Tribute: Ze'ev Schiff - dean of defense reporters

His accomplishments extended far beyond his articles and commentaries as a journalist.

schiff 88 (photo credit: )
schiff 88
(photo credit: )
Ze'ev Schiff was widely known as "the dean of Israeli defense correspondents" - an accolade he fully deserved and which he wore with pride. Schiff, who died at age 74 on Tuesday night and was buried in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, worked as the military correspondent for Haaretz since 1960. His accomplishments extended far beyond his articles and commentaries as a journalist, and included incisive television and radio analyses, as well as important books and monographs that allowed him to go into much greater depth. He was an active member of many important strategic think-tanks around the world, and he could easily have been a successful professor at a major Israeli university, as his rationalism, soft-spoken demeanor and jackets reflected an academic proclivity. Or he might have chosen a career in the government or military, and his views were frequently sought by prime ministers and IDF chiefs of staff. Most importantly, he was a mensch, in fullest sense of the word, ready to help out when useful, and providing penetrating but always well-intentioned criticism when warranted. In choosing journalism, he combined many of the other options. Ze'ev epitomized old-school professionalism, checking facts carefully, putting the story ahead of himself, and avoiding flashy headlines without substance. He kept many secrets that would have given him instant international fame, had they been published, but would have been costly to Israel. As officials came and went, Schiff kept track of people and policies, becoming Israel's institutional memory in the critical areas of defense, security and foreign affairs. He eschewed the simplistic ideological divisions between Left and Right or hawks and doves that have distorted so much of what passes for journalism in Israel. Schiff understood the centrality of security, as well as the complex diplomatic environment in which these decisions are made. He was a realist who sought a pragmatic peace, without myths or delusions regarding Arafat, Assad, and wider Arab rejectionism. Deterrence was always at the center of his view of the strategic framework necessary for Israeli survival, but he also recognized the deterrence was not automatic and came in many different forms. On this basis, his analyses often included intense criticism of the military as well as top government officials, including close friends, when this was deserved. But this disagreement was never gratuitous, personal, or tendentious - he focused on the issues. His book on the Yom Kippur "earthquake" was quickly recognized as the definitive analysis, as was the case with Intifada, which he wrote with Ehud Ya'ari. In these and his other publications, Schiff spared no one from close examination. And he followed this pattern, often with great personal difficulty, through examinations of the mistakes during last year's war with Hizbullah, and in the retrospective critique of the failure to deter or stop the rocket attacks from Gaza following the unilateral withdrawal. But he took no joy in this activity, and his face and voice reflected the sadness resulting from having to play this role. In all of his activities, Schiff reflected a strong identity as an Israeli, recognizing accomplishments of his generation, as well as the constant challenges. He was a fully committed Zionist who also understood the centrality of sovereignty embodied in the State of Israel. He treated Arab colleagues with respect while rejecting the demonizing rhetoric and conspiracy theories. On a personal note, I will miss his pats on the back and his wagging finger admonishing someone for a mistake or point of disagreement. We often traveled to unofficial discussions of war and peace, and I was proud to be a junior member of the Schiff entourage. He introduced Ya'ari as his younger brother, and I was one of the sons (or at least a nephew). I would often follow his lead, and was happy when he picked up one of my points and drove it home. On an early trip to Cairo, Ze'ev was detained at the airport for questioning. The rest of us waited, refusing suggestions that we go to our hotel, where, we were assured by the authorities, he would soon join us. Finally, over strong cups of coffee, he revealed that the Egyptians had quizzed him about the rest of us for their files - he was rightly seen as the senior member of this Israeli group. By the time they had finished, he had convinced the interrogators that we were all VIPs. Ze'ev Schiff was a very important person, in every way.