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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Founder of Israeli aerospace industry dies at 94

The founder of Israel's aerospace industry, Adolph Schwimmer, who smuggled planes out of the U.S. to help in the war surrounding Israel's 1948 creation, has died. He was 94.

The New York native was tasked with building a homegrown aerospace industry for the new state of Israel. His efforts grew into the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries.

Schwimmer's wife, Rina, said Saturday her husband's contributions to Israeli society were "heroic." She said he died late Friday of complications from pneumonia.

Schwimmer was convicted in the U.S. in 1950 of violating the Neutrality Act by exporting aircraft to Israel during its independence war. He never served time in prison and was pardoned by former President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Pardon Me - An Interview with Al Schwimmer

One of the 140 people President Clinton pardoned before leaving the White House was Al Schwimmer, 83, who was convicted in 1950 of violating the Neutrality Act for smuggling planes to Israel during its War of Independence. Stripped of his civil rights but not jailed, Schwimmer went on to found the Israel Aircraft Industries, and helped assemble the Israeli side of a covert operation in the Iran-Contra scandal.

What does this pardon mean for you?

I had never applied for a pardon because it's a complicated process. Plus, you have to express regret for what you did, and I didn't feel that way. But the eldest son of Hank Greenspun, a very good friend of mine who worked with us in getting arms for Israel, is an attorney and a friend of Clinton. He sent all the paperwork to the Justice Department and told me, "I'm not asking you. I'm telling you, I sent in your application for a pardon."

How did you smuggle planes to Israel?

I established false companies, one was purportedly the official airline of Panama. I was in the Air Transport Command in World War 11, so I knew lots of pilots, Jews and non-Jews. They flew over transport planes. We also got some B-17's, the backbone of the U.S. bombing force; and a number of C-46 transport planes carried over disassembled Messerschmidt MA-109 fighters bought in Czechoslovakia.

How were you recruited to head IAI?

During the war, I got to know Ben-Gurion quite well at air force headquarters. In 1951, when he made his first visit to the U.S. as prime minister, I was running an aircraft maintenance and service company in Burbank, California. He came to visit, and said I should come back to Israel and start an aircraft industry.

Do you speak Hebrew?

No. I have a Sabra wife, kids and grandkids, but I am ashamed to say that I was never very good with languages. But I must have done something right because when I left in 1988, Israel Aircraft Industries was making $1 billion a year.

Is it true you helped start the Iran-Contra operation, introducing U.S. National Security Council staffer Michael Ledeen to Iranian arms merchant Manucher Ghobanifor?

I knew Ghkobanifor personally. I had met him through Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian. He was a great gambler, he might still be. I also got on my team David Kimche (Foreign Ministry director general) and Yaakov Nimrodi (former military attache to Iran and arms dealer), whom I knew because we did a lot of business with the shah.

Was Iran-Contra a success?

I don't know. It accomplished some things.

Did you take a "commission" from the operation?

As a technology and industry adviser to the prime minister - I worked for one shekel a year - I was acting in an official capacity. This operation emerged because of a U.S. requirement, and Israel wanted to do it a favor.

David Ben-Gurion described Al Schwimmer’s activities in 1947-1948 as the Diaspora’s single most important contribution to the survival of Israel.