Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister and leader of the Labor Party, died Sunday in Tel Aviv. He was 80 years old.
Ben-Eliezer had been hospitalized for the last two weeks at Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzriffin. When his condition worsened, he was rushed to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he died several hours later.
Ben-Eliezer, commonly known in Israel by his nickname Fuad, was born in 1936 in the city of Basra, Iraq and immigrated to Israel as a teen. In a military and political career that spanned decades, he served in various senior military and government positions, including deputy prime minister from 1999-2001 and defense minister from 2001-2002.
Ben-Eliezer commanded the Shaked Elite Unit in the Six-Day War, was a brigade commander in the Yom Kippur War and a commander on the southern Lebanon front in the 1970s, during which time he initiated the "Good Fence" and established the South Lebanon Army.
At the height of his military career, from 1978 to 1984, he commanded the Judea and Samaria region. Following that post, he served as Coordinator of Government Policy in the Territories.
He was a lawmaker with the Labor party from 1984 through 2014. He held the cabinet posts of defense minister, housing minister, infrastructure minister, communications minister and industry and trade minister, also serving in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and acting as Knesset Speaker.
In 1994, Ben-Eliezer was sent by then-Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin to Tunisia, becoming the first Israeli cabinet minister to meet with the late Palestine Liberation Organization Chief Yasser Arafat. In 2001 he headed the Labor Party and from 2001 to 2002, the first years of the second intifada, he served as defense minister in Ariel Sharon's government.
In the political sphere, he was a national security dove, as well as the politician closest to the overthrown Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ben-Eliezer accompanied Israeli prime ministers whenever they visited Mubarak's palace, passing along messages and many times helping ease the tense relations between the two nations.
In 2014, Ben-Eliezer withdrew from the presidential race, in which he was a candidate for Labor, due to allegations of corruption. Police then launched an investigation which resulted in his standing trial on bribery charges.
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Ben-Eliezer. “Fuad served Israel for dozens of years, as a fighter, dommander, a public figure and senior cabinet minister. I knew him and valued his contribution and his special image. In many conversations with him Fuad expressed his concern and commitment to the future of the country which he so loved.”
President Reuven Rivlin called Ben-Eliezer "a man with many accomplishments who devoted the best of his years to Israel’s defense."
"In his many years as a parliamentarian and a minister, he was a devoted servant to the people and the country. With his departure, we salute his love for this land, his devotion to its defense and all that he devoted towards its development. May his memory be blessed,” he said.
Opposition leader and Zionist Union Chairman Isaac Herzog eulogized Ben-Eliezer, calling him "a lonely boy from Iraq, a brave fighter who completed his military service at the rank of brigadier general and went on to an impressive political career attaining the posts of defense minister and Labor Party chairman."
"In the recent past I held many conversations with Fuad about the cloud over him at the end of his life and he insisted upon his innocence. We bid forewell to a man and longtime friend," he said.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein issued a statement citing Ben-Eliezer's "invaluable contribution to Israel and its defense."
"Fuad devoted the most and best of his years to fortifying the Jewish people in its homeland, and was an important and dominant voice in our public lives over many years," he said. "Aside form his unique sense of humor, he will long be remembered as a special figure. I bow my head and send my sincerest condolences to his family and his many acquaintances, both in my own name and that of the Knesset of Israel. Blessed be his memory and his deeds."