Yitzhak Shamir, 1915-2012

Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s modest, hardline ex-PM, dies at 96

Pre-’48 underground leader, Mossad agent, and seventh prime minister passes away after long illness; Netanyahu mourns a ‘founder of the state’

Yitzhak Shamir (photo credit: Flash90)
Yitzhak Shamir (photo credit: Flash90)

Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s seventh prime minister, died on Saturday night.

Shamir was 96. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years.

Shamir fought in radical pre-state undergrounds to oust the British from Palestine, served in the Mossad, was a Knesset member and Knesset Speaker, held several ministerial positions and ultimately served as prime minister.

Ruthless as an underground leader, he was an obdurate politician, robustly unmoving on his commitment to Greater Israel, and mistrusting of Arab willingness for reconciliation. Personally, he was modest and understated, qualities that meant he was eulogized Saturday night even by politicians firmly opposed to his world view.

Yitzhak Shamir (photo credit: Flash90)
Yitzhak Shamir (photo credit: Flash90)

As prime minister, Shamir oversaw a major immigration airlift of Jews from Ethiopia, reluctantly attended the Madrid peace conference, and memorably kept Israel out of the first Gulf War even after it was attacked by more than three dozen Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein — a position that showed he could be far-sighted and pragmatic, even at the expense of his hard-line instincts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised him as “one of the founders of the state” and a man of profound loyalty “to his people and to the land.”

Shamir was born Icchak Jeziernicky in Belarus in 1915. A member of the Betar Revisionist Zionist youth movement, he moved to pre-state Palestine in 1935, and was active in the militant Irgun Zvai Leumi and Stern Gang pre-state undergrounds, causing him to be singled out and hunted by the British.

The family he left behind were mostly killed in the Holocaust. His father, he would reveal in the 1980s, was killed by childhood friends from his own village. Those experiences, many of his colleagues believed, were central in shaping Shamir’s intransigent political views and determined battling for Israel’s security.

Captured and jailed by the British authorities in 1941, he escaped the following year and became a leader of the Lehi — the renamed Stern Gang.

During the War of Independence, Shamir was one of those who approved the assassination of the United Nations representative in the Middle East, Count Bernadotte — one of the actions that led the mainstream nascent Israeli leadership to enforce the dismantling of the Lehi and the establishment of a single Israeli military force.

Shamir was recruited into the Mossad intelligence service in the mid-1950s, where he oversaw the killings of several former Nazi scientists who were working on an Egyptian rocket program.

He entered politics late in the 1960s, joining Herut, the precursor to the Likud, under Menachem Begin. Winning election to the Knesset in 1973, he became Speaker four years later — in which capacity he hosted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on his first visit to Israel. He was later foreign minister, and then succeeded Begin, who resigned as prime minister in 1983, in the wake of Israel’s controversial invasion of Lebanon the previous year.

Yitzhak Shamir with Benjamin Ntanyahu in 1986. (photo cedit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Yitzhak Shamir with Benjamin Netanyahu in 1986. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Highly skeptical about Arab readiness for genuine reconciliation with Israel, Shamir had a difficult relationship with Israel’s key American allies because of his disinclination to give ground to the Palestinians. He was not unpopular at home, but his failure to quickly draw Israel out of Lebanon was a factor in his failure to win the 1984 elections outright. Instead he entered a “rotation” agreement with Labor’s Shimon Peres under which Peres and he held the prime ministership for two years each.

He formed another coalition with Peres in 1988, but after Peres tried and failed to unseat him and then left the government, Shamir headed a right-wing coalition from 1990.

It was during this period that he kept Israel out of the Gulf War, to the relief of the Americans leading the coalition to oust Saddam.

In May 1991, he approved a weekend airlift of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, rescuing them from a country in the midst of civil war.

Under heavy American pressure, he attended that October’s Madrid peace conference, but said later he did not intend to move toward statehood for the Palestinians.

Yitzhak Shamir with a bodyguard outside the Knesset in 1991. (photo credit: Flash90)
Yitzhak Shamir with a bodyguard outside the Knesset in 1991. (photo credit: Flash90)

His hard-line stance on the Palestinian issue contributed to his defeat to Yitzhak Rabin in the 1992 elections, and he quit as Likud leader in 1993, leaving the Knesset three years later.

Shamir had been suffering from Alzheimer’s since 2004. His wife Shulamit, with whom he had two children, Yair and Gilad, passed away last year.

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