The Legacy of Yitzhak Shamir
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died this week at age 96, was like his predecessor, David Ben-Gurion, in many ways. Both were men of short height but great stature. Both were motivated by a hot fervor to protect the Jewish people—a fervor tempered by a coldly uncanny analytical view of the world situation.
Yitzhak Shamir probably would have laughed loudly and derisively at the talk of “An Arab Spring,” because he saw the internal forces of Arab tribalism and authoritarianism as unchanging features of the landscape, like sands in the desert
“The sea is the sea, and the Arabs are the Arabs,” he would say.
Aside from Ben-Gurion, Shamir served longer as Israel’s prime minister than any other man or woman in Israel’s history—three terms totaling more than seven years, and it is clear that many Israelis trusted him because he was a straight talker without any burning personal ambitions.
Shamir was from Poland, and his family was murdered in the Holocaust. This central fact colored his view—like Ben-Gurion’s—that in the final analysis, Israel needed always to seek out friends but could rely only on itself. Jews had to be strong and self-reliant, not for pride or arrogance but because of the lessons of history.
Shamir’s real name was the nearly unpronounceable Yitzhak Yzernitzky (there are many different spellings for the Polish original). He took a Hebrew name—Shamir—based on the mythical creature used by King Solomon to cut the rocks of the first Temple, a house of peace God ordered built without the metal used for warfare.
Shamir—the mythic creature with the laser-like cutting ability—was therefore an interesting name choice for the future Israeli prime minister, Knesset speaker, Mossad agent and freedom fighter who cut through complicated problems like a searing laser but who also did not hesitate to use force against Israel’s enemies.
As a Mossad agent and earlier as a leader of the pre-1948 LEHI underground force, Shamir never shied away from putting his life on the line or taking the lives of those he saw threatening his people. But he was never bloodthirsty, nor did he ever brag about his deeds. Later, he was a rare politician who did not talk of himself.
He ordered Israeli commandos on a deep operation in Tunisia, where they liquidated Khalil al-Wazir, head of the PLO’s terror wing who had murdered scores of people. Al-Wazir was known to Arabs by his nickname “Abu-Jihad”—father of the holy war. The commandos did not harm his family, and Shamir never bragged about his part.
“I just heard about it on the radio,” he tersely told reporters who asked him about it.
Shamir made the tough decision to accept President George H.W. Bush’s request that Israel not strike back at Iraq in 1990 when Saddam launched missiles against Israel. Bush said Israeli action would split the US-led coalition.
It was a tough call for Shamir who did not accept Bush’s argument, but he felt Bush’s opposition would limit Israel’s operational effectiveness over Iraq. Later, Bush-41 repaid this Israeli sacrifice by not fulfilling a promise to help Israel with loan guarantees to build housing for new immigrants.
Prime Minister Shamir led Israel to the Madrid peace talks in 1991and subsequent bilateral negotiations in Washingtonin 1992 with several Arab states, though he believed the talks would not lead to any breakthroughs.
His view proved correct, but in 1992,Israel voted for the team of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (who got support from Bush and James Baker) who promised that peace was just around the corner. Rabin-Peres led Israel to the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat’s PLO—culminating in the bloodiest terror decade in Israel’s history.
Shamir had a dim view of big conferences, flashy slogans and bright lights. Unlike many politicians, he did not enjoy diplomatic fanfare. He felt countries got together when they saw mutual interest. Shamir said this might happen when the Arabs saw that peace and stability were not just good forIsraelbut good for the Arabs too.
Today many of the Arab states see that a strong Israel is actually also an Arab interest, especially against an aggressive Iran, but this realization—among the Arabs and among some of the pro-Arab Western policy makers—may have come too late.
Israelis who have seen the massive policy failure of Oslo and the many ethical and criminal violations of recent Israeli leaders (Ariel Sharon and his sons, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak) think back wistfully of Yitzhak Shamir.
Friends of Israel will always remember Yitzhak Shamir as a man who did not like to grab credit or roll around in money—a short man who cast a big shadow, a leader who spoke simply and led a simple but rich life.
Yitzhak Shamir was a man of few words, and he had little use for reporters. He did not bother trying to impress them. Fortunately, I was a reporter whom he apparently trusted, perhaps because my father had been an underground partisan fighting Nazis in Lithuania and Poland. Shamir once or twice showed me his light side, as when I entered his office for an interview and he said, “Here comes the American with the Polish name.”
This was a bit ironic, considering the fact that his own original name—the Polish Yzernitztky—was quite a mouthful. Shamir once let me come along with him on a campaign trip by helicopter to Israel’s southern region, especially the border area development town of Sderot that has so often been beset by Palestinian terror attacks in recent years.
It was small helicopter with room only for Shamir, the pilot, one security man and me. I asked Shamir if he was worried that the Labor Party boss in the area, Amir Peretz, was going to prepare a “special welcome” for him. Peretz was a trade-union rabble-rouser with a huge handle bar mustache who was known for flamboyant actions and statements.
Shamir smiled his quick little conspiratorial smile: “You know, when I was his age,” he said, opening his hands wide, “I had an even bigger mustache.”
It was a kind of prime-ministerial “mine is bigger than yours” comment that actually had a large element of truth. I have since seen pictures of the youthful Shamir, and he did have a big mustache. In later years he moved to a postage stamp size mustache.
Yitzhak Shamir also had the thickest eye brows on the planet, and these got him into trouble. Even though he masqueraded as an Hasidic Orthodox Jew—wearing a full beard and black caftan—to escape British arrest in the 1940″²s, one British detective noticed his eyebrows and arrested him. He was shipped off to a prison camp in Eritrea Africa, but he soon escaped and made his way back home.