Friday, September 07, 2007

September 7, 2007 - In Memory of Gad Yaakobi – 1935 - 2007

Dear friends and colleagues,
This month I mourned the death of my good friend and colleague, Gad Yaakobi. My most personal words to follow.

In Memory of Gad Yaakobi – 1935 - 2007
An Obituary

On August 27, 2007 former cabinet minister and ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Yaakobi, died in Toronto at the age of 72. Yaakobi served as a Knesset Member for the Labour Party since 1969 for a period of 23 years. He also served as minister of transportation, economics and communication. He was appointed ambassador to the UN in 1992, and after completing his term, became chairman of the Israel Electric Corporation and of the ports and railways authority.

Yaakobi was born in 1935 in Kfar Vitkin. He studied economics and political science at Tel Aviv University and pursued graduate studies at Harvard and London. In 1960 he served as assistant to Minister of Agriculture Moshe Dayan. Then he served in leading roles in the Histadrut.

In 1972 he was appointed Deputy Minister of Transportation and, in 1974, he was appointed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Minister of Transportation. In the 1980s, in the Labour-Likud Unity government, Gad served as Minister of Economics and later Minister of Communication.

Gad was a gifted writer. He wrote several books about politics as well as three children books, two poetry books and a novel. Among his publications (in Hebrew) The Power of Quality (1972), The Freedom to Choose (1975), The Government (1980), On a Razor’s Edge (1990), The Future Starts Now (1992), New York Diaries (1997) and Grace of Time – an Autobiography (2002). He also published several books in English including Breakthrough: Israel and the International Community (1996). He was a man of letters, of the arts and of politics.

I first met Gad in 1984. I was then the elected representative of the Political Science Department in the Tel Aviv University Student Union, on a Labour ticket. We invited Gad to speak before us, and I was impressed. He was not the "ordinary" politician. As an active member of the Labour Party I met with all its leaders, learned to discern between the frequent occasions when they tried to "sell" you something (themselves, ideas, image, power relations, etc.), and the infrequent occasions when they spoke from the heart and mind. Gad spoke elegantly and directly, on eye level, with sincerity, knowledge, and agenda. He answered all questions with patience and no hint of arrogance. I understood why the party chose him to speak to us, and why the students arrived to listen to him. I followed his career ever since.

For some time I thought Gad will stand a chance to compete for the party leadership. This never happened. On the way there were politicians with greater zeal than him, who played the political cards better and had superior achievements. However, this did not sway me to appreciate him less. Quite the opposite: I respected his sense of justice and his consciousness. There were some things Gad was unwilling to do to pave his way to the higher echelons of politics.

By the early 1990s Gad's long service in the Knesset came to an end. The party needed to reinvigorate itself with new people, and Gad paid the price. Immediately after, he was nominated Ambassador to the United Nations. Gad loved the diplomatic work and during his term he forged Israel's relationships with dozens of countries. His book, New York Diary, documents the years in the UN and his many achievements.

In 2001, I started to establish the Center for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa ( One of the first people I invited to serve on the Board of Governors was Gad Yaakobi, who accepted promptly. Since then we met from time to time to discuss issues of mutual interest. I could always rely on him to provide help and advice, always with good sense and wisdom. Gad appeared in meetings and conferences, and contributed a chapter on the government in my edited volume Israeli Institutions at the Crossroads (London: Routledge, 2005), 204 pp. ISBN 0-415-36360-8

Gad Yaakobi (left) with Dean Majid Al-Haj

All our private meetings took place at his home in Tel Aviv, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. There I met his lovely wife, Esther Bachrach. The first meeting confirmed all that I thought about the man: he was articulate, intelligent, fair-minded, with a sense for justice and a refined sense of humour. We talked about the Center, plans for the future, politics, the arts, especially poetry and literature. The meeting lasted for a few hours. I recall that on the following day I called him to apologize for taking so much of his time. Gad was quick to dismiss my apology, saying that he equally enjoyed the meeting.

Gad knew the history of Israel inside out, and could provide personal account of many of its historic episodes. Of course, he had his own biases as one could expect. Still, the meetings were fascinating. From time to time I'd call upon him to probe political events. His analysis was always prudent, providing fresh insights and knowledge as he was familiar with the major participants and their way of conduct. Gad was a wonderful impressionist. He knew how to mimic the voice and facial movements of the great people he worked with: Moshe Dayan (appreciated his leadership), Shimon Peres, Abba Eban (a man of great intellectual stature), Yitzhak Rabin (a true leader with exceptional integrity), Henry Kissinger (one of the shrewdest persons he had ever met) and others. It was a joy watching and listening to him.

Gad never hid his deep appreciation of Yitzhak Rabin, and his complex relationships with Shimon Peres. Often times, he confirmed my thoughts about individuals, some I knew superficially, some I knew through the media. All the conversations remained private, with the exception of a few incidents in which I asked his permission to make his opinions public, on this blog and in other venues. He always agreed, relying on my judgment.

Gad arranged for me to meet Mayor of Haifa, Yonah Yahav, who was his personal assistant during one period of his political career. Yonah is a good ambassador for the University of Haifa, and an excellent Mayor who cares passionately about the city. Gad also helped with the fund-raising for the Center, and advised me about people to approach and, no less importantly, not to approach.

My last meeting with Gad took place at his home on August 5, 2007. He told me that he was the architect behind the Ehud Barak-Offir Pines agreement. The agreement between the two was signed at his living room. Pines was his personal assistant at another point of his career, and Gad kept good and close relationships with him till the last day of his life. As always, he spoke about current affairs and provided a wise analysis of the political prospects for Israel. As a tireless peace activist, he was sad that there was not much hope for peace in the near future. We agreed that Both Abu-Mazen and Olmert are powerless and could not deliver the goods. Gad knew about my international campaign for elections, to bring the end of Olmert's rule. He believed in Olmert's ability to remain in office at least until the Winograd Committee publishes its report. Then, if the report will be harsh on Olmert, he believed Barak will abide by his promise to Pines, resign from the government, and Olmert will be forced to call for elections.

His last writing project was a book which includes personal accounts of people he knew: David Ben-Gurion, Dayan, Peres, Rabin, Kissinger (whom he met on a regular basis during his New York years) and others. His last project with me was a chapter I asked him to write about government's responsibility toward the public in a book that I am editing with Ori Arbel-Ganz and Asa Kasher about social responsibility in Israel. This chapter, sadly, will not be written. It would be most appropriate to dedicate the book, upon its publication, to Gad.

Gad was a private person. In our last conversations, when I asked him how he was doing, his answer was: "Surviving", which provoked my concern and triggered me to carefully inquire about his health. He answered laconically that he had some heart problems, and surviving "in my age" is not a small feat. At our last meeting he said that he might need to undergo an extensive heart operation.

Esther, his devoted wife, told me that he was persuaded to undergo the operation in Toronto. They arrived safely. Gad felt well and went to sleep. In the morning, however, he complained of pain and suddenly collapsed and lost consciousness. Gad died before the operation. Esther thinks his anxieties regarding the operation overcame him.

Like many politicians, Gad had a deep sense of history. He left most of his writings and documents in the Israel National Archive in Jerusalem, all gathered under his name. Some of his personal correspondence, with people like David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin and Henry Kissinger, are kept with the family. These documents have great historical value. Gad took active part in the writing of some fine chapters in Israel’s history.

Farewell Gad. May your body and soul rest in peace. I will miss you until the last day of my life.