Former IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak dies in Jerusalem, aged 68

Politicians mourn passing of ‘rare amalgam of military and diplomatic courage,’ praise his contribution to Israel’s security and efforts to advance peace

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in 2011 (photo credit: Meir Partush/Flash90)
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in 2011 (photo credit: Meir Partush/Flash90)

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former IDF chief twice decorated with the Medal of Courage, on Wednesday succumbed to cancer following a lengthy battle, a day after he was hospitalized in critical condition at the Hadassah Ein Kerem medical center in Jerusalem. He was 68 years old.

In 1995, before succeeding Ehud Barak to become the IDF’s 15 chief of General Staff, Lipkin-Shahak had recovered from a previous bout of leukemia.

Lipkin-Shahak was a widely respected and beloved chief of staff, who later went into politics but failed to achieve his ambition of becoming prime minister.

A year after leaving the army, in 1999, Lipkin-Shahak joined the nascent Center Party along with Yitzhak Mordechai and Dan Meridor, among others. But he lost the party leadership to Mordechai, and the party won only six seats in that year’s elections. In the 15th Knesset, under prime minister Ehud Barak, he served as tourism minister. After Mordechai resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, Lipkin-Shahak was also given the transportation portfolio.

In 2001, after Barak failed to win reelection against Ariel Sharon, Lipkin-Shahak resigned from the Knesset.

He was married to journalist and TV personality Tali Lipkin-Shahak — his second wife — and is survived by five children.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned the passing of “a hero of Israel, who devoted his prime years to the security of the State of Israel.”

“His bravery was also apparent in the manner of his comportment throughout his illness,” the prime minister said. “He didn’t lose his nobility for a single moment. In the name of Israeli citizens, I send my condolences to his wife, Tali, and all of his family.”

Netanyahu and other senior officials spoke to Lipkin-Shahak on the phone on Tuesday night, when it became apparent that his death was imminent.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich expressed deep sorrow over the former general’s death, saying that, “as a soldier and a commander, Lipkin-Shahak defended Israel’s security, and always struggled for its moral character.”

“Amnon,” she added, “was an officer and a gentleman, a venerated commander and an extraordinary man with an earnest, decent personality… [He] was loved by all.”

President Shimon Peres was among those who took leave of Lipkin-Shahak in person before his death.

“Ever since Sunday, when I came to say goodbye to Amnon, I’ve been deeply perturbed,” Peres said. “Amnon was a true hero; his contribution to Israel’s security was peerless. I truly loved him.” Lipkin-Shahak, said Peres, lost “the one battle he could not win… but even that battle he fought with extraordinary bravery.”

Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the head of the Hatnua (The Movement) party, mourned the death of “one of the preeminent sons of Israel; one of the best fighters for the peace and security of the state.”

“His insight, bravery, honesty and devotion to the Zionist idea were a personal and national inspiration,” she said. “His contribution will forever be etched in the annals of the nation.”

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, himself a retired chief of General Staff, took leave of his former superior.

“I mourn the premature departure of my commander and friend Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, an extraordinary man, who embodied a rare amalgam of military and diplomatic courage; an upright man, a true friend and an Israeli hero,” Mofaz said. “My heart is with Tali and the family. Today, the State of Israel embraces you warmly.”

“He was a man of many merits, a devoted, brave partner in the struggle for peace,” Meretz chair Zahava Gal-on said.

MK Uri Uri Ariel of the National Union party praised the deceased general for his contribution to Israel’s security.

“When I was secretary general of the Yesha Council” — the umbrella organization of West Bank municipalities — “I had the pleasure of getting to know him well in his capacity as the commander of the IDF’s Central Division,” Ariel said. “I salute a man who spent most of his years fighting for Israel’s security, and I convey my sympathies to his family in their hour of deep sorrow.”

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak as a young captain in the 1960s (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak as a young captain in the 1960s (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

Lipkin-Shahak, a native of Tel Aviv, volunteered for the Paratroops in 1962 and excelled throughout his military career. On March 21, 1968, as commander of the Duchifat recon unit, he led his troops toward the Jordanian village of Karameh – a PLO stronghold and home, at the time, to Yasser Arafat. He won the Medal of Courage for that operation.

The mission, the IDF’s largest non-wartime action, did not achieve many of its goals and Lipkin-Shahak was forced to retreat with his troops under heavy Jordanian tank and artillery fire. “Cap. Amnon Lipkin continued fighting and evacuating his soldiers in a composed and courageous manner despite the difficult conditions that his force faced,” read the citation.

In the spring of 1973, Lipkin-Shahak, in civilian clothes and accompanied by Mossad officers, led one of three teams into the heart of Beirut, where they attacked the headquarters of Naif Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Despite losing two men early on and being heavily outnumbered, with the entire civilian street coming to life and joining in the fray, Lipkin-Shahak’s force managed to fight their way inside and detonate the seven-story building.

Speaking in a characteristically dry tone, Lipkin-Shahak described the crucial moments of the operation in the army weekly Bamahane in 2007: “Exchanges of fire began and grenades were dropped out of the building’s high windows. We fired at the building and took control of the lower quarters and the firing from there stopped.”

His entire force was less than a dozen men strong.

Mission commander Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Shaked recommended him for a citation, and again he was awarded the Medal of Courage.

Lipkin-Shahak fought in the Yom Kippur War as deputy Paratroop Brigade commander and in the Lebanon War as division commander, eventually appointed commander of the Beirut region. He later served as the head of military intelligence and the GOC Central Command and under Ehud Barak as deputy chief of the General Staff.

As commander of the army he participated in peace talks with his Syrian counterpart and changed the nature of the warfare with Hezbollah. Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe “Chico” Tamir credited him with “changing the army’s working assumption,” recognizing that the conflict along the Lebanon border “was a war and not a standard security deployment.”

His term, however, was also marked by failures and interpersonal strife with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Under his command, a team of naval commandos was ambushed deep in Lebanon, apparently once Hezbollah had managed to steal the IDF’s unencrypted drone feed as it was sent back to Israel. On February 4, 1997, two IAF Sikorsky helicopters crashed near the border with Lebanon, resulting in the deaths of 73 Israeli soldiers.

Lipkin-Shahak, who was close to Yitzhak Rabin — under whose leadership he had been appointed chief of staff — chafed under Netanyahu in the current prime minister’s first term in office and called him “dangerous” to the State of Israel after shedding his uniform and entering politics. Lipkin-Shahak moved swiftly into politics after his IDF career, and presented himself as a candidate for prime minister for the now defunct Center Party, but faded rapidly after a bright start in the polls, and never matched his military success in his second career as a politician.

Gabi Ashkenazi, one of his successors as IDF chief, said Wednesday night that Lipkin-Shahak was a close friend and one of his most trusted advisers. When Likpin-Shahak gave him advice on taking up the post of chief of the General Staff, said Ashkenazi, he told him, “It’s too late to teach you the profession. You know that now. And you know all about the weight of responsibility. But be true to yourself.” That, said Ashkenazi, summed up Lipkin-Shahak.

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