Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister who opposed compromise with the Palestinians in the 1980s and ‘90s, died Saturday at 96. Shamir, a militant against British rule in the prestate period, was the country’s second longest-serving prime minster after David Ben-Gurion.
Israel’s seventh prime minister said in his autobiography he hadn’t groomed himself to become prime minister, maybe because he had worked for the Mossad for 10 years.
Only when Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the cabinet in August 1983 that he could no longer go on did Shamir take over.
Shamir was no young man at the time. “I was 68, two years younger than Begin, who was stepping down due to exhaustion. I wasn’t famous. I didn’t have a broad coalition of supporters or any particular ambition. It had never occurred to me that I could become prime minister.”
Shamir says in his book that when someone proposed that he become prime minister, he was confident he could beat out Likud minister David Levy. But though he could accept “how the others praised me, their exaggerations embarrassed me.”
Shamir said he liked Levy, but didn’t believe he was suitable to lead Likud or head the government. “I didn’t see myself as Begin’s heir, but rather someone who would continue his work,” Shamir said after he became prime minister.
Shamir served as premier from October 1983 to September 1984, and later as head of the second national unity government, from 1986 to 1990. He thenled a right-wing coalition until 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin beat him at the polls.
Shamir’s political career before he became prime minister wasn’t a long one. He joined the Herut movement only in 1970.
Poland, Lehi and the Mossad
Shamir was born in Ruzhany, now in Belarus, in 1915 as Yitzhak Yezernitsky. The small town became part of Poland after World War I. He studied in a school belonging to the Jewish Tarbut network, joined the Zionist Betar movement and began to study law at the University of Warsaw.
When he was 20, he immigrated to Palestine and joined the Irgun two years later. By day he worked in an accountant’s office and at night took part in anti-British activities.
Shamir said “we didn’t take any action blindly or automatically or just for the sake of violence. Our aim was to intimidate rather than to punish ... reprisals were never a cause for celebration. They were simply an existential need.” In 1940, Shamir left the Irgun, following Avraham Stern, and became a leader of the Lehi − which the British called the Stern Gang.
In December 1941 he was arrested and spent time in the Mizra prison near Acre. After escaping in September 1942, he was put in charge of operations. In this role he was responsible for the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East.
As Shamir put it, Moyne “was a senior official in enforcing British policy in Palestine and didn’t for a moment hide his strong opposition to Zionism and his negative feelings toward the Jews.”
In 1946, a year after his first child Yair was born, Shamir was deported by the British to Eritrea; the High Commissioner could deport anyone thought to endanger the peace or the defense of British Mandatory Palestine. Shamir escaped in January 1947.
In 1955, he joined the Mossad, where he filled many roles for 10 years. He never revealed many details about his work there, though in his autobiography he wrote that he was a unit chief under the organization’s leader, Isser Harel. “My service in the Mossad continued for only 10 years, but those years made a deep impression on me and I learned a lot from them,” Shamir said.
Knesset speaker and foreign minister
After entering politics in 1970, Shamir was elected to the Knesset in 1973 and served six terms.
In the ninth Knesset (1977-1980), when he was Knesset speaker, he disagreed with the Camp David Accords and abstained during the vote on peace. Shamir later said his wife Shlomit and children Yair and Gilada believed it had been a mistake to accept Begin’s request and serve as speaker.
According to Shamir, the most important event during his term as speaker was the visit by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in November 1977. In March 1980, a few months after Moshe Dayan resigned from the government, Shamir became a minister for the first time − foreign minister.
When Shamir took over as prime minister, the Israel economy was racked by 400 percent annual inflation. Shamir admitted he had no knowledge of economics. “I knew I wasn’t up to par in [this] area and I had no strong opinions about it,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Finance Minister Yoram Aridor proposed linking the shekel to the dollar, but Shamir feared that this would increase Israel’s dependence on the United States. Aridor resigned.
Two security issues were raging at this time; one was the growing Jewish underground that sought to attack Palestinians as revenge for their actions, including a plan to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The other was the Bus 300 affair, in which Shin Bet security service agents killed two Palestinians after they had been taken into custody after hijacking a bus. President Chaim Herzog pardoned 10 Shin Bet members before trial.
Ariel Sharon ran against Shamir to lead Likud before the 1984 elections but was badly beaten. The elections ended in a stalemate − 41 seats for Likud and 44 for the left-wing Alignment.
Neither party could form a coalition, and at the urging of Herzog, Shamir and Shimon Peres would take turns as prime minister and second in command − an Israeli invention.
But the lack of trust between the two hampered the national unity government. Shamir claimed that Peres undermined him and held secret negotiations with Jordan’s King Hussein, highlighted by Peres’ signing of the London Agreement in 1987.
“From the first day ... it was clear to me that Peres not only didn’t want but also could not accept the results of the election .... Most of the time he worked behind my back, always ignoring the damage he caused to the government and the coalition. Furthermore, he advanced his cause ... with the same disregard for accepted rules of behavior whether he was prime minister or foreign minister.”
The first intifada
On December 9, 1987, the first intifada broke out in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Defense Minister Rabin instructed Israeli soldiers to respond with force, and Shamir supported Rabin’s tough approach.
The stalemate between Likud and Labor remained after the 1988 elections: Likud 40 seats, Labor 39. Despite the animosity between Shamir and Peres, they agreed to establish a unity government, but this time without a rotation. Shamir would be prime minister and Peres foreign and finance minister.
Meanwhile, relations with the United States were cooling off; Secretary of State James Baker was angered by Shamir’s unwillingness to make any kind of compromise with the Palestinians. Baker told a congressional committee that Shamir’s approach prevented any discussion of peace, and famously offered the White House telephone number for when Israel got serious. He called on Israel to give up the idea of a Greater Israel as unrealistic.
Dirty tricks and the Gulf War
The unity government fell apart in March 1990 after what is known as Peres’ “stinking maneuver.” The background to the affair was a deep disagreement between Peres and Shamir about the participation of East Jerusalem Arabs in elections for an autonomous council to be formed in the territories. Shamir opposed the idea, but Peres and Labor ministers supported the Americans.
In Peres’ maneuver, the Labor Party would take part in a no-confidence motion by the opposition parties and in return receive a Knesset majority for establishing agovernment headed by Peres. Shamir fired Peres for “acting to dismantle the unity government and undermine it.”
Two days later, a no-confidence motion was brought to the Knesset. Leaders of the two major parties courted the ultra-Orthodox parties. For the first time in Israel’s history, a government fell in a no-confidence vote. Peres failed to form a government when two ultra-Orthodox delegates withdrew their support. Shamir formed a government that lasted until the 1992 elections.
During the Gulf War that began in January 1991, Iraq fired 39 missiles at Israel. Israelis, especially those in the center of the country, shut themselves into sealed rooms wearing gas masks, but Shamir was not tempted to send the air force to attack Iraq. He won the world’s praise for his restraint.
End of a career
In the 1992 elections, Shamir was severely beaten by Rabin and resigned as Likud leader. He served in the Knesset until 1996, when he retired from all political activity, although he continued to criticize the Oslo Accords and Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies as prime minister.
For a decade after his retirement, he sometimes appeared in the media and expressed disappointment in the excesses of his successors, especially Netanyahu. He called Netanyahu an “angel of destruction” for agreeing to sign the Hebron and Wye agreements. He left Likud and joined a movement led by Benny Begin, Menachem’s son, but was not elected to the Knesset.
After Likud’s failure in the 1999 elections and Netanyahu’s exit, Shamir received a symbolic place on Likud’s Knesset list: 120 − the number of Knesset seats. In 2001 he was awarded the Israel Prize.
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