Yitzhak Shamir, 1915-2012: A Modest Man, an Uninspiring Leader - and a Genuine Zealot

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Of all the Israelis that have led Israel since its inception in 1948, Yitzhak Shamir is the only one who was a true zealot. A modest and moderate man with infinite self-control, he was nonetheless a fanatic devotee of his vision of the Jewish people and the Greater Land of Israel. The end, in his eyes, always justified the means.

I covered Shamir during his years as prime minister during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, accumulated many “Shamir hours” in his bureau and - much to the chagrin of many of my colleagues and most of my friends - both liked and admired him. He had what Americans would call “true grit” in his ideological convictions, was undeterred by hardships and unmoved by temptations. He kept his eye on the only ball that mattered to him – the preservation of the Greater Land of Israel – and viewed everything else as subservient diversions. He was one of the last of the “generation of giants” who had fought, often against all odds, for the establishment of the Jewish homeland.

Despite his public image as a dull politician and uninspiring leader, Shamir was a well-read man and an engaging conversationalist who, unlike many of his close-minded and thin-skinned successors, was possessed with enough self-confidence and intellectual curiosity to relish debate and criticism. He had a grudging respect for wily ideologues made in his own image, even if they came from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. The first newspapers he read in the morning were the now-defunct left-wing party organs, Davar and al-Hamishmar; the perennial Soviet foreign minister Andrej Gromyko was one of his adversarial favorites.

He had an instrumental approach to ultra-Orthodox parties and viewed their demands for greater control of religious life as a reasonable price to pay for their support for his right-wing policies. But he miscalculated the vehemence and outrage of American Jewry when he agreed in 1988 to give the ultra-Orthodox exclusive control over conversions, and capitulated in order to appease American Jews, whom he viewed as even more critical to his overall designs. 

He disliked “professional politicians” and was no great fan of Shimon Peres, with whom he had forged a six-year national unity partnership at the helm, nor Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud superstar who would eventually take Shamir’s place after his 1992 electoral loss to Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu’s slick, American-style politicking was alien to Shamir, and his willingness to grudgingly adopt the Oslo Accords in order to win over centrist voters in the 1996 elections was viewed by Shamir both as betrayal and as a vindication of his earlier mistrust. But he got along famously with Rabin, a fellow straight shooter, who served as Shamir’s tough-minded defense minister until 1990.

Shamir’s most grievous sin, in the eyes of many - including this writer - was his decision to undermine the 1987 London framework agreement reached between his then foreign minister Shimon Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein on the Palestinian problem.  Shamir’s refusal to entertain any sort of territorial compromise caused him to terminate the agreement and with it to liquidate the so-called “Jordanian Option” on the West Bank, usher in the first intifada and enable the ascendancy of the PLO and Hamas. It is from this fork in the historic road that Israel has continued on its path of endless confrontation and futile occupation, though for him, of course, these were just momentary hardships in the eternal battle for Jewish survival.

He viewed the West Bank as the hinterland to which millions of Jews from around the world would come to settle. In 1989, he vehemently challenged Peres’ assertion that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika would keep Soviet Jews in Russia. “Millions will come,” Shamir declared, to Peres’ scorn. It was his utter devotion to these millions and his single-minded adherence to his plan to bring them to Judea and Samaria – a scheme that the immigrants themselves did not follow - that propelled Shamir into the head-on confrontation with President George Bush over loan guarantees that may have cost him his job.

His decision to refrain from retaliating against Iraqi missile attacks in the first Gulf War as well as his acquiescence, after months and months of wrangling that infuriated Washington, should also be viewed, first and foremost, as tactical maneuvers aimed at warding off pressure and preserving Israel’s hold on the occupied territories. He fended off criticism from both the left and the right by waving his hand and exclaiming “nu, tov” before going back to his main objective.

His black-or-white, good vs. evil, Jew vs. non-Jew outlook was forged in his youth in anti-Semitic Poland, sculpted by his membership in the hardline Revisionist youth movement Beitar and seared into his consciousness by his story of the death of his father, who was stoned to death by non-Jewish Poles while trying to escape the Nazis, just outside his then-Polish birthplace of Ruzhany in modern Belarus.

He was a man of iron will, absolute determination and supreme ruthlessness. He salvaged the crumbling pre-state Lehi underground movement after the death of its founder, Avraham Stern, planned and expanded its policy of terror and assassination, ran from British authorities, lived in disguise and once hid for many months, completely alone and totally vigilant, in the orange groves north of Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean Coast. It is in these years that he learned to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself, and to remain eternally suspicious of both enemies and friends.

Though many might view his ascendancy to the premiership as an accident of history, I tend to believe that it was the inevitable result of the sheer unstoppable brute force of his iron will. He never abandoned the vows that he took in the pre-State underground, and he forever abided by the line penned by Stern in the Lehi anthem: "We serve our cause for the length of our lives, a service which ends with our breath."

On Saturday, in Tel Aviv, Shamir was finally discharged from his service.

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Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.Credit: AP
Shamir, right, with Shimon Peres, center, and Yossi Beilin, left, in 1985, during the period of the unity government.Credit: GPO