The career army officer, military historian and former Knesset member Col. (res.) Meil Pa’il died Tuesday, aged 89. Pa’il suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Pa’il was born Meir Pilevsky in Jerusalem on June 19, 1926, during the British Mandate. His parents, Nahum and Bracha, were socialist pioneers from the Third Aliyah. He studied at the Tahkemoni religious school in Jerusalem, a school for laborers’ children in Holon and Tel Aviv’s Balfour high school, before volunteering for the elite pre-state Palmach strike force in 1943, beginning a career of nearly 30 years in uniform.
In the Palmach he participated in a series of daring operations, including smuggling in Jewish immigrants from Syria and Lebanon and blowing up the B’not Ya’akov Bridge in 1946. In his [Hebrew] autobiography published this year, he described how the bridge “crumbled into the waters of the Jordan River.”
At one point he was ordered to kidnap the leader of the right-wing Irgun movement, Menachem Begin, from a Jerusalem restaurant to Kibbutz Ein Harod. But after two days’ waiting the operation was aborted after Begin failed to turn up at the restaurant.
In an interview with Haaretz in 2001, Pa’il said that the Palmach’s legacy is dead. “No one is continuing [it]. The Palmach was a phenomenon that no longer exists. It saddens me to say this, but there’s nothing to do about it. This is the reality ... even the Palmachniks themselves don’t live according to [the legacy]. The only thing that really remains is the friendships ... and common memories. Beyond that, it’s gone.”
Pa’il had a number of assignments during the War of Independence, mainly in the Palmach’s Negev Brigade, as part of which he participated in the liberation of Eilat. He was appointed brigade commander when the Israel Defense Forces was formed following Israel’s founding in May 1948 and commanded the IDF’s 51st Battalion during the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He headed the Bahad 1 officers training school from 1964-66 and then the army’s department of military theory, before retiring from the IDF at the rank of colonel in 1971.
Pa’il studied history and Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University, eventually earning a doctorate in military and general history.
He wrote many books and articles about security and military issues, including three of the IDF’s basic training manuals relating to battle ethics, military training and warfare in the nuclear age. His doctoral dissertation at Tel Aviv University was entitled “How the IDF grew into an organized army from the underground guerilla Haganah [pre-state militia].”
Pa’il’s politics were always left-leaning. In 1973 he was one of the founders of the Blue-Red Movement, which merged with Maki to form the Moked party that he headed. He was elected to the Knesset in the 1973 election as the only representative of Moked, which merged with several other parties to form Sheli before the 1977 election. Sheli won two seats, which were rotated among five party members including Pa’il, but in the 1981 election it did not pass the electoral threshold. Pa’il was also among the founders of Peace Now.
‘The land must be divided’
In 1993, following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Pa’il said in an interview: “I belong to a group that was always a minority — and is still today a minority in the Israeli Jewish public — who believe that the agreement signed with supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization should have been signed a generation ago ... in order to continue realizing Zionism, the western part of the Land of Israel must be divided; and in doing so create equal rights for the Palestinian nation ... which should be allowed independent sovereignty alongside Israel.”
Pa’il recounted how already in 1967, after the Six-Day War in which he participated as an Armored Corps commander, he realized that the dream of the Greater Land of Israel must be relinquished.
“We cannot be only an enlightened occupier, but also a clever occupier who can see what’s coming,” he said. “This is the only way to survive in this Middle East — coexistence of two sovereignties in the western Land of Israel. The Palestinian entity exists here, not on some desert island, but in the Arab Near East. This isn’t what I dreamed of as a child, but it’s the best we can have in this reality.”
Pa’il is survived by four children, 11 grandchildren and a great-grandaughter.