Shlomo (“Cheech”) Lahat, Tel Aviv’s seventh mayor, who turned Tel Aviv into “the city that never takes a break,” died on Wednesday at the age of 86. Lahat, a major general in the Israel Defense Forces reserves who served as Tel Aviv’s mayor for two decades – from 1974 to 1993 – made the city a center for culture and tourism, and established many of the cultural institutions active today.
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Lahat was born in 1927 to the Lindner family in Berlin. His family left Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, making the decision to leave after the Nazis knocked on their door one evening, searching for Lahat’s father, who fled through a window.
The Lindners immigrated to pre-state Israel, settling in Rehovot. Lahat received the nickname “Cheech” when he was eight years old, playing tug-of-war in the public park with his friends. “I would yell ‘Tzin’ – ‘Pull’ – to my friends, and they made it into ‘Cheech,’ and it stuck with me to this day,” he later recalled.
Lahat was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and active in the pre-military Gadna program. He attended the Gymnasia Herzliya high school in Tel Aviv and went on to study law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He began his military career in 1944 when he joined the pre-state Haganah militia and remained in the army for roughly a quarter-century, serving as a company commander in the Givati Brigade, commander of the Armored Corps’s Seventh Brigade, an instructor in the IDF’s command school, director of the Central Command headquarters and governor of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War (during which he was among those behind the demolition of the Mugrabi quarter near the Western Wall and the creation of the worship area there). He commanded the armed forces in Sinai during the 1968-1970 War of Attrition and headed the army’s Personnel Directorate – a position he left in 1972 with the rank of major general.
Lahat was elected mayor of Tel Aviv in 1974 on the Likud list, replacing Yehoshua Rabinovitz. He remained mayor until 1993, serving four consecutive terms.
He stood out as an honest, blunt-spoken and self-confident politician who knew how to speak to his voting public. Commentators on the 1974 mayoral election wrote that he brought a new style to the position.
During his 20 years as mayor, Lahat transformed Tel Aviv into a center of culture and tourism. Tel Aviv’s beachside promenade, which has borne his name since 1998, was constructed during his time in office, as were the city’s performing arts center, the Opera Tower, the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, and the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. He was also responsible for establishing a school for nature studies, a school of the arts and community centers throughout the city, as well as the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Foundation, which raises money to assist distressed neighborhoods.
The Tel Aviv Zoo was also closed during his time, moving to the Ramat Gan Safari park in 1980. “There are enough two-legged animals in the city,” Lahat said later. He left his successors a large deficit.
Lahat disliked the ugly Atarim Square, whose construction was completed during his time. “During the Gulf War I prayed that a Scud rocket would fall on it,” he once said. Referring to tasks that he did not manage to complete by the end of his term in office, he said, “I regret that the subway project never got under way. That irks me a bit.”
One example of Lahat’s sharp tongue that Tel Aviv’s residents remember well took place in the midst of the scud missile attacks on the city during Gulf War in 1991, when he lashed out at city residents who had left. “Those who desert Tel Aviv are also deserting their homeland,” he said then.
On Israel’s 61st anniversary, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv’s founding, Lahat lit a torch on Mount Herzl to mark his contribution to the building of Tel Aviv. He criticized his successors over the high-rise towers that have since sprung up all over the city. “It’s become a city of real estate,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Zman Tel Aviv. “I’d like to see more public parks in the city. More greenery. I don’t think all these towers are good for the city. It cuts the residents off from the environment and isn’t healthy.”
Lahat is survived by his wife Ziva, former director of the Humanities Library at Tel Aviv University, two children and 10 grandchildren. One of his children is the attorney Dan Lahat, a Tel Aviv city council member for Yesh Atid.