TEL AVIV, Israel – Former Israeli President Ezer Weizman (search), a flying ace and crack military commander who built up the nation's air force and helped bring about the Jewish state's first peace treaty with an Arab country, died Sunday. He was 80.
Weizman, who was president from 1993 to 2000, had suffered from respiratory infections in recent months and was repeatedly hospitalized, most recently in intensive care. He died shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday at his home in the northern Israeli resort town of Caesarea, with his family by his bedside, according to a statement by Weizman's successor, President Moshe Katsav (search).
Israeli radio reports said the funeral was tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.
In three decades in political life, he made a highly public transition from hawk to dove, saying the Jews had to learn to "share this part of the world" with the Arabs.
As defense minister in 1979, he was instrumental in negotiating Israel's peace treaty with Egypt.
Weizman, a political moderate who pioneered contacts with Palestinian leaders, later resigned from then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin's (search) Cabinet, complaining about his strict interpretation of interim peace accords with Egypt about the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon (search), now Israel's premier, replaced Weizman.
Weizman's casual style breathed life into the presidency, a largely ceremonial office, and endeared him to the Israeli public. His vacillation on issues of peace reflected the uncertainty of ordinary Israelis — he cooed dovish when they favored territorial concessions and called for a slow-down when they feared things were moving too fast.
His bluntness and sharp-tongued barbs often got him into trouble with other politicians who accused him of overstepping his authority.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, a one-time political ally, said Weizman was unique. "In war, he showed incredible bravery, and when peace appeared on the horizon, he enlisted for it," Peres told Israel's Channel Two TV. "He always searched for the original, the daring and the new. He knew how to warm the hearts of thousands."
His last year as president was marred by scandal when he became the target of a police investigation into fraud and breach of public trust.
Weizman was born in the northern port city of Haifa on June 15, 1924. His uncle, Chaim Weizmann, was Israel's first president.
He learned to fly at 16 and in World War II underwent flight training in the British army, later serving as a fighter pilot in Egypt and India.
Returning to Palestine in 1946, he became one of the Israeli army's first pilots and undertook daring missions in the 1948 War of Independence.
He was sent to study at the Royal Air Force staff college in England in 1951 and was appointed commander of the Israeli air force in 1958.
During his term, Weizman furnished Israel with the best in French fighter planes, modernizing a collection of World War II hand-me-downs into a crack force that destroyed most of the Egyptian air force within three hours of the outbreak of the 1967 Middle East war.
The 6-foot-2 commander fostered among his men the idea that the Israeli air force was superior. A phone call to his subordinates always began, "Well, what's new in the best air force in the Middle East?"
In 1969, he retired from the army and joined the nationalist Herut Party. He was appointed minister of transportation in the coalition government of Golda Meir but lost his job when Herut, which later became the Likud bloc, walked out of the Cabinet in 1970.
Weizman went into private business with part ownership of an aviation and weapons plant and several car dealerships.
In 1977, Weizman headed the election campaign that launched the right-wing Begin to power after the 29-year reign of the rival Labor Party.
On Dec. 20 of that year, Weizman made a secret trip to Egypt. That trip — and the friendship he formed with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — served as a catalyst to the negotiations that culminated in the U.S.-sponsored Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
Weizman's natural rapport with people and his untiring diplomacy helped keep the leaders of the two enemy countries at the negotiating table through many crises, as he recounted in a gossipy account entitled "The Battle for Peace" published in 1980.
That same year he resigned abruptly from Begin's Cabinet because he failed to win government approval for a plan to grant Palestinians autonomy in the occupied West Bank — one of the major points of the Camp David accords.
Critics viewed the step as typical of his impulsiveness, and party colleagues bore him a bitter grudge. Supporters cited the resignation as an example of his honesty and uncompromising beliefs.
Weizman believed unremittingly in the need to expand the peace with Egypt to include Jordan and Israel's other neighbors. It constituted a pillar of his platform when he returned to politics in the 1984 elections at the head of the centrist "Yahad" (Together) Party.
He won only two seats in the 120-member parliament and joined forces with the Labor Party of Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Weizman said he decided to switch allegiance to Labor because the Likud had failed to follow up the peace process.
In his 1980 book, he wrote: "I still call myself a hawk. A dove bills and coos, fluttering about in hesitation and uncertainty, while a hawk swoops down, seizes the initiative and takes advantage of changing situations to suit his cause."
His political shift has been attributed to the hurt he felt over his only son, Shaul, who never fully recovered from the wounds suffered in Israel's 1970 war of attrition with Egypt. Shaul died in an auto accident in 1991.
After the first Palestinian uprising began in 1987, Weizman broke party line and advocated negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, then outlawed in Israel as a terrorist organization, and its leader, Yasser Arafat.
"Nothing contributes more to defense than peace," he said. "Let's try to talk to Arafat. We have one of the best air forces in the world, we have one of the best armies in the world. What the hell are we worried about?"
Weizman, who served as minister for Arab affairs and later minister of science and technology, was forced out of the decision-making "inner Cabinet" in 1990 for reported contacts with the PLO.
In February 1992, he resigned from the government and politics, saying, "I no longer feel I can contribute" and accusing the government of resisting efforts to end the Middle East conflict.
Israeli peace crusaders were delighted when the Knesset elected Weizman as president in 1993. At his swearing-in, he urged "friendship and brotherhood" between Arabs and Israelis.
But when Israel signed a peace accord with the PLO later that year, Weizman complained that it was done in haste. After a series of deadly suicide bombs by Islamic militants, Weizman defied the Labor government line by calling for the suspension of peace talks.
After the election of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, however, Weizman pushed Netanyahu to meet with Arafat by inviting the Palestinian leader to a meeting at the president's seaside villa in Caesarea — Arafat's first public visit to Israel.
In 1997, he raised a diplomatic uproar by reportedly urging then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to "bash together the heads" of Netanyahu and Arafat to end a prolonged crisis in peace talks. A year later, he was elected to a second term.
When Israel and Syria held peace talks in the winter of 1999-2000 under Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Weizman threatened to resign if Israelis voted against returning the Golan Heights to Syria in a national referendum, prompting accusations by hard-liners that he was undermining the impartiality of his office.
"It's very difficult to be the president of the entire nation," Weizman said at the time, "unless you're willing to be deaf, mute and preferably blind."
He ignored frequent calls for his resignation or even impeachment, gloating once that "the president's job is undefined, and that makes for incredible fun."
During his last year in office, his glee was dampened by a police investigation into his acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a French millionaire friend. Police recommended he not be indicted, but only because the statute of limitations had run out on charges of fraud and breach of public trust.
With his clipped Sabra accent and vernacular speech, Weizman was the first Israeli-born president who also sounded like one. But his temper often got him into trouble.
He once referred to Netanyahu and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as "squareheads on the borderline of fascist."
He told high schoolers he opposed homosexuals coming out of the closet, and he outraged religious Jews by saying the Bible contained "unpleasant" passages that need not be read. Feminists were furious when he called a female soldier trying to become a pilot "missy" and asked her if she had ever seen a man darning socks.
In a 1995 television interview, Weizman acknowledged that "perhaps" he was a chauvinist.
"I think there is some criticism I need to take to heart, and I will take it to heart," he said. "What more do they want from me?"