Israel lost one of its great leaders this past Motzaei Shabbat, with the death at 96 of former PM Yitzchak Shamir. Like his name itself – steely, flinty – Shamir represented an old breed, a lost generation, of Israeli leaders. With his funeral occurring at the very same time former PM Ehud Olmert is on trial for taking bribes and other felonies, the contrast Shamir presented could not be starker.
Those who assert, as PM Netanyahu said many years ago, that “the view from here is different from the view over there,” all said to rationalize the dramatic shifts in policy by Likud prime ministers shortly after they take office, apparently never accounted for Yitzchak Shamir. He was unyielding on matters of principle, Jewish rights, Jewish peoplehood and the inviolability of the Land of Israel. The policies of the others shifted suddenly not because their “view” changed but because their values were never resolute. Sure, they often said the right things, especially during campaigns and even while they were altering their policies, but they rarely lacked the will to see them through in the face of threats, recriminations and dangers. Shamir was unchanging.
Thus, Shamir remains the only prime minister since the Six-Day War not to retreat even one centimeter from the Land of Israel. (Levi Eshkol also did not surrender any land, but not for lack of trying; he offered to return almost all of it, but found no Arab interlocutor and died less than two years after the war ended.) Shamir was a faithful custodian of the territory entrusted by G-d to the Jewish people for eternity. Nothing could budge him – not personal threats from allies, not economic sanctions, and not even the pleas of the people who sought the safety of illusions rather than the cold harshness of reality.
And the threats came in abundance. James Baker became an open nemesis, even admitting his exasperation with Shamir before Congress in 1990, offering the White House phone number, and adding, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.” Two years later, Israel requested $10B in loan guarantees from the US to be used to resettle new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Bush I and Baker demanded that in exchange Israel freeze all construction of new settlements. Shamir refused. Later that year, a new prime minister, Yizchak Rabin agreed to the condition, and received the loan guarantees (which enabled Israel to borrow money at a reduced rate; Rabin, among his other misdeeds, then proceeded to squander the money on national infrastructure rather than on factories and housing that would produce revenue and make loan repayment easier. By the time payment was due, Netanyahu was the prime minister for the first time and forced to clean up the fiscal mess left by Rabin).
But Shamir refused, recognizing as few other Israeli leaders ever have, that “no” is also an answer. (How well does “no” work ? In 2010, US envoy George Mitchell suggested that the US would again withhold loan guarantees from Israel unless Israel re-entered “peace” talks with the Arabs and were more compliant. Israel’s response? Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said, “No, thank you,” that Israel doesn’t really need the loan guarantees anyway. End of threat; Israel has no problem repaying its international loans. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the United States.) The other side may not like the answer, and they may intensely dislike the person who gave the answer, but “no” is also an answer. Shamir was one of the most unpopular Israeli leaders ever to grace the international scene – but one of the few who was genuinely respected for his toughness, his principles, his indefatigability, and his personal history.
With Shamir’s death, the era of the founding fathers of Israel is ended. The fighters and leaders, in the Hagana and the underground movements, have passed from the scene. Shamir, as one of the triumvirate that led the LECHI, was notorious in his time but obstinate and inflexible in pursuit of his goals. He often saw what others did not – that compromise played into the hands of the Jews’ enemies who themselves would only seek compromise if it garnered them an advantage and diluted the power of the Jewish idea.
He was naturally suited to the underground – terse, secretive, self-deprecating and sparing of words. His autobiography barely consists of 250 pages; by vivid contrast, Obama’s two books of memoirs, and devoid of any real accomplishments, stretches to more than 1000 pages. Shamir was extremely slight in appearance, surprisingly so; I hosted him once, and towered more than a foot above him. But what he lacked in physical stature he more than compensated for in moral and ideological gravitas.
He grew a beard in the underground (posing as Rabbi Shamir), married in the underground (a secret wedding officiated at by HaRav Aryeh Levin, the tzadik of Yerushalayim; a minyan of strangers was grabbed off the street), arrested several times, and escaped several times, once from Africa. He had a fierce sense of right and wrong. Like Menachem Begin, he eschewed any activity that might result in a civil war among Jews, even though he and others were persecuted and informed upon by the Zionist-socialist establishment. In the underground, he ordered the execution of a rogue LECHI member who wanted to eliminate fighters he held to be weak and unilaterally set off bombs in public places to rile up the population against the British. In office, he presided over the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, transforming the very nature of Israel.
Even his compromises were tactical. He was part of two national unity governments, but preserved his second tenure from the “stinking maneuver” of his erstwhile partner, Shimon Peres, who tried to unseat him. His non-response to the Scud attacks during the Gulf War in 1991 was requested and respected by the US, but the US knew that Shamir’s patience was limited. When word leaked that Israeli missiles were being readied for attack, the US destroyed the Scud launchers in western Iraq. Later that year, and forced to go the Madrid “Peace” Conference, he insisted that only non-terrorist Palestinians attend, and only as members of the Egyptian and Jordanian delegations. Shamir then spent the conference berating the most despotic Arab regimes.
He yielded nothing. He said in the late 1990s what he would say in the early 1960s: “The Arabs are the same Arabs, and the sea is the same sea.” Did he fail to see the “opportunities” for peace? No, he refused to deny reality and grasp the straws of illusion.
His greatest flaw was that he was not a natural politician. He did not warm to people, was not an orator, and was certainly not given to making empty promises of “peace is just around the corner.” He was hardened by events, braced by the Holocaust that killed his parents and older sisters (his father was killed by “friendly” Polish neighbors), and schooled in genuine self-sacrifice. But in that, he failed to give the people hope – to people less schooled in self-sacrifice, more susceptible to delusions and fantasies, and “more tired of fighting and winning,” in Olmert’s lamentable phrase.
Contrary to public perception, Shamir had weathered even the effects of the first Arab civil war that began in 1987. By 1992, terrorism had declined, the IDF countermeasures were prevailing, and roughly 20 Jews were murdered by terrorists. Paradoxically, his government fell when the right-wing parties pulled out in response to the Madrid Conference. The subsequent election brought Yitzchak Rabin to power, Oslo to the fore, and ended ignominiously with almost 2000 Jews killed in several waves of terror. Memo to right-wing parties: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Perhaps the greatest contrast to today’s leaders: Shamir died in poverty. He made little money in government, sought nothing from others, and did not use public service to line his pockets. He was a man of simple tastes and great passions. When his government pension did not cover his nursing home expenses, a Knesset bill to cover the difference was first voted down, until someone came to his senses. Again, aside from Begin, it is hard to recall another Israeli leader who did not profit substantially from his government service. To Shamir, the material meant little. What mattered most were Jewish lives, the Jewish State and the Jewish land. That is both his legacy, and his challenge to this generation.