Israel Tal, father of the famous 'Merkava' tank and noted Israeli commander, dies at 86

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel Tal, a decorated war hero and the creator of Israel's renowned "Merkava" tank, died in the Israeli town of Rehovot on Wednesday. He was age 86, according to the military announcement.

Born in 1924, he held a series of important posts in the course of an illustrious military career, leaving the army as deputy chief of staff.

He is considered one of the best five armored commanders in history, alongside U.S. Gen. George S. Patton, Gen. Creighton Abrams, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Israeli Maj. Gen. Moshe Peled, according to the Armor Museum at Fort Knox, where he is commemorated.

"This morning one of the legendary commanders was taken from us, one of the founders of the armored division of the army and one of the developers of the Merkava tanks," Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.

His best known accomplishment was heading up the Israeli military committee in the mid-1970s that sought to design a battle tank that would wean the Jewish state off its dependence on foreign weapons.

Tal oversaw the design of the Merkava tank — Hebrew for "chariot" — which is widely seen as one of the best of its time. The tank was created to ensure the safety of its crew by placing the engine at the front, allowing crew and medics to enter and exit from behind, even under fire.

The tank was also developed for Israeli terrain, particularly specializing in long-range fire, according to the Armor Museum. The Merkava tank entered combat in the 1980s.

Tal's mastery of long-range tank fire tactics are widely seen as key to the Israeli break through of the Egyptian Suez Canal on the Sinai peninsula during the 1967 Mideast war where he served as an armored division commander.

Tal became the commander of Israel's southern front during the surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack on the Jewish state in 1973 on its holiest day, Yom Kippur — the day of atonement.

The military commander was also respected for his moral standing. He refused an order by Israel's military chief of staff at the time to engage Egyptian forces after the 1973 war had officially ended, said the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Tal demanded approval from then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and the supreme court to attack. Ultimately, the newspaper said, Tal's refusal to obey the order cost him hopes of becoming the next chief of staff.

Tal leaves behind his wife, Hagit, his daughter Pnina and his son Yair.