Former IDF chief of staff Lipkin-Shahak passes away

Leaders pay tribute to Israel's 15th chief of staff after he passes away at age 68 following battle with cancer.

President Peres and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak 370 (photo credit: Courtesy GPO)
President Peres and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak 370
(photo credit: Courtesy GPO)
Leading figures from across the political spectrum closed ranks on Wednesday in paying tribute to Israel’s 15th chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who died at age 68 at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem after a prolonged battle with leukemia.
Lipkin-Shahak also served as tourism minister from 1999 to 2001, and transportation minister from 2000 to 2001.
He was diagnosed with the illness while still in the army and took the unusual and courageous step of making his condition public before becoming chief of staff in 1995.
Former comrades in arms, who after retiring from the IDF entered the political arena, were unanimous in praising Lipkin-Shahak as a great military commander, a level-headed strategist and a man of remarkable integrity.
Lipkin-Shahak served as a company commander during the 1967 Six Day War.
In the following year he took part in raids on PLO bases in Jordan, for which he was awarded the Medal of Valor.
He rose through the ranks, going on to become head of the elite Duchifat Paratroop Battalion before being appointed to command Paratroop Battalion 50.
In 1973, Lipkin-Shahak won the Medal of Valor again for leading part of a commando force in a raid against PLO targets in Beirut, which resulted in the killing of around 100 PLO terrorists, including three senior commanders.
In the Yom Kippur War the following October, Lipkin- Shahak fought on the southern front in Sinai as a deputy brigade commander in the paratroops. In 1983 he became OC Central Command, and three years later he was appointed head of Military Intelligence, serving in the post until 1991.
He became deputy chief of staff in 1991, serving under Ehud Barak. He replaced Barak as chief of staff in 1995 before retiring from the military in 1998.
President Shimon Peres, who had a very close relationship with Lipkin-Shahak, received a phone call from him on Sunday. Lipkin- Shahak, who knew he was dying, was calling several people to make his last farewells.
Peres told him that he didn’t engage in goodbyes of this nature on the phone, and promptly ordered his driver to take him to Hadassah University Medical Center, where he had an emotional final conversation with the man who had been a cool-headed commander in war and who as a civilian fought valiantly and tirelessly for peace.
Lipkin-Shahak was among the architects of the private Geneva Peace Initiative with the Palestinians.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Peres wrote: “Since last Sunday, when I came to say goodbye to Amnon, my dear friend, at the hospital, I’ve been unable to rest. Amnon was a true hero who carried the torch of peace, a rare and exceptionally wise man. His students and soldiers saw him as a role model like no other.
“They trusted every word he said, and people queued at his door seeking his wisdom, honesty and courage. His contribution to the security of Israel is unparalleled. He received two medals awarded for his courage, his wisdom and his leadership. Amnon was a model man throughout his life, standing tall and acting justly. I loved him deeply.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was also among the people contacted by Lipkin-Shahak on Sunday, spoke to him on the phone and later told his aides that it was one of the most difficult conversations he had ever conducted.
People who were in Netanyahu’s office at the time said that the prime minister had tears in his eyes, knowing that it was the last time he would ever speak to Lipkin-Shahak, who was chief of staff during Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister.
On learning of Lipkin-Shahak’s death, Netanyahu expressed deep sorrow: “Amnon was an Israeli hero who dedicated his best years to the security of the State of Israel. He displayed his considerable heroism also in his brave conduct during his illness.
He never lost his nobility of spirit even for a moment. On behalf of the citizens of Israel I send our condolences to his wife, Tallie, and the rest of his family.”
Barak, Lipkin-Shahak’s immediate predecessor as chief of staff, described him as a model of bravery, leadership and commitment in attaining goals on the battlefield and in the diplomatic arena.
“He was one of the security pillars of Israel over the last two generations,” Barak said, adding that Lipkin-Shahak had been both a unique person and a friend.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, together with other senior commanders, sent their condolences to the family.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office noted that as chief of staff, Lipkin-Shahak placed an emphasis on building up the military’s combat capabilities and systemic preparations, bettering ongoing security, nurturing the combat soldier as a human being, and raising the motivation of reservists and conscripts.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon – who, like Lipkin-Shahak, served as a paratrooper, headed Military Intelligence and was later chief of staff – said Lipkin- Shahak was a noble human being and was a neighbor as well as a friend. Ya’alon would often stop by to see him, and neither allowed the disagreements stemming from their political differences to intrude on their friendship.
National Union MK Uri Ariel, who came to know Lipkin- Shahak well when the latter was head of Central Command and Ariel was secretary- general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Amana Settlement Movement, said he saluted a man who for the major part of his life fought for Israel’s security.
Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, who served under Lipkin-Shahak, succeeded him as chief of staff and subsequently became defense minister, called him an extraordinary human being, a man of outstanding integrity and a true friend who was that rare combination of military daring and thoughtful statesmanship.
Interviewed on Israel Radio, former OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Mitzna, who is now one of the stalwarts of the Tzipi Livni Party, spoke with great sadness in his voice. He spoke of the friend and comrade he had known since they were both teenagers at the military academy that was an adjunct to Haifa’s Reali School, and of the soldier with exceptional leadership qualities who later, while fighting for his life, continued to dedicate himself to the state and the nation.
Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich described Lipkin- Shahak as an officer and a gentleman who both in and out of uniform had been committed to the security of the state, and who, after shedding his uniform, fought to preserve the moral image of the country.
MK Arieh Eldad, a brigadier-general in the reserves and co-founder of the Strong Israel Party, recalled that Lipkin-Shahak had been his commander in Lebanon and the first to impress him as an officer who thinks before he criticizes.
He also demonstrated great courage in the field, said Eldad.
Naftali Bennett, head of Bayit Yehudi, called Lipkin- Shahak “an Israeli hero, a serious man of values to whom Israel owes a great deal for his contributions to the state that he continued to make to the last minute.”
Lipkin-Shahak was a staunch advocate of the Geneva Initiative for peace with the Palestinians and was one of its first signatories.
Others of those identified with the initiative issued a statement of mourning underscoring that Lipkin- Shahak had worked tirelessly in recent years to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of a sense of Zionist mission that had characterized his actions throughout his life.
Lipkin-Shahak, a sixth-generation Sabra, was born in Tel Aviv on March 18, 1944.
After graduating from the military academy in Haifa in 1962 he joined the IDF Paratroop Brigade. He studied in Israel at the IDF Staff and Command College and the National Defense College, and at the Marine Command and Staff College in the US.
In addition, he studied general history at Tel Aviv University, graduating with a BA.
He became a brigade commander in the paratroops, then took a reorientation course and joined the Armored Corps, where he served as a commander of both regular and reserve divisions.
While still deputy chief of staff he was appointed by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to head the Israeli military team in negotiating the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement with the Palestinians.
After his appointment as chief of staff, Rabin sent him to Washington for a summit meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Gen. Hikmat al- Shihabi, to begin negotiations for security arrangements in preparation for a hoped-for peace process with Syria.
After his retirement from the IDF, Lipkin-Shahak was awarded the American Legion of Merit.
In 1999, he threw his hat into the political ring and together with Dan Meridor and Roni Milo established the Center Party, which was soon headed by Yitzhak Mordechai. He thus won a seat in the 15th Knesset.
Barak, who was then prime minister, appointed Lipkin- Shahak tourism minister and then transportation minister.
He resigned from the Knesset after Barak was defeated by Ariel Sharon in the 2001 election.
Lipkin-Shahak associated himself with J Street, the leftwing American Jewish lobby.
He is survived by his wife, journalist Tallie Lipkin-Shahak, who was Israel’s first female military correspondent, working at the time for the now defunct Davar. He also leaves five children and several grandchildren.
His funeral will be held at 3 p.m. on Thursday at the military cemetery in Kiryat Shaul in Tel Aviv. The funeral will be conducted with full military honors. Eight IDF major-generals will be pallbearers.
Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.