JERUSALEM (AP) — Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former Israeli military chief who later became a Cabinet minister, died Wednesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 68.
Revered in Israel as a daring commando and admired general, Lipkin-Shahak's term as military chief in the 1990s included coping with a wave of suicide bombings against Israel along with the military coordination that accompanied nascent peace talks.
Even while still in uniform, he conducted negotiations with Israel's bitterest enemies and later in life became a staunch supporter of peace with Syria and the Palestinians.
Lipkin-Shahak oversaw a 16-day military campaign, codenamed "Grapes of Wrath," against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 1996.
Lipkin-Shahak began his military service in the paratrooper brigade and was twice decorated with Israel's Medal of Courage, one of the military's highest honors, for his conduct in special operations.
One of those operations was a famed 1973 raid on Beirut, in which Israeli commandos rowed in from the Mediterranean Sea to a beach in the Lebanese capital. The group then went on to attack and kill top leaders of Black September, the Palestinian group behind the massacre of 11 members of the Israeli delegation to the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The commandos were dressed as civilians, some disguised as women — including Ehud Barak, Israel's current defense minister, a longtime colleague of Lipkin-Shahak's in the military and later in politics.
In a statement, Barak called him an "exemplary example of courage, leadership and perseverance in the battlefield and in the diplomatic battle."
Lipkin-Shahak rose through the military ranks, commanding elite infantry units and holding several top key positions — including five years as head of military intelligence.
As deputy military chief of staff, he was involved in peace negotiations with the Palestinians under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Later, he succeeded Barak to become Israel's 15th military chief from 1995-1998. In that capacity, he negotiated with his Syrian counterpart in failed peace talks between the countries. He also oversaw the partial implementation of the Oslo interim peace accords with the Palestinians, which included a military withdrawal from several areas in the West Bank and Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed deep sorrow over the passing of Lipkin-Shahak, calling him "a hero of Israel who dedicated his best years to the defense of the state of Israel."
"His heroism was evident in the brave way he conducted himself throughout his illness. Not for a moment did he ever lose his dignity," Netanyahu said in a statement.
Similar words of appreciation poured in from across the Israeli political spectrum.
"Amnon was a true hero who carried the torch of peace, a rare and exceptionally wise man," President Shimon Peres said. "His students and soldiers saw him as a role model like no other, they trusted every word he said and people queued at his door seeking his wisdom, honesty and courage."
Lipkin-Shahak retired from the military in 1998 and entered politics, establishing the short-lived Center Party that joined Barak, then the prime minister, in a dovish coalition. He served as tourism minister and then transportation minister under Barak.
After politics he went into business and joined several dovish organizations that aimed to promote regional peace.
Lipkin-Shahak was a leading member of a group that urged Israel to adopt a peace proposal that called for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — with agreed swaps of territory that would allow Israel to keep some of its main West Bank settlements while compensating the Palestinians with land. Past Israeli governments have accepted such plans, but they have not produced a peace accord with the Palestinians.
He called on reopening peace talks with Syria and also endorsed J Street, the liberal American Jewish lobby group.
Lipkin-Shahak is survived by his wife Tali, a well-known Israeli journalist. Lipkin-Shahak, who was earlier divorced, also leaves five children.