Reservist general Shlomo Gazit, the first defense coordinator for Israeli policy in territory occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967, died on Thursday. He was 94.
Gazit was a senior participant in diplomatic and military decision-making for 70 years and went on to advise defense chiefs for years to come. He also served as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
In his memoirs, Gazit wrote that he had “been privileged to have had an extraordinary defense career, with an exciting combination of field command, guidance and policymaking. For many long years I was at the focal points of diplomatic and defense decision-making.”
Born in Istanbul in 1926 as Shlomo Weinstein to Eastern European parents, he immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1933. His elder brother Mordechai Gazit was an ambassador to France and a director general in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry.
Shlomo Gazit went to high school in Tel Aviv and joined the Haganah, the pre-state underground army, at the age of 16. Two years later, he signed up for the Palmach, its elite strike force. He had an active role in resistance against the British Mandate and participated in attacks during that period.
He also took part in the establishment of 11 settlements in the Negev as well as safeguarding a water pipeline in the region. During the 1948 War of Independence, he played a role in various battles and the captures of the Latrun, Beit Shemesh and Netiv Ha’Lamed-Heh regions as a company commander in the Sixth Brigade of the Harel Division.
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He held a long list of jobs in the Israel Defense Forces, including as head of the military chief’s bureau for former chiefs Mordechai Maklef and Moshe Dayan. He was also a military attaché to the French in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the strategic planning head and deputy commander of the Golani Brigade.
Gazit was also one of the founders of the National Defense College and a research head at Military Intelligence in the years leading up to the Six-Day War. He was the government’s coordinator of policy for the West Bank and Gaza Strip after those territories were captured in that war. As part of that job, Gazit established and shaped Israel’s military government in those occupied lands.
About half a century later, Haaretz published a piece by him in which he talked about what he saw as the central aim of that role: “to take care of the needs of the local population, people who had been severed from their previous governing authority.”
He wrote an open letter to an incoming government coordinator in the newspaper in 2014: “You are the one who must represent the population to the Israeli government, you are the one who must fight for it against government decisions, against IDF commanders, etc. And yes, I know that’s not easy, but against the settlers who want to remove and replace the Arab population.”
In 1973, a week after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Gazit was appointed coordinator for the government’s publicity effort, replacing Gen. (res.) Aharon Yariv, who had handled that mission from the start of the war.
Gazit’s last role in the IDF was intelligence chief, which he held from 1974 to 1979. He replaced Eli Zeira, who was blamed by the Agranat Commission for failing to warn of impending Egyptian and Syrian invasions of the Yom Kippur War and forced to resign. Gazit rebuilt the intelligence branch and later played a role in peace talks with Egypt, which were officially launched in 1977. “It wasn’t a personal error on Zeira’s part, it was an entire system that erred,” Gazit later said of the intelligence failures that were considered to have caused Israel to be being taken by surprise and lose many soldiers in that war.
After he left the army with the rank of general, Gazit was named to the top post at Ben-Gurion University in the early 1980s. He was director general of the Jewish Agency from 1985 through 1987 and a researcher and senior adviser on defense affairs. In the mid-’80s, Prime Minister Shimon Peres put him in charge of a team that held secret talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Tunis – the PLO’s main headquarters at that time. These talks presaged a first Israeli-Palestinian interim peace deal known as the Oslo Accords, reached in 1993.
In 2013 he won the Ben-Gurion Award for, in the words of the committee, “Gazit’s success in all his roles and readiness to propose original and creative solutions: Some were adopted and made significant contributions to Israeli security policy. Some of his proposals, which weren’t accepted by policy makers, warned of issues that arose later on. Had they been accepted, more than a few difficulties faced by Israel later on may have been avoided.”
For years Gazit published opinion pieces in Haaretz. The last one appeared in July 2019. In it he wrote: “There is nothing more critical to Israel in the current situation than a diplomatic agenda: What is the goal we are setting for ourselves on the Palestinian question. For 50 years Israel has been setting facts on the ground but none are a result of in-depth planning that could become a part of a diplomatic solution.”
Gazit lived in Kfar Sava and was married to Avigail, who died in 2017. He is survived by three children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.