Yitzhak Shamir used to say of himself that his public career was entirely devoid of personal ego. He was one hundred percent devoted to the cause, to the national interest as he saw it. Zero percent to his own interests.
Today, a generation later, a statement like that from a politician, any politician, would only elicit guffaws of incredulity.
But I believed Shamir, and still do.
I covered him as a reporter, loathed his politics, was a prey to the trendy-lefty practice of despising him – and ended up admiring him.
His long years in power did enormous damage. His shooting down of Shimon Peres' 'London Agreement' with King Hussein of Jordan was arguably the most disastrous decision an Israeli leader ever took.
And yet, on another plane, Yitzhak Shamir was a man whom Israelis can feel proud of having had as their prime minister. An upright man, a man untouched by corruption. A liar? Yes, but an honest liar.
Two great U.S. secretaries of state, George Shultz and James Baker, write with fond appreciation of Shamir's honesty. A stone-waller; endlessly frustrating. But at the end of the day a straight-shooter, a man of his word. In this, he brought honor to the Jewish state and the Jewish people, much more so than his predecessor, Menachem Begin, who double-talked an American president.
"For Eretz Yisrael it is permissible to lie," Shamir coined his own criteria of honesty. At the end of his term, whether by incaution or by design, he gave an honest accounting to the nation and to history. He had negotiated endlessly about negotiating, he said, and had intended the peace negotiations to go on endlessly, while he meanwhile went on building the settlements that made peace impossible.
Every day of non-progress that passed was a victory for him. He notched up ten years of them.
Yitzhak Shamir's narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness on Israel-Palestine were matched by his breadth of understanding and distance of vision when it came to world affairs and the sweep of Jewish history within them. He never lost sight of Russia – not of the huge, dangerous empire and not of the Jews trapped inside it – even in the darkest days of Brezhnev and his gray-faced successors.
He understood Israel's intrinsic need to come to terms with Russia when the Kremlin still radiated nothing but enmity towards the Jewish state. And he believed in the future of Soviet Jewry long before it became fashionable to do so. He grasped profoundly the resilience of Jewishness.
Modest man of action that he was, the rhetoric of Holocaust hype beloved of Begin was alien to his personality. Yet he was deeply seared by the fate of Polish Jewry, which he had escaped by making aliyah alone as a young student. His father was the leader of the Jews' council in Rozhnoi, their home town. Was that council a Judenrat, with all the baggage that word entails? The record is unclear. His father was murdered by local people, erstwhile friends.
"The Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk," he memorably remarked to me. His spokesman, Avi Pazner, jumped. That was off the record, he insisted. "No. it wasn't," Shamir ruled.
In the same vein of honest accounting, he effectively confirmed the old rumors that he himself had executed a man, Giladi, during his Lehi days. Matter of factly, he explained why it had been necessary to do so. No braggadocio; no crocodile tears.
In politics he proved similarly ruthless, blithely betraying his longtime alliance with heir-presumptive Moshe Arens and standing back to allow Benjamin Netanyahu to take over the party. His driving motivation here, it seems, was his abiding hatred for Ariel Sharon and equally abiding contempt for David Levy. Rather than enable the two of them to vie with Arens for the leadership, Shamir preferred to jump a generation. Perhaps he would have preferred to see one of the Likud 'princes' at the helm – Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert or Ronnie Milo. But in practice, he paved the way for Bibi.
His passing will accord him a last, sweet victory: words of praise from the man who despised him the most, Shimon Peres. As his 'rotating' rival, the then-Labor leader could never be persuaded to utter one kind word about the leader of Likud. As president – noblesse oblige; and Peres will doubtless fulfill his duty with aplomb.
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