treatment on reaching the age of 100 were slim.

Although a number of reserve officers in the past have been promoted over the years one step in rank from colonel to brigadier general, Pundak is the first reserve soldier to make the jump one degree up from brigadier general to major general while in the reserves. When the IDF rank of brigadier general, the equivalent of a one-star general, was established in 1968, the hope was that soldiers of that rank would be regarded the way major generals are, among other reasons because the number of officers with the rank, about 20, was similar to the number of majors general. But within a short time the number of brigadier generals ballooned to about 100 while the rank of major general maintained its more prestigious luster. Several officers were promoted to the rank of major general posthumously, and there were also officers who retired from the IDF before the 1973 Yom Kippur War who were recruited to return to active service and then promoted to the rank of major general, but never before has the promotion been given to a living solider in the reserves.

Pundak was a battalion and brigade commander during the 1948 War of Independence and commanded Nahal — the IDF branch that combines military service with work helping establish new communities — before his appointment as commander of the armored corps. In 1954, then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan promised the now centenarian that, as was accepted practice at the time, after a year of service in the position as head of the armored corps, which was officially designated as a spot for a major general, Pundak would be promoted to the rank, but five months later, Dayan informed him that it would not come to pass due to the opposition of Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon.

In his memoirs, Dayan later explained that Lavon had decided to freeze all such promotions to major general, with the exception of the promotion of Yitzhak Rabin, who headed the training division (and ultimately became chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister). And even though Lavon resigned several months later and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion then filled the post of defense minister, Dayan still failed to follow through on his promise. Pundak got the same treatment from Dayan's successor, Haim Laskov, who instead offered to help Pundak find work outside the army.

Pundak left active military service and took a number of positions in the civilian sector, including a position at the Labor Ministry. He also served at various times as head of the Arad municipal council and in the foreign service. In a later term as defense minister, Dayan asked Pundak to return to active service as governor of the Israeli-administered Gaza Strip and northern Sinai. Pundak acceded to the request, with the rank of brigadier general. He was frequently at odds in his job with the head of the Southern Command at the time, future prime minister Ariel Sharon. Pundak finally retired from active service before the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Yitzhak Pundak at his home.

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