There was something about Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s seventh prime minister who
passed away last Saturday, that made you feel shy, in awe when you stood in his
presence. In his eulogy at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu noted that Shamir “didn’t radiate charisma. He simply
radiated inner strength.”
Shamir, the diminutive, taciturn leader, was a
strong man. And Netanyahu was absolutely right, Shamir’s strength owed to his
commitment to his convictions. What motivated him to act were not external
conditions, but an internal compass, an internal call to devote his life to the
Jewish people and our freedom and safety in our land.
Netanyahu began his
eulogy to Shamir on Sunday morning by placing him in the context of his
generation. Netanyahu said, “Yitzhak Shamir was from the generation of giants
that founded the State of Israel.”
There is much truth in this statement.
The generation of Jews that came of age in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and
established the State of Israel confronted challenges unmatched in human
history. They survived the European Holocaust. They stood down and bested the
British Empire. They withstood massive terror from the Arabs and repression and
betrayal from the British. They defeated the invading armies of five Arab states
with a ragtag force of Holocaust survivors and farmers, with little access to
arms, and almost no money.
They carved a beautiful, modern country out of
the rocks and sands of a long-desolate land.
They absorbed massive waves
of aliya from all over the world. They brought together Jews with diverse
customs, traditions and languages and reforged a unitary Jewish people bound to
one another by our common heritage, faith, resuscitated language and land – all
stronger than what divided us.
They suffered agonizing losses at every
But they kept moving forward, sometimes in giant leaps, usually in
tiny steps. But they kept moving forward.
So it is true that Shamir’s
generation of Jews had more than its normal share of great men and women. But to
do Shamir’s memory the justice it deserves it is important not to obscure his
personal greatness by bracketing him inside his generation. This is true for two
First, it was not inevitable that Shamir became a strong,
dedicated, successful leader.
Many in his generation were
Shamir faced enormous challenges. And his most serious challenges
came from his fellow Jews. People like Chaim Weizmann – whom the late Benzion
Netanyahu referred to as “a disaster for the Jewish people,” due to his chronic
preference for British approval over Jewish national and legal rights – were
more than willing to compromise away the national rights of the Jews to a state
of our own in our historic homeland.
Indeed, in the years preceding
Israel’s declaration of independence, national sovereignty was only perceived as
a viable option and reasonable goal by a minority. As Shamir said in a 1993
interview published this week by The Times of Israel, in 1945 David Ben-Gurion
called for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth, rather than a sovereign
Jewish state. As Shamir put it, “It was curious that the Zionist movement
officially didn’t accept the slogan of a Jewish state as the aim of the Zionist
movement!... Weizmann was against it....
He want[ed] Jewish unity here...
not a state.”
LATER, DURING Shamir’s tenure as prime minister in the
unity government with then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party
from 1986 to 1988, Peres sought to undermine his leadership and bring about his
defeat in the 1988 elections by collaborating with foreign governments against
According to top secret documents from 1988 first disclosed by
Yediot Aharonot’s Shimon Schiffer in June 2011, Peres collaborated with
then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to destabilize Shamir’s government. Peres
also sought US assistance in subverting Shamir and fomenting his electoral
defeat. Aside from that, in breach of both Israeli law and the expressed wishes
of Shamir, Peres dispatched his emissary, then-Foreign Ministry directorgeneral
Avraham Tamir, to Mozambique for secret meetings with Yasser
Throughout his career, Peres, who is also a member of Shamir’s
generation, has distinguished himself as a politician who prefers his personal
gain over that of his nation. In keeping with this consistent preference, last
month Peres traveled to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom
from US President Barack Obama, at the same time that Obama rejected Israel’s
request to commute the life sentence of Jonathan Pollard. It is safe to say that
Shamir would probably not have been offered such an award from a US
But it is also safe to say that had he been offered the award,
Shamir would have used the occasion to publicly press for Pollard’s
The other reason it is wrong to view Shamir as a mere product of
his times is because by doing so, we effectively say that there is no point in
emulating him. If he only became the person he became because he lived through
the times he lived through, then his story has nothing to teach us about what it
means to lead, or to live a meaningful, good life in the service of a goal
greater than ourselves. And this cannot be true.
In a poetic coincidence
of timing, as Netanyahu eulogized Shamir on Sunday morning, Netanyahu’s
immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, entered a courtroom in Tel Aviv for the
start of his criminal trial related to the so-called Holyland Affair. Olmert is
accused of taking bribes from the developers of the capital’s architectural
monstrosity cynically named “Holyland,” during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem.
He allegedly received money and other benefits in exchange for his willingness
to allow the developers to expand the size of the project to more than 10 times
the size initially allocated for it.
Olmert’s Holyland trial is only the
latest of the ex-prime minister’s legal troubles. On July 10, the Jerusalem
District Court will hand down its verdict on two other corruption scandals – the
Talansky Affair, in which Olmert is on trial for accepting bribes and for
campaign finance irregularities, and the Rishon Tours Affair in which Olmert is
accused of doublebilling his travel expenses.
However Olmert’s legal
travails pan out, the fact that he is facing corruption charges to begin with is
wholly a function of his character.
Unlike Shamir, Olmert is perfectly
prepared to abandon the public interest to advance his personal comfort. During
his tenure as premier, rather than stand up to US pressure for Israeli
concessions of land and rights to the Palestinians, Olmert preemptively
He called for Israel to unilaterally surrender much of Judea
and Samaria to the Palestinians, despite the latter’s rejection of Israel’s
right to exist. He offered to carve up Jerusalem in his peace proposal to
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He continued to embrace the cause
of appeasement despite Abbas’s preference for peace with Hamas over peace with
So too, during the Second Lebanon War, Olmert chose to lose the
war, in a vain attempt to uphold his preference for appeasement over justice and
victory. To that end, he accepted a cease-fire that left Hezbollah in charge of
south Lebanon. That cease-fire led directly to Hezbollah’s takeover of all of
Lebanon in 2007.
Olmert defends his behavior through a mixture of lies
and self-justification. At The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on April
29, Olmert claimed that the Second Lebanon War was the greatest military victory
in Israel’s history. Apparently he thought we had forgotten about every other
war Israel has fought. So, too, Olmert claims that he had no choice other than
to submit to US pressure regarding the Palestinians.
SHAMIR’S RECORD is a
standing rebuke of Olmert’s excuses for his failures. Yes, in two key instances,
Shamir caved in to US pressure.
He did not respond to Iraq’s missile
offensive against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. And he agreed to participate
in the Madrid Conference in 1991 where then-US president George H.W. Bush forced
Shamir to hold negotiations on the basis of “land for peace,” with the
Palestinians and the Syrians.
In both cases, Shamir’s acquiescence to
American demands may have been unjustified.
Certainly he didn’t exact a
high enough price for his sacrifice. Yet even these concessions did not change
the situation on the ground.
Shamir did not agree to give the Arabs any
land. And during his tenure the US significantly upgraded its strategic ties
Moreover, from the perspective of Israel’s long-term
viability and prosperity, Shamir exacted the greatest concession Israel ever
gained from the US. He convinced Bush to stop steering Soviet Jewish émigrés to
the US and away from Israel. This ensured that one million Soviet Jews made
aliya. The Soviet Jewish aliya fundamentally transformed Israel’s economy and
demographic posture, and upgraded its strategic position. Whatever damage Israel
may have incurred as a result of Shamir’s concessions to Bush was likely
outweighed by his success in bringing Soviet Jews to Israel.
And it is
true that Shamir was never beloved or even liked by the US government or the
leaders of Europe. But it is also true that during his tenure in office major
countries, including China and India, renewed their diplomatic relations with
By standing up for his country, he earned the respect of the
world – not just for himself, but for Israel as a whole. And in international
affairs it is far more important to be respected than liked.
obituary for Shamir, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner explained that Shamir was a successful
leader because he was intelligent and tenacious.
Aviner noted that
Shamir’s intelligence was hard-earned. He took the time to learn the details of
every subject he had to contend with. He was a voracious reader and wanted to
gather as much information as possible before he made decisions.
devotion to learning made it possible for him to intelligently weigh the costs
and benefits of various courses of action.
Aviner wrote that Shamir’s
tenacity was a consequence of his life experiences. He was the commander of the
Stern Group (Lehi) guerrilla force in pre-state Israel. He was imprisoned and
escaped, twice. He was a Mossad officer. At each stage of his life, he faced
great challenges and overcame them.
And each experience steeled him for
the next until he gradually became the force to be reckoned with he was as prime
It is important to recognize that Shamir was the product not
only of his times, but of his values and of the choices that he made throughout
his extraordinary career. The greatest compliment one can pay another person is
to say that he is a model to be emulated, and that his life should serve as an
example for what a good life can and should be.
We were blessed to have
had him as our leader. And his memory should be a blessing in the annals of