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Al Schwimmer, Israeli aerospace leader and Iran-contra figure, dies at 94

By Elaine Woo,

Al Schwimmer, a former aircraft engineer who smuggled U.S. airplanes to Israel for its 1948 war of independence, founded its aerospace industry and later became a figure in the Iran-contra affair, died in Tel Aviv on June 10, his 94th birthday.

A spokesman said he suffered complications from pneumonia.

Adolph “Al” Schwimmer, who was born in New York on June 10, 1917, was a TWA flight engineer when he was approached by Jews from Palestine to help them obtain U.S. planes for the Arab-Israeli conflict, which began after the Jewish state of Israel was declared in May 1948.

A veteran of World War II who had flown missions over Europe, Mr. Schwimmer recruited fellow Jewish veterans to help him. He established two aircraft companies, one of which was in Burbank, Calif., and bought and refurbished a few dozen used transport planes, including some that were military surplus items from the war.

The planes were modified in a Lockheed terminal by Mr. Schwimmer and his associates and flown to the nascent Jewish state via Florida and Czechoslovakia.

The FBI suspected that Mr. Schwimmer was part of a ring that was violating a U.S. embargo on the shipment of planes and arms, and nearly apprehended him several times. He fled to Canada and then to Israel, where he joined other volunteer engineers and pilots in the war effort.

In 1949, he returned to the United States to face charges that he had violated the U.S. Neutrality Act by transporting planes to Israel. Tried in federal court in Los Angeles and convicted in 1950, he did not go to prison but was stripped of many of the rights he had held as a U.S. citizen.

“I could no longer vote, I was barred from holding any federal job. I was kicked out of the Air Force Reserve. It was quite stiff,” he told The Washington Post in 2001.

In 1951, he accepted Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s invitation to settle in Israel and established Israel Aircraft Industries, a state-run company that later was renamed Israel Aerospace Industries.

Mr. Schwimmer guided the company from an initial focus on repairing and maintaining aircraft for the Israeli air force to producing military and commercial planes. It employed 13,000 workers when he stepped down as president in 1978.

In the 1980s, Mr. Schwimmer was a consultant on technology and industry to his close friend, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, when he joined the secret Iran-contra operation that became a political scandal for the Reagan administration when it was exposed in 1986.

Congressional investigators said Mr. Schwimmer served as a middleman in the operation, which involved trading arms to Iran to free an American-held hostage in Lebanon.

The Israeli government stymied U.S. attempts to question Mr. Schwimmer, who lived in Tel Aviv and held Israeli citizenship. Mr. Schwimmer was a 2006 recipient of the Israel Prize, considered the state’s highest honor.

Survivors include his wife, two children and grandchildren.

In 2001, Mr. Schwimmer was pardoned by President Bill Clinton for his role in smuggling planes to Israel five decades earlier.

Mr. Schwimmer said he had never sought a pardon because he did not regret his crimes. “I guess I should be happy,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001 after learning of Clinton’s action. “I’ve lived most of my life without a pardon, so don’t expect me to throw a party now.”

— Los Angeles Times

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