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22 July 2014 23:25 (South Africa)
World

Israel's quintessential hard man, Yitzhak Shamir, dies quietly at 96

  • J Brooks Spector
  • World
shamir

Yitzhak Shamir never lost his stoic, hardline stance against the Palestinians in favour of a “greater Israel”, and held a deep antipathy towards the kinds of negotiations with the Palestinians that his longtime rival, the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, came to champion. J BROOKS SPECTOR looks back over Shamir's life and career.

Yitzhak Shamir, a man who had emerged from the Stern Gang, the most militant wing of the Irgun, eventually served as Israel’s prime minister longer than anyone but the near-legendary David Ben-Gurion. Throughout his career, Shamir was a proponent of a particularly muscular Zionism and expansive settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

He was born Yitzhak Jazernicki in Poland, but changed his name to Shamir, or “thorn” in Hebrew, after he emigrated to the British mandatory territory of Palestine.  (The UK became the mandated authority there following the end of World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.)

Before he emigrated to Palestine on a student visa, ostensibly to enter the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he had studied law at Warsaw University after World War One. But in 1935, when he was 20, he came under the political and philosophical influence of the extreme militant Zionist Zeev Zabotinsky and emigrated to Palestine. The rest of his family remained in Poland and were exterminated by the Nazis during World War Two.

Once he was inside Palestine, he joined the underground paramilitary group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, which was led by yet another future Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin. The Irgun was dedicated to fighting for an independent Jewish state, using militant, violent means against the British. But Shamir felt that even the Irgun was insufficiently activist enough and he moved over to (and later led) the Stern Gang in 1940. During that period, the British Foreign Office described Shamir as “among the most fanatical terrorist leaders”. His group blew up the King David Hotel in 1946 while that structure was serving as the British headquarters in Jerusalem. The explosion killed 88 people, including 15 Jews, and also took the life of the United Nations mediator, the Swedish Count Bernadotte.

Many of his friends and colleagues said Shamir's character took shape during his years in the underground when he sent Jewish fighters out to kill British officers, whom he saw as occupiers. Given his pursuit of the intifada (uprising) later, it might well be seen as ironic that the British rulers of the Palestine mandate had also labelled him a terrorist and an assassin. In those Stern Gang years, he appeared in public only at night, disguised as a Hasidic rabbi. Years later, Shamir told friends that those were “the best years of my life.”

To the Jewish public, and even other Jewish underground groups, Shamir’s gang was “lacking even a spark of humanity and Jewish conscience”, Israel Rokach, the mayor of Tel Aviv, said in 1944 after Stern Gang gunmen shot three British police officers on the streets of his city. Years later, Shamir insisted it had been more humane to assassinate specific military or political figures than to attack military installations and possibly kill innocent people, as other underground groups did. He argued, “a man who goes forth to take the life of another whom he does not know must believe only one thing: that by his act he will change the course of history.” 

Some historians argue that he and his group were behind a failed attempt to kill the British high commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, and the killing in Cairo of Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East, Lord Moyne. Asked about these events many years later, Shamir's denials seemed to carry a certain evasive tone, observers noted.

During this period, too, the British managed to arrest Shamir twice, including a deportation to Eritrea, but he escaped both times, eventually returning after Israel's declaration of independence in 1948. For the next seven years he worked in law and business, but probably found his true calling in 1955, when he joined Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, where he worked for a decade. After Mossad, he joined the campaign to support the right of Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Summarising these parts of his life before entering formal politics, the Jerusalem Post wrote of him that “Captured and deported to Eritrea in 1946, the diminutive, beetle-browed Shamir missed much of the fighting that led to the state’s founding two years later. Upon his return, he found himself out of step with the country’s left-leaning political leadership of the day. The Mossad spy service provided Shamir a back door to power. Recruited in 1955, he clambered up Mossad’s ranks during shadow wars with Middle East foes and international hunts for Nazi fugitives. He credited a posting in France with lending some refinement to his style – ‘the scenery, the way people looked, the food, the wine, Piaf,’ he would later say – and prepared him for his 1980 breakthrough as foreign minister for the Likud.”

Following these formative experiences, Shamir entered politics with Menachem Begin's Herut Party, a predecessor to Likud. He rose through the ranks to become parliamentary speaker, foreign minister and then his first of two tours as prime minister in 1983 when Begin retired.

Shamir’s political opponents said his laconic style played into his handling of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut in September 1982, during Israel’s war in Lebanon. On September 16, Phalangists — Lebanese Christian militiamen — entered the camps and began killing hundreds of Palestinians while the Israeli Army, largely unaware of the killings, stood guard at the gates. The resulting deaths caused a major international uproar. 

Much later, Shamir said of the incidents: “You know, in those times of the Lebanese war, every day something happened. And from the first glance of it, it seemed like just another detail of what was going on every day. But after 24 hours, it became clear it was not a normal event.”

Following the indecisive election of 1984, he formed an unlikely coalition with Shimon Peres of the Labour Party. Their deal was that Peres would be prime minister for the first two years, then Shamir would re-assume the prime ministership. Shamir was now a key part of a group of right-wing Israeli politicians led by Menachem Begin, who came to power in the 1970s as the more left-wing Labour Party slowly declined, increasingly seen as corrupt and disdainful of the public it wished to lead.

Shamir strongly opposed many - if not most - of Peres’s policies, especially the stalemated peace process and well as the possibility of land returns or the possibility of a Palestinian state. Instead, he persistently advocated the creation of a “greater Israel”, encompassing all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river. 

As prime minister, Shamir therefore promoted continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Israel had conquered in 1967. As a result, in his time as prime minister, the Jewish population in those occupied territories increased by nearly 30%.  He also continued to encourage the immigration of many thousands of Soviet Jews to Israel, an influx that has significantly altered the country’s demographic character as well as its political balance.

During this second term as prime minister, he first ordered a military solution to the first Palestinian intifada, which had begun in 1987. By the 1988 election, the uprising in the occupied territories was an ongoing reality and the Israeli electorate was thoroughly split between Labour and Likud in determining which set of policies to support. As a result of the inconclusive electoral results, the two antagonists – Shamir and Peres - formed yet another unwieldy coalition government that survived until 1990, when the Labour party left the government, leaving Shamir with a narrow coalition, but still in the driver's seat. 

In responding to the intifada, Shamir and his defence minister, Yitzhak Rabin, deployed thousands of Israeli troops throughout the occupied territories to quash the rebellion. The years of violence and death on both sides brought criticism and condemnation from around the world.

In May 1991, Shamir ordered the airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in a rescue operation code named Operation Solomon as one of the last efforts to bring historically dispersed Jewish communities to Israel.

Surprisingly, during the first Gulf War that took place in that same year, after Iraq began firing Scud missiles at Israeli cities, Shamir held back from any form of retaliation, presumably in response to serious US pressure to adopt a policy of restraint, with the view that any Israeli attacks would generate major difficulties for the delicate Arab-Western coalition that the George Bush administration had cobbled together against Iraq in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

By not retaliating even as Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv, Shamir gained promises of financial aid from the United States to help with the settlement of all those new Israeli citizens from the Soviet Union. Following the Gulf War and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, nearly a half-million Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel. Shamir sought $10-billion in US-backed loan guarantees to pay for their housing and development projects. But he resisted American demands that none of the money be used for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. 

In the fall of 1991, under pressure from Bush and secretary of state James Baker, Shamir agreed to represent Israel at the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Israel’s first summit meeting with the Arab states. There, he was as unyielding as ever, denouncing Syria at one point as having “the dubious honour of being one of the most oppressive, tyrannical regimes in the world”.

However, his reluctant decision to bring Israel into negotiations with its Arab neighbours eventually led the way for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that became a more sustained motif of Israeli foreign policy under his successors.  Israeli voters, now increasingly wary of a confrontation with the country’s one reliable ally, the US, rejected Shamir in the June 1992 election and he was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin then found himself in that historic handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in the Bill Clinton administration, building a reputation as a peacemaker.

Shamir left office in 1992 amid charges that Likud was becoming too conciliatory toward the Palestinians, despite Shamir's near-legendary reputation as a hardliner against Palestinian aspirations for statehood as well as his refusal to countenance land for peace-style negotiations. Shamir dropped out of Likud's leadership in March 1993. He became a sharp critic of his Likud successor, arguing that Benjamin Netanyahu was being too indecisive in dealing with the Palestinians, in spite of Netanyahu's own reputation as a hardliner.

In a statement announcing the death, Israel's current prime minister, Netanyahu, spoke of Shamir's “deep loyalty to Israel”. In that statement,  Netanyahu said Shamir “was part of a marvellous generation which created the state of Israel and struggled for the Jewish people”.

A particularly telling portrait of his personality came  in 1988, when, at a meeting of his political party, he sat quietly on a sofa, gazing at the floor as party bigwigs continued to praise him to the rafters. Hearing all this, Shamir remarked: “I like all those people, they’re nice people. But this is not my style, not my language. This kind of meeting is the modern picture, but I don’t belong to it.” 

One of his advisors, Avi Pazner had said of him, “If he wants something, it may take a long time, but he’ll never let go.” Another close aide, Yossi Achimeir, said of him: “He heard every whisper, every small movement. His antennae were working all the time.”

Ultimately, “Shamir believed only in Shamir.” As a politician, Shamir played his cards very close to his chest, like a good intelligence operative should. Aides like to tell that memos to him routinely were returned without a mark on them.

By the time of his death, Yitzhak Shamir was living quietly in a nursing home near Tel Aviv, as he gradually succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. DM

Read more:

  • Obituary: former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the BBC
  • Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir dies at the BBC
  • Yitzhak Shamir, Former Israeli Prime Minister, Dies at 96 at the New York Times
  • Yitzhak Shamir, former Israeli prime minister, dies at 96 at the Washington Post
  • Former PM Yitzhak Shamir passes away at age 96 in Tel Aviv at the Jerusalem Post
  • Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir dies at 96 at Ha’aretz

Photo by Reuters

  • J Brooks Spector
  • World


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