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The Soldier 

Thursday, May 5 2005
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Reuma Weizman and I entered her low-level house in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, and she called to her husband, Ezer. Still strapping and barrel-chested at 65, Ezer Weizman stared out the living-room window at the Mediterranean. He seemed like a sea captain, gazing at distant shores; in fact, he was a former crackerjack pilot, one of the founders of Israel’s Air Force. After shaking my hand warmly, he pointed out the ruins of a Roman aqueduct on the beach; then he showed me a citation from Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. at the time of the Six-Day War, when Weizman had led the Israeli Air Force to victory over the Arabs. Another citation indicated that he was one of the first two Israeli pilots. He was very proud of that.

I mentioned that Moshe Dayan was credited as saying that he had wanted to be a farmer yet had spent most of his life as a soldier, to which Weizman said, “I always wanted to be a soldier.” Like many generals, he downplayed a certain degree of casualties. He smiled when he spoke of the Yom Kippur War, in which the Arab nations surprised Israel before the Jewish state defeated them. “We had to get our noses bloodied,” he said. But, having done so, he contended, Israel could make peace, as it did with Egypt in 1979, when Weizman was defense minister. He asked me what I had been doing prior to coming to Israel in November of 1989, and I told him that I had worked in the Koch administration in New York City. Weizman did not like Mayor Koch. He had met Hizzoner on one occasion and had told the mayor that if not for him Koch would have to fight the enemy in the streets of New York. Weizman felt that Koch had too much to prove. “But he’s kind of like you,” I said. “He switched his political philosophy over the years.” Weizman blanched. He was very sensitive about how he was perceived, knowing that some of his compatriots mocked his transformation from hawk to peacenik. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.” A phone call interrupted our conversation; Weizman rested on the edge of a comfortable chair and spoke in Hebrew. He was relaxed, but as he hunched with his back to the sea, it was clear the call involved politics; there were rumors that Yitzhak Shamir’s government would fall. Within three years, Weizman would become president of Israel, but just now he was serving as science minister in Shamir’s coalition government. I walked over to Reuma Weizman, who was preparing lunch. There were no servants in the house, which was modest by American standards, just one floor as I recall. Weizman hung up and said in English, “Shimon [Peres] is going to be the new prime minister.” The coalition had once again collapsed. “Do you always speak in English with each other?” I asked. “No, we’re doing it for you,” said the mustachioed soldier with his Eton accent. A sabra, he had been born in British-mandate Palestine and had enlisted in the RAF in World War II. The British influence still came through in his aristocratic voice and vocabulary when he used expressions like “old chap.” We sat down at a small table for lunch — skinless, boiled chicken breast, and for dessert, homemade hamantaschen, the fruit-filled triangular pastry eaten on Purim. Reuma Weizman smiled and told me that when she first met her husband, known for his brusqueness, he had said to her, “What’s a 24-year-old Israeli girl doing not married?” She referred to him as the “typical Israeli male chauvinist,” but she said so affectionately. They both smiled. “Do you know about our son?” she asked. “No,” I said. She was surprised. Apparently, everyone in Israel knew that their son, Shaul, had suffered a brain-related injury from combat; his behavior was erratic — brilliant one moment, at a cognitive loss the next. She worried about his health and his future; she wanted him to settle down. He had many different girlfriends but none for very long. Now Weizman coughed at the table as I ate my hamantaschen. We all stopped eating as he bent over, coughing. He was still a formidable figure, 6-foot-2 and burly, yet at that moment the old warrior, who had flung a knife and killed a snake in their yard days before, seemed vulnerable. He stopped coughing and smiled the smile of a dashing swashbuckler, a hero of the Jewish people, who would win Israel’s highest office a few years later. Then he told me that I could have the last hamantaschen: “You don’t have to be polite.” When Weizman was president, his son died in an automobile accident. Last week, when I got the news of Weizman’s own death at 80, I remembered seeing a photo of President Weizman, looming over his son’s coffin. He slouched a bit and looked ashen, but he was not crying. With his white hair and grave demeanor, he reminded me of an Old Testament patriarch who had been punished by Yahweh. Even the president of Israel, who had jump-started the peace process, had lost a son to tragedy. But he did not buckle.

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