Yitzhak Shamir, the Prime Minister Who Spied on Me

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I didn't know Yitzhak Shamir, but he knew me - or at least tried to.

In January 1989, HaIr editor Meir Schnitzer and I appealed against a Chief Military Censor's decision to the Israeli High Court, and won. The court gave permission to publish an article I wrote on an upcoming change in the leadership of the Mossad that was censored up until then.

Yitzhak Shamir, who at the time as Prime Minister had ministerial responsibility over the Mossad, was troubled by the court ruling, and his curiosity over the identity of the journalist who cracked the defensive wall of secrecy and darkness was aroused. He ordered the intelligence agency to write a report on the little-known journalist and present him with the findings. The Mossad's security unit tackled the task and assembled a file on me.

This file must have been brief; how much information could they have gathered on a 23-year-old journalist working for a local Tel Aviv newspaper, with a less than exceptional high school and military record? And yet, since hearing about this incident, I've been curious what they have compiled in that file, which is most likely highly classified. Maybe one day I will read it, through the application of the Freedom of Information Law or courtesy of a local Wikileaks.

A few years later the roles reversed, and it was I who wanted to get to know Shamir. I was conducting research for a book I meant to write on the conduct of Israeli prime ministers from Shamir to Sharon. I was especially intrigued by him, the man with the bushy eyebrows. But his medical condition had already deteriorated, and I resigned myself to interviewing people in his close circle.

They described a strong and focused man, admired by those surrounding him, but who never enjoying the admiration of the masses despite his long service as prime minister, only shorter than David Ben Gurion's. Once he stepped down from the public stage, he was nearly forgotten.

In the interviews I conducted about him, I heard some interesting stories. Dan Meridor - who was in Shamir's close circle, served as his justice minister, and looked after the integrity of his unity government on his behalf - described him as a giant that never received his right place in the Israeli public consciousness. According to Meridor, Shamir's most important contribution was convincing the U.S. administration under President George Bush Sr. to desist from issuing refugee visas to Soviet Jews.

Up to 1989, Jews leaving the USSR could choose to immigrate either to the United States or to Israel, with many choosing the U.S. Shamir was opposed to this "defection," as it was termed at the time. He believed Jews ought to settle in Israel, whether they were from a Russian gulag or Brooklyn. He persuaded the American government and U.S. Jewish organizations that the Soviet Jews weren't refugees, that they had a homeland in Israel. Then the floodgates of the collapsing Soviet Empire opened wide, and a million Jews along with their relatives immigrated to Israel. Had Shamir not insisted, today, many of them would have been living on the shores of the Hudson River.

When the Soviet Union completely collapsed, Shamir was sad. He told Meridor "They collapsed because they didn't stay true to their ideology." Shamir was likely concerned that Israel's leadership would abandon Zionism with a similar outcome. To a certain extent, this happened to him too when he went to the 1991 Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid, going against anything he had preached before.

Shamir was an ideologue, but like Mikhail Gorbachev, he appreciated power and knew when to fold. After the Gulf War, in which Tel Aviv was attacked by rockets and Bush emerged victorious, even the stubborn Shamir found it hard to say "no." He left for Madrid, and that was the beginning of his downfall. After the conference, his coalition with the far-right parties fell apart, and after he contended with the Bush administration over loan guarantees and settlements, he lost the elections to Yitzhak Rabin. His short transgression from his life-long ideology cost him the prime ministry.

In the current administration Shamir has an even bigger fan than Meridor - Ehud Barak - who was appointed by Shamir's government as the IDF chief of staff after the Gulf War. Barak used to say that Shamir "was made of granite," repeating the statement in the communiqué his office issued on Saturday. But he worshipped Shamir the Lehi member more than Shamir the seventh prime minister. Using the height of his analytic powers, Barak explained how Shamir rehabilitated the small and persecuted group after its leader Avraham Stern ("Yair") was murdered. From his hiding place in a Ra'anana orange orchard, he had to coordinate the group's communications while aware that the group had been infiltrated and not knowing which if any of the members is a British agent. For a moment it seemed as though Barak would be willing to give up the perks of his high office just to be born a few years earlier so that he can fight the British occupier alongside "Michael."

The Lehi members stayed close after the British Mandate ended, even when they were on opposing political parties. The leftist poet Yevi, who had a weekly column in Haaretz, always spoke fondly of the prime minister he met at Stern's annual memorial services. He once told me how he went together with Amos Kenan, another leftist member of the Lehi, to talk with Shamir in his office to help a fellow member of the underground that had fallen ill.

Today, Netanyahu is trying to implement Shamir's policy – a freeze in negotiations with Israel's neighbors and the Palestinians, strengthening the settlements, alongside poor relations with the White House. Shamir, like Bibi today, was charged with allowing his wife to too heavily weigh in on the nations politics (Shulamit Shamir was active in an organization benefitting the elderly and was known to wield influence in the Israeli Broadcast Authority).

Despite these similarities, the two were completely different. Netanyahu is not as strong-willed as Shamir, nor is he as revered by those in his close circle. But he does understand the importance of public opinion and of listening to the public more than his predecessor. Shamir wasn't interested.

His best friends were the advertiser Eliezer Zhurabin, a former Lehi member, and his life partner, the pollster Dr. Mina Zemach. The two couples ate their Friday evening dinners together at the prime minister's residence, but politics and campaigns were never discussed. Shamir never asked Zemach "How are my numbers?" nor ever asked Zhurabin for advice on how best to beat his greatest opponents; Shimon Peres, David Levi, and Ariel Sharon. It is hard to imagine any of Shamir's successors acting in such a way. Shamir believed he knew what Israelis needed, even if they didn't always understand him.

Read this article in Hebrew

Yitzhak Shamir in Paris, 1987.Credit: AP