Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Legacy
In 1992, Republican Whip Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming, who was critical of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s policies, told me: “How can I like Prime Minister Shamir when he resembles an aggressive, roaring tiger? However, how can I not respect a roaring tiger?!”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker, who was one of the crudest detractors of Shamir’s policies, respected Shamir’s ironclad commitment to deeply rooted ideology.
Therefore, he considered Shamir a trustworthy—although non-subservient—ally of the U.S.
Shamir was consistently guided by principles, values and a history-driven ideology; he was not herded by pollsters and public-opinion consultants.
The late Prime Minister Shamir was a role model of Jewish patriotism, optimism, principle-driven and security-based statesmanship, history-motivated tenacity, reliability, modesty, independence and endurance in face of brutal pressure.
In 1991, at the height of the bitter conflict between Prime Minster Shamir and then Republican President George H. W. Bush, then Republican House Whip Newt Gingrich, asked: “How can you expect communications between Bush, who was given the presidency, as well as the CIA and the U.N. ambassadorship, on a golden platter, and Shamir, who has demonstrated willingness to sacrifice his life on the altar of ideology?”
Following the 1990 meeting between Shamir and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, George Mitchell and Bob Dole, respectively, the latter told Shamir: “The Majority Leader and I respect you—although we disagree with your policies—because you are tough!”
The short Shamir was a giant of a prime minister—a geopolitical game-changer—in the areas of aliyah (Jewish immigration), the economy, U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation and defiance of pressure.
While the Jackson-Vanik Amendment opened the doors of the USSR for emigration, Shamir’s aliyah policy was chiefly responsible for the arrival in Israel of over one million immigrants from the USSR. Shamir believed that aggressive, tenacious, proactive aliyah policy—generating aliyah—was the prerequisite for massive aliyah waves from the USSR, Ethiopia and other countries. During the 1990s, he predicted a future aliyah wave from France due to growing anti-Semitism and Islamic migration.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dick Schifter appreciated Shamir’s intense lobbying of Secretaries of State Schultz and Baker to stop issuing refugee certificates to Soviet Jews, thus directing them to relocate to Israel. In addition, Shamir initiated a request to the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution—signed by all 100 senators—expecting Moscow to direct Jewish emigrants to fly only directly to Israel and not to Rome or Vienna. Shamir’s initiatives transformed an 80 percent dropout rate (until 1990) to an almost 100 percent arrival rate, by Soviet Jews, to Israel.
Shamir orchestrated the absorption of over one million Soviet Jews and 60,000 Ethiopian Jews — an unprecedented human accomplishment. He considered aliyah to be the raison d’etre of the Jewish State, its moral compass, its top priority and its turbo growth engine. He was aware that aliyah determined Israel’s posture of deterrence and the Jewish-Arab demographic balance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Shamir laid down the foundations for the resurgence of Israel’s economy from a potential meltdown to one of the most fiscally responsible economies in the world. His composure in face of lethal pressures, marathon-like (and not sprint-like) style of leadership, strategic thinking and willingness to lead through the delegation of authority to experts— such as Jacob Frenkel, who was appointed by Shamir to be the governor of the Bank of Israel—paved the road to the stabilization of Israel’s shekel, the dramatic restraint of inflation, interest and unemployment rates and the drastic reduction of the budget deficit.
Former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz was a systematic critic of Shamir’s policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but rarely fails to express his utmost respect for Shamir’s integrity and perseverance. Most of Shamir’s sustained critics in Washington indicate that “we miss him now more than anytime before.”
In 1988, Texas Congressman Ted Poe, then a federal judge and currently a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, defined Shamir as “the sturdiest statesman in the Middle East.”
Shamir’s defiance of the U.S., when it came to Jewish roots in the Land of Israel and Israel’s fundamental security requirements, eroded his popularity, but enhanced respect for him. In 1991, he preconditioned participation in the Madrid Conference upon a U.S. commitment to avoid any reference to land-for-peace, to prohibit PLO participation and to inform Syria that no retreat on the Golan Heights was forthcoming. His image as a strategic partner was upgraded by his dismissal of international guarantees of Israel’s security and propositions to station foreign troops on Israel’s borders. On a rainy day, the U.S. is not looking for a “punching bag,” but for a reliable, capable, democratic, unconditional ally, which is willing to defy even the U.S.
Shamir’s seven years at the helm were characterized by unprecedented expansion of U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation—despite severe disagreements over the Palestinian issue—from the April 1988 Memorandum of Understanding through the 1990-1991 enhancement of joint exercises, intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation, prepositioning of U.S. military hardware in Israel, defense industrial cooperation, the upgrading of the port of Haifa for the Sixth Fleet, etc.
Contemporary challenges, domestically, internationally, commercially and militarily, behoove Israeli and American leaders to follow in the footsteps of Prime Minister Shamir and carry on his legacy.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of “Second Thought: a U.S.-Israel initiative.”
This column first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of Yoram Ettinger.