Shamir’s Diplomatic Legacy
Yitzhak Shamir served as prime minister in one of the most difficult periods in Israel’s diplomatic history. He came into office in the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War and by 1987 the first Intifada broke out–with these two events the television screen became a dominant factor for the first time influencing Israel’s standing in world opinion and the political pressures it subsequently faced. He did not place himself alone at the front of this struggle but instead built a team of skilled envoys to represent Israel in these difficult times, including Moshe Arens, Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu. But he also lead a two-headed national-unity government that many times sent mixed messages to the international community making a clear and coherent Israeli message difficult to communicate on the world stage.
True, Shamir did not sign any historic agreements with Israel’s neighbors during these years. But realistically, the opportunities for such breakthroughs were limited. On the one hand King Hussein signaled in 1987 that he was willing to enter negotiations that were accompanied by an international conference, but by 1988 he cut all his administrative ties with the West Bank. Syria was pulled tighter into the grip of the Soviet Union. And Iraq was recovering from its eight year war with Iran which left it with the largest land army in the Middle East. Even before its invasion of Kuwait, it began flexing its muscles along Israel’s borders; in 1989 it even dispatched surveillance aircraft to the Jordan River in order to take photographs within Israel.
Shamir nonetheless groped to find a political formula for the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would protect Israel’s interests in the challenging world it faced. He sought to build on the autonomy proposals in the Camp David Agreements, by integrating Jordan in the negotiations. A revealing passage in the memoirs of former Secretary of State George Shultz indicates that Shamir was able to convincingly communicate his ideas for a “functional compromise”, which he preferred over any solution based on territorial withdrawals alone. This idea which was originally proposed by Moshe Dayan. The functional idea was also adopted for a while by Shimon Peres, was finally backed by Shamir as an alternative to a territorial division of the West Bank.
Thus Shultz wrote when he looked back on this period, that it was necessary to re-think the idea of “land for peace”, because, as he wrote, “the meaning of sovereignty, the meaning of territory is changing.” In the context of the peace process, he suggested: “Control over various functions in a territory could be shared. Who controls what, I argued would necessarily vary over such diverse functions as external security, maintenance of law and order, access to limited supplies of water…”
These ideas for a functional compromise are not relevant in today’s political context, but they are nevertheless valuable to consider because they reveal a great deal about how Shamir handled US-Israel relations: the US had its own definite views but Israel could propose a very different diplomatic approach, if it could make a convincing argument for the position it was taking. In contrast, there were some Israelis who viewed the harshest declarations of policy coming out of Washington as “a given,” to which Israel must automatically acquiesce with no discussion. Some even invited US pressure. Shamir didn’t just stand firm, but he sought quietly to shape the terms of the debate.
Another area where Shamir’s influence was felt was in Shultz’s firm rejection of an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Many Israeli diplomats were convinced that the U.S. sought to push Israel back to the 1967 lines, maybe allowing for minor modifications of the pre-war armistice lines, in accordance with the proposals of Secretary of State William Rogers from the early 1970’s. As a result, Israeli officials often sought to avoid any discussion about Israel’s final borders with their American counterparts in order to avoid what they thought would be an inevitable clash. These Israeli experts were wrong about U.S. policy as Shultz would demonstrate at the end of his term in office.
Reflecting what he undoubtedly heard from Shamir over the years, Shultz declared on September 16, 1988: “Israel will never negotiate from or return to the lines of partition or to the 1967 borders.” The U.S. understood that if it was asking Israel to enter into sensitive negotiations over territory, it had to provide certain assurances–a safety net– that would protect vital Israeli interests.
The net result of Shamir’s work was to establish optimal conditions for negotiations when the Madrid Peace Conference was convened in 1991 in three ways. First, with his pre-conference diplomacy that went back to his contacts with the Reagan administration in the mid-1980’s, Shamir had neutralized other efforts to turn an international conference into a mechanism for an imposed peace settlement that would deny Israel of the territorial assets it needed for its own defense.
Second, in the 1980’s, he developed common language with Washington about how to envision a future peace settlement; his insistence that an arrangement in the West Bank must be based on Jordanian involvement was reflected by the inclusion of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at Madrid, but did not endure once Israel agreed to the Oslo Accords. Third, he insisted before the convening of Madrid on the US providing a letter of assurances. The value of this letter would depend largely on whether his successors would actually use its contents in their negotiations with the U.S. administrations that followed. It would be a mistake to confuse his caution and careful planning for passivity. His actions reflected the extent to which he understood the vulnerability of Israel and his responsibility to protect it.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.