I first met Yitzhak Shamir a few months after I made my aliya from the rapidly declining Soviet Union in the summer of 1990. Back then, getting a close up look at the Chief Executive of the Jewish State wasn’t the arduous, life-threatening affair it became after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. One inconspicuous bodyguard accompanied the Prime Minister into the room where our group of immigrant students waited, selected mainly for our halting command of Hebrew.
Arriving as we did back then with almost zero knowledge of Israeli history, I had a very slim notion of the biography of the small man who stood before us. Maybe it was for the best – just to be in the same room as the Prime Minister of your new country was quite overwhelming even without being aware of the full weight of history that he carried on his shoulders.
Two things stood out the most during this brief encounter. First was the humanity of Shamir. This grisly clandestine warrior, this “head of assassins”, this political rock, came across like a genuinely affable and friendly old man, not like a politician working a crowd. When he asked questions, he was clearly interested in getting an answer, patiently enduring our struggles with Hebrew verb conjugation. Despite the presence of a few journalists, Shamir didn’t grandstand or make speeches, even while addressing the burning issue of the day. Iraq has already occupied Kuwait, and the hot-button word was “linkage” – quite a few bright thinkers all over the world were prepared to entertain Saddam’s proposal to tie his withdrawal from Kuwait with the future of the Palestinian territories. Shamir gave short shrift to this idea. He also promised harsh retaliation should the Iraqi dictator follow on his threats to attack Israel. The words were simple and easily understood; the tone businesslike. Here was a man who meant what he said and cared not for pomp and circumstance.
The second, less reassuring, impression from this little talk was that the Prime Minister, while truly excited about the wave of mass immigration from the Soviet Union crashing on Israeli shores, had virtually no knowledge of the Jews who are coming through Israel’s gates nor of the grueling “absorption” process they had to endure. Partially this wasn’t Shamir’s fault – not much information about the daily life of Soviet Jewry came through the Iron Curtain, and the outside perception was distorted by the brave struggles of refuseniks and prisoners of Zion. However, while the immigrants’ numbers were growing daily, Shamir was too busy trying to salvage his governing coalition to pay any attention to the unfolding humanitarian crisis. At the meeting, he was unable to answer questions with regard to housing, professional perspectives, schools, and dismissed any complaints as natural hardships of immigration and grew visibly annoyed toward the end.
My second and last encounter with Shamir wasn’t personal and it took place in 1992, in the “G.G. Studios” in Neve Ilan near Jerusalem, where he arrived to record a debate with Rabin, who in a few weeks would succeed him as a Prime Minister. The spirit of defeat was already settling over Shamir’s Likud. The gaggle of reporters covering the debate, myself among them, were waiting to see if Shamir would be able to turn the tide by getting under the skin of the Labor challenger. This didn’t happen. Shamir was visibly tired, his repetition of well-known positions came across as empty sloganeering and while Rabin didn’t score any rhetorical points, he didn’t lose, and this was enough. After the debate ended, a jubilant Rabin came over to chat with the journalists (most of which were his died-in-wool fanboys anyway). Shamir left immediately, to continue his campaign in a country that was determined to get rid of him.
It was as if Shamir’s famous intransigence, his ability to withstand internal and foreign pressure, was his main asset in the eyes of the Israelis. In the run-up to the first Gulf War, Shamir was received with standing ovations everywhere he went when he promised a harsh response to any Iraqi provocation. The public exasperation of the American Secretary of State, who offered his phone number on camera for Shamir to use when the Israeli leader “gets serious about peace”, did nothing to dent Shamir’s authority. And then he started to compromise. While the press and the officialdom supported his decision to do nothing when Saddam’s rockets fell on Tel-Aviv and Haifa, the bewildered public remembered his fighting words and sensed the precedent – Shamir lied, or was forced to lie, and the Israeli deterrent took a blow from which it didn’t recover. It was made clear that America holds a veto power over Israel’s freedom of self-defense.
The Madrid Conference, which Shamir didn’t want to attend but was forced to, showed exactly how short-lived American gratitude can be. The same linkage which was opposed by the first President Bush before the shooting in Kuwait started, came back with a vengeance in the form of payment demanded by the Arab “coalition partners”. Suddenly, the Israeli leader who’d just put his reputation and lives of his people on the line to help America avoid regional conflagration, became – again – an obstacle to peace. Meanwhile at home, Shamir’s right-wing partners saw an opportunity to capitalize on Likud’s apparent ideological weakness and forced Shamir into early elections.
This recklessness of the Israeli Right was based on the assumption that the continuous flood of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union made their ideological position unassailable. Having virtually no idea and little interest in the daily struggles of immigrants who were suffering from poverty, cultural shock and the loss of professional standing, the Right – and Shamir – assumed that the disgust of the new olim for anything that smacked of socialism and their mistrust of Arabs would be sufficient to anchor their allegiance firmly to the “right” of Israeli politics. They were wrong. Faced with naked exploitation, discrimination and religious dogmatism (Shamir gave the Absorption portfolio to Sephardic Orthodox SHAS party which promptly declared the “Russians” not sufficiently Jewish), the immigrants, who had tasted a bit of semi-democratic politics under Gorbachev, didn’t remain passive but turned towards the only alternative – Rabin and Labor. It would take four more years of broken promises and racial slurs for the constantly growing immigrant electorate to return to the Rightist fold. By then, most of Shamir’s cherished ideals of Jewish settlement everywhere and of Complete Land of Israel under Jewish domination would be destroyed by the Oslo agreements and their consequences.
Before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s, Shamir spent his last active years in politics denouncing Netanyahu and his compromises, leaving the Likud and campaigning against it in 1999. The merits of his critique notwithstanding, the tragedy of Shamir was that in the end, it was he who in a critical moment of Israeli history was found wanting. His fall opened the floodgates for those who took the Jewish state on the desperate and fanciful quest for “normality”. Hundreds upon hundreds of lives would be lost, along with billions of dollars and shekels, before the Israeli majority would come around to the idea that any semblance of normal life could be achieved not by exchanging land for pieces of paper signed by genocidal murderers of civilians, but through the barrel of a gun.