Former defense minister Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, a career general, politician and one-time leader of the Labor Party who became embroiled in allegations of graft in his later years, died Sunday at the age of 80.
Ben-Eliezer was being treated at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv when he passed away from complications stemming from dialysis treatment.
He is survived by his wife and five children.
A former Labor Party leader and presidential candidate, Ben-Eliezer had suffered from a rash of health issues for a number of years, and in December 2014 underwent a kidney transplant. Several months later, he was hospitalized with a serious case of influenza, at which time he was hooked up to life support until his condition improved. He was hospitalized three weeks ago in Rishon Lezion, and transferred to Tel Aviv earlier Sunday, where he was pronounced dead.
Born in southern Iraq, Ben-Eliezer went on to have a storied career as a military commander, politician and peace negotiator in Israel. He was known for being the first Israeli minister to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994 and for his convivial relationship with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Yet in his later years, his 30 years of service in the Knesset and other public activities were overshadowed by allegations that he took bribes, resulting in a protracted court case that dragged on as his health deteriorated.
In December 2014, Ben-Eliezer announced he would leave politics to focus on his health and to clear his name. The probe had already prompted the veteran MK to end his candidacy for Israel’s presidency in June 2014, three days before the election.
Before being caught up in legal troubles, Ben-Eliezer was regarded as a fearless fighter who led Israeli troops in several campaigns, and later as the defense minister who steered the country during the restive years of the Second Intifada from 2001 to 2003, engineering Operation Defensive Shield to crush Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank.
A Laborite for almost all of his political life, Ben-Eliezer advocated reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians and played a part in the first steps towards negotiations. As housing and construction minister, he was sent in 1994 by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to Tunisia, to hold secret talks with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. He was the first Israeli minister to meet with the Palestinian leader.
In 2009, he supported Labor joining the new government of Benjamin Netanyahu, with party leader Ehud Barak staying on as defense minister, believing that it would lead to renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. In 2010, frustrated by the lack of progress, he warned his fellow ministers that without peace negotiations, Israel would find itself facing global support for the Palestinians. He insisted that talks continue, even if it meant agreeing to a temporary freeze in settlement construction. Just a year later, with Barak’s departure from Labor to form a new party, Ben-Eliezer became interim Labor leader and immediately left the coalition, citing the government’s failure to commit to the negotiations.
“My only motive was the peace process. I believe the peace issue is existential for the State of Israel,” he said at the time.
In 2012 he told the LA Times that Israel’s right-wing had failed to persuade the Palestinians that they were serious about reaching a peace deal, something that could ultimately backfire on the Jewish state.
“In the long run, this is going to work against us,” he told the paper. “So far [the] Palestinians have kept quiet, but one day they will awake and the explosion will happen. People don’t accept [living] under military rule for 50 years. Maybe the explosion will bring about negotiations. But then negotiations will occur under pressure, and that is what I don’t want to see happen.”
Known as “Fuad” to friends, family and among the public, Ben-Eliezer was born in Basra, southern Iraq, in 1936.
At age 12, with the founding of the State of Israel, Ben-Eliezer was forced to flee Iraq alone. Traveling by foot with a group of Jews, he headed toward Tehran. He described the journey in detail in 2011 on the Uvda TV program, saying he was beaten repeatedly along the way and rescued from a swamp without his shoes.
In Tehran, his mother had told him, there was an aunt who owed the family a favor. For eight months, he recalled, his mother had quizzed him on his ability to speak his family name and the aunt’s address in Farsi. Upon arrival, he made his way to her palatial home, repeated the proper words, and saw the door slammed in his face.
Sobbing uncontrollably on the way back to the temporary refugee camp in Tehran, he said the tears suddenly dried up and a realization set in: “That’s when I realized it was over. You will live alone. You are alone. Iran hardened me,” he said. “My emotions cannot be penetrated and harmed without me allowing it to be so.”
In Israel, Ben-Eliezer, who spoke the Queen’s English and accentless Arabic and Hebrew, was drafted to the Golani Brigade in 1954. He fought in the Sinai during the Suez War in 1956 and commanded the Sayeret Shaked recon unit during the Six Day War. Afterwards, serving under then-GOC Southern Command Ariel Sharon, he led many of the cross-border counterstrikes against terrorists operating from within Jordan.
In early 1968, Ben-Eliezer set out with 12 men, on two helicopters, toward Petra, the ancient Nabatean palace in Jordan, which Israeli military intelligence claimed was being used as a base for Fatah terrorists. As the lead helicopter landed, the gunmen opened fire, wounding Ben-Eliezer and the military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai, who described the event in an article for Ynet.
Bleeding from a bullet wound to the ankle, he directed the second chopper to safer ground and radioed Sharon, saying, “There is a pretty big enemy force there. I can continue the mission but it’s borderline…your call.” He did not mention that he [and Ben-Yishai] had been wounded in the initial approach.
Later, in the mid-seventies, he was one of the first Israelis to travel covertly to Lebanon and establish ties with the Christian Phalange forces there.
He retired, in 1981, as a brigadier general. His final post was as commander of forces in the West Bank.
In 1984,Ben-Eliezer was elected to the Knesset, eventually becoming the head of Labor and holding a slew of different government positions. He ran for president in 2014, but dropped out after graft allegations surfaced.
Criminal proceedings against him began in January 2015, when the attorney general at the time, Yehuda Weinstein, accepted a police recommendation to indict the politician and 10 of his associates.
Ben-Eliezer was indicted in December by state prosecutors for allegedly demanding and receiving more than NIS 2 million (over $500,000) from business people in exchange for actions he allegedly took as a public servant.
In May, state prosecutors offered Ben-Eliezer a plea bargain aimed at punishing the octogenarian without forcing him to serve time in prison. He was offered the option of paying an NIS 11 million ($2.86 million) fine in exchange for not serving time in prison.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.