It was my first-ever interview with a prime minister and I was naturally nervous. I walked into Yitzhak Shamir’s office, said “Shalom” and dutifully sat down on the exact spot on the couch that Avi Pazner, Shamir’s spokesman, had pointed to. I waited for Shamir to acknowledge my greeting, took a deep breath, and then I waited some more. But he just sat there, half-slumped on his arm chair, glaring at me with eyes wide open, as if he’d seen a ghost.
It occurred to me that perhaps he hadn’t heard me the first time, so I cleared my throat, introduced myself again and thanked him for receiving me. But he just continued to stare back, the silence more stifling by the minute, and even the experienced and polished Pazner started fidgeting in his seat, gesturing to me from across the coffee table that he was just as perplexed as I was. By then I was already panicking, my thoughts darting from one extreme – that this was Shamir’s way of intimidating people – to the other: that the prime minister was not completely there, if you know what I mean. I started wondering whether I would walk out of Shamir’s office with the scoop of the century, or whether I myself would be scooped away in an unmarked off-white car of the Shin Bet, never to be heard from again.
Pazner finally broke down. “Mr. Shamir,” he ventured, “we need to get on with the interview, because we have another meeting coming up soon.” But Shamir, his eyes never leaving my face, just waved his hand scornfully, as was his wont, as if to tell Pazner not to interfere. Finally, as I sank lower and lower in the leather sofa and began to wonder whether this excruciating and surreal incident would ever end, Shamir spoke, in a whisper I could only barely hear. “Do you know Eliyahu Bet-Zuri?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied. Every schoolboy of my generation recognized each of the names of “Olei Hagardom”, the 12 members of the pre-State underground Irgun and Stern Gang, as they were known in the English-speaking world, who had been sentenced to hang by British and Egyptian courts.
“You are from Bet-Zuri’s family,” Shamir said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Bet-Zuri, Bet-Zuri, what is your connection to Bet-Zuri?” he demanded, his voice growing stronger and more impatient with each passing word.
“None,” I sputtered, “I don’t think so. My parents are from Czechoslovakia. Bet-Zuri's family was from here. I don’t see how there could be a connection.”
Shamir looked at me with skeptical eyes. It was clear that his ears were hearing one thing, but his eyes were seeing another. “Are you sure?” he insisted. “Because when you walked through the door, I thought I was looking at him. Perhaps a distant cousin?” he suggested.
No, I assured him, I had no connection with Bet-Zuri. Shamir looked at me once again, long and hard and with growing disappointment, and finally said. “OK, you can ask your questions, but I want you to find out how you’re connected to Bet-Zuri.” The interview got under way, though by now Shamir appeared to have lost much of his interest. He dutifully answered my questions about the issues of the day, but his mind, it seemed to me, had wandered back from Jerusalem, 1986, to Cairo, 1944.
It was on the November 6 of that year that Bet-Zuri, together with his Lehi comrade Eliyahu Hakim, ambushed the official car of Walter Edward Guinness, known in the history books as Lord Moyne, and shot him and his driver to death. Moyne, the British Minister Resident for the Middle East, was viewed by Lehi as being responsible for stopping the flow of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe to British-controlled Palestine and as an enemy of the efforts to establish a Jewish homeland. The first major assassination of a senior British official, the killing enraged British public opinion and soured the hitherto supportive attitude of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Moyne’s close friend, toward the Zionist enterprise.
It was Shamir, then commander of Lehi, who had sent Hakim and Bet-Zuri on their mission and, in effect, to their March 1945 death by hanging. Exactly three decades later, after persistent lobbying of the Labor government led by Yitzhak Rabin, Shamir succeeded in getting the bodies of his two former subordinates returned to Israel within the framework of a prisoner exchange with Egypt following the Yom Kippur War. In an emotional ceremony in Israel which took place after the plane carrying their coffins landed, it was Shamir who identified the bodies which, according to misty-eyed Lehi veterans who were there, were miraculously preserved in their original state.
One of Shamir’s confidantes in the Likud once told me that Shamir had a special “soft spot” for Bet-Zuri, whom he considered to be Lehi’s most eloquent spokesman. Bet-Zuri’s death seemed to hang heavier on Shamir’s conscience than that of other Lehi fighters – or terrorists, if you will – who were killed or executed while obeying Shamir’s orders, he said. Bet-Zuri, my source added, was no less a fanatic zealot than Shamir himself, an observation seemingly corroborated by the April 2011 declassification of secret papers by the British MI5 intelligence service which suggested that Bet-Zuri had planned to go to London with his Lehi colleagues to assassinate Churchill himself.
After my interview with Shamir, I went to the library and stared at the few remaining photographs of Bet-Zuri, who died at the age of 23. And to this day, if I try very hard, I can sometimes see the resemblance. In one or two of my subsequent meetings with Shamir he asked me again about my possible connections to Bet-Zuri - hoping, perhaps, that I might change my mind - but I politely said no, and in the ensuing years we never spoke of the matter again.
A few years later, when he was no longer prime minister, Shamir was asked in an interview with the now defunct Hadashot newspaper which Israeli reporters he liked, and he graciously mentioned my name. “He criticizes me,” he said, “but he does so calmly and rationally.” I have always regarded this statement as a professional badge of honor, but I have never deluded myself about the source of Shamir’s particular attachment to me. With all due respect to my reporting and writing, it was what Shamir saw in his mind’s eye when he first saw my face and the haunting memories that this image evoked from his turbulent past that were the start, not of a beautiful friendship, perhaps, but of a special relationship indeed.
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev