Former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who passed away on Wednesday, was above all a smart, sensitive man who knew how to connect these two traits together. He was a human being more than he was a soldier. A man who was attentive to others, and at the same time had charisma that served him well as a commander, all the way to the chief of staff's office, even when there were IDF commanders who did not like him and tried to delay his promotion.
I met Lipkin-Shahak as a teenager at the military academy. He was a year below me at the academy and at the Reali School, and we were not close. We became closer years later, when he was already the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade. During the Litani Operation I saw him in combat – a quiet and determined commander. He explained to his enthusiastic platoon and company commanders that while it was important to win in battle, it was just as important to do so with the minimum amount of casualties.
Even before that, Amnon displayed his level-headedness, courage and abilities as a commander in the Karameh operation, during which the army's old French armored vehicles were stuck in the mud inside Jordanian territory. He fought gallantly and rescued his force with almost no casualties. Later, during Operation Spring of Youth in Beirut, Lipkin-Shahak was one of the commanders of the IDF force that killed terrorist leaders in their homes with the help of Mossad. There too his self-control helped prevent complications, and he managed to lead his soldiers back to the beach, where they were picked up by boats that were waiting for them.
During the first Lebanon war he served as a division commander, and I recall how shocked he was at the sight of the horrific acts of violence committed by Druze and Christians against each other in the Chouf Mountains. Today we have a better understanding of the phenomenon due to the civil war in Syria, but at the time Lipkin-Shahak was shocked by how cruel people can be to those who have been their neighbors for hundreds of years.
After being appointed chief of staff in 1995, Lipkin-Shahak commanded over Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, and he was also present when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Lipkin-Shahak and his wife Tali were very close friends of Leah and Yitzhak Rabin. They not only respected each other, there was real love between them.
Shahak (L) and Ron Ben-Yishai in Beirut, 1982 (Photo: Yossi Ben-Hanan)
I accompanied Lipkin-Shahak when he led Operation Solomon, during which Ethiopian Jews were rescued from a transit camp in Addis Ababa just before rebels took over the city. He commanded over the operation from the airport while El-Al and Israel Air Force "Hercules" jumbo jets were landing and taking off around him. Soldiers from the army's Special Forces calmly led groups of Jews to the planes, when just a few kilometers away fierce battles were raging between the rebels, who had already entered the capital, and the fleeing forces of the Ethiopian president, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Lipkin-Shahk (center) during Yom Kippur War, 1973 (Photo: IDF Archives)
Amid all this commotion, Lipkin-Shahak gave his orders on one radio and spoke with Israel on another. He instructed the forces to speed up the transfer of the Jews from the camp so they would not be caught in the crossfire, and at the same time he told soldiers from Sayeret Matkal and Sayeret Shaldag (elite units): "Be careful, be careful. I don’t want any injuries or casualties. So it will take another minute, but do it correctly." Everyone returned to Israel safe and sound.
With Ehud Barak in 1974 (Photo: GPO)
A rare type of blood cancer was detected in Lipkin-Shahak's body even before he was appointed chief of staff. I am proud to be the journalist Tali and Amnon chose to inform the public of his condition and reveal information that could have ended his political career.
I remember how difficult it was for me to hear the details from Amnon. Sensing that I was distressed, he said: "What are you getting all worked up about? I'll either die or I won't. In the meantime, I am healthy and can do anything." Then he smiled. Amnon, with his determination, willpower and Tali's love, managed to deal with the disease for nearly 27 years – until it defeated him.
Lipkin-Shahak and Jordan's King Hussein (Photo: Sa'ar Yaakov, GPO)
I just want to mention my last conversation with Lipkin-Shahak. I called him at the hospital after Operation Pillar of Defense to ask him what he thought of the manner on which the operation was conducted and what it achieved. Amnon apologized for his hoarse voice and for the fact that it was difficult for him to speak. "The operation was conducted fairly well and the result is reasonable. But that's not the point. The point is that we must reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Without it, we will have to launch these operations again and again with similar results; and our leaders must also finally understand that in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians we must talk and close the deal with those who are willing to talk to us and reach an agreement with us. I am referring to Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). If, god forbid, he will leave, then we will be done for and left with their crazies and our crazies. They will finish us."
Over the years, Lipkin-Shahak knew how to provide logical assessments while adding an emotional element to them. The results were remarkable, and it always paid off to heed his advice.
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak did not succeed in politics because he mistakenly assumed that as the founder of the Center Party and as someone who headed it for a short time, he was obligated to remain an officer and a gentleman. He was the ultimate anti-politician who did not try to curry favor with anyone. He offered his services, and when they were rejected he simply shrugged his shoulders and went on his way. A rare man.