He Understood - and Believed

Wolfie's extraordinary status and his influence in Israel and abroad also derived from his activity and achievements in many other areas.

It was hard to put a label on Ze'ev Schiff. Ostensibly the title "military commentator for Haaretz" sufficed, and because of that, by virtue of his personality, his authority, his knowledge and his experience, he was called the "elder of the tribe" and the "elder of the corps" of commentators and reporters on military and defense matters in Israel. But Wolfie's extraordinary status and his influence in Israel and abroad also derived from his activity and achievements in many other areas.

He was the confidant of government ministers and generals, a guide for the perplexed vis-a-vis diplomats and foreign correspondents, an interlocutor for figures from the Arab world who wanted to know and understand Israel. And perhaps most important, he was a man who not only understood, but also believed. During the course of his long career, Schiff changed from being "defense-minded" to being someone who upheld "peace and security," in the perception that Israel will never achieve true security without peace agreements, and that at the same time nothing is to be expected of peace agreements that are not anchored in solid security accords.

His extra-journalistic activity was conducted for the most part along three tracks:

  • Books: Along with three colleagues (Eitan Haber, Ehud Ya'ari and Raphael Rothstein), Schiff wrote a series of books that deal with Israel's security and its relations with the Arab world. The most important of them is "Israel's Lebanon War" (published in an English version in 1984), which he co-wrote with Ya'ari. In it, the two, for the first time and in a comprehensive way, presented the story of the first Lebanon War. Before the book was published, Schiff and Ya'ari published an article in the important American journal Foreign Policy that was based on the transcript of a conversation between Ariel Sharon and Alexander Haig - a rare journalistic achievement that cast a shaft of light on the way the defense minister of a small country tries to extract a "green light" from the American secretary of state for a grandiose plan with which he went to war in Lebanon.

  • Research institutes and think tanks: These institutes in Israel and abroad were a natural arena for someone who walked beside the shapers of policy, but never played an official role in policy-making. Ze'ev helped and contributed of his wisdom and his experience to the establishment of four such institutes: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Saban Center, which were founded by his close friend Martin Indyk; and the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and its new and expanded incarnation as the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, where he served on the board. Schiff's status in the security studies community was reflected in the fact that he was invited to join the board of trustees of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the "Mecca" of the field.

  • "Parallel track" diplomacy: Schiff's virtues - his knowledge, his wisdom, his discretion and his ability to communicate with a wide variety of people - made him a key figure in the network of unofficial dialogues that since the 1970s has been accompanying the limping official peace process. In these dialogues, "unofficial" but knowledgeable Israelis talk with Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, people from the Gulf states and North Africa, and, of late, also with Iranians.

    It is hard to exaggerate the importance of such meetings, which enable representatives of the elites and of civil societies from antagonistic sides to get to know one another, to learn, to teach and to build a broader basis of support for agreements that are ultimately signed between statesmen and diplomats.

    Ze'ev loved these meetings for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that at the end of the day, as at its beginning, he was a journalist and a commentator; what he learned at these meetings, without quoting and without betraying trust, also nourished his columns in Haaretz.

    I will miss him very much, as a writer, as a colleague and as a friend.

    The author served as Israel's ambassador to Washington and as president of Tel Aviv University.