Weizman's Four Moments

No matter how impulsive and ambitious and made of flesh and blood and passions and nerves, Weizman over and over conquered his eagerness to reach the pinnacle to enable a greater, larger, national cause to benefit.

In current Israeli terms, Ezer Weizman was a loser, someone who makes it to the finals and then is beaten, a fighter pilot who ejects just before breaking the record, on the verge of getting the chief of staff's job but never does. He could have been prime minister with a little more self-restraint. Instead he went home. A president once, and twice, but with an embarrassing resignation, Nixonian, involving friction with the law. The almost man.

That's the narrow, brutal interpretation of the concept of victory. But with a broader approach, into eternity, Israel of the 20th century had no greater hero. No matter how impulsive and ambitious and made of flesh and blood and passions and nerves, Weizman over and over conquered his eagerness to reach the pinnacle to enable a greater, larger, national cause to benefit. At moments of truth he sacrificed his own chances for promotion and glory, for the greater cause.

He had at least four such moments, two military and two political. The first was when he refused for two and a half years to skip from the command of the air force to become Yizhak Rabin's No. 2 in the general staff, a stepping stone to the chief of staff's job. He preferred losing the seniority to Haim Bar Lev, and precious years in the campaign against him, just to make sure the next air force commander after him would be Motti Hod. Because of Hod's year of operational polishing - and the eight years that Weizman spent as air force commander before Hod - the air force succeeded in the air battles of the summer of 1966 and then in the Six-Day War.

Rabin, Weizman, commander of the armored corps Yisrael Tal and their colleagues created a different IDF in 1967 than in 1956. In 1956, the Israeli army operated with lots of infantry, with help from two powers, against one Arab front and managed to win because of a combat command headquarters that ignored the outdated military doctrines of then-chief of staff Moshe Dayan.

In 1967, the IDF fought alone on three Arab fronts and managed to win as a result of the force, structure and doctrine of the air force-armored corps. Weizman could have commanded that army, without Dayan above him, and won, if he had exploited the opportunity to act as chief of staff in May 1967, with Rabin's collapse. He also lost the opportunity to succeed Rabin at the end of the war: Bar Lev was brought back, though the generals, and not just the politicians of the Labor Alignment, preferred him as chief of staff.

His third hour was in Menachem Begin's government. If he sat there quietly, obediently, having learned his lesson after the clash between them in Golda Meir's cabinet, when Begin refused to accept UN Security Council Resolution 242, he could have become head of the Likud - and avoided the Lebanon war. Yitzhak Shamir, who opposed the peace with Egypt, progressed quietly while the peace supporter, Weizman, in the wake of Dayan, quit with a supersonic boom.

Four years later, Shamir was prime minister and offered Weizman half a kingdom and a chance to gain the crown, but Weizman preferred the moderate policies of Shimon Peres and tilted toward him as the first premier in the rotation.

Peres, with Weizman in his pocket, rushed into an alliance with Ariel Sharon. Unlike Sharon, Weizman did not have the patience to slog around in politics for a generation, watching younger people pass him by and then waiting for them in ambush. According to the contemporary definitions of victory, Weizman was less successful than Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak; but their victories were short-lived, temporary. Weizman's signature will long be seen from a distance.

Politicians who came from the career army - and not merely the Palmah and the war of independence like Yigal Allon - were considered ideological volatile, while actually they were used to updating their positions on the basis of assessments of new data. Dayan, Rabin, Bar Lev, Weizman, Sharon, Barak - ultimately, despite personal differences in style and their ability to maneuver, all gathered into one mainstream that changed the emphasis from the glorification of military power to understanding the limits of its political power.

As an aviator and a reader, Weizman was fascinated by the character of his contemporary, Chuck Jaeger, the champion test pilot and the breaker of the sound barrier, who seemingly was left behind when those who followed in his wake became the astronauts so popular with the masses. Both remained romantic individuals in an industrialized, commercialized and technological age. Nobody can take away their victories.