For six years he was Israel’s Little Big Man. What began with an
accidental stint at the helm following Menachem Begin’s abrupt resignation later
produced three consecutive premierships in which the diminutive, stocky, flinty,
reticent, suspicious and ultra-cautious Yitzhak Shamir led the Jewish State –
for better, for worse and also for worst.
As he was laid to rest this
week, two decades after his electoral defeat by Yitzhak Rabin, Shamir’s four
main successes emerged clear and undisputed. Though a die-hard hawk, he
established with Shimon Peres the unity government that defeated hyperinflation;
he rescued Ethiopian Jewry; he led the absorption of post- Soviet Jewry; and he
refrained from retaliating after the Iraqi missile attack in
Surely, Shamir’s place in history is much more complex than that.
The decision not to respond to the missile attacks, and thus allow the American-
led coalition to liberate Kuwait, eroded Israel’s deterrence and at least
indirectly inspired subsequent suicide and missile attacks on the Jewish
Indeed, the decision in the winter of ’91 to hold the horses will
tempt historians to accept the most common criticism of Shamir during his
premiership: that he was an inherently passive man who preferred whenever
possible to not do than to do. Well, that’s unfounded.
airlifting of Ethiopian Jewry was a masterly tale of initiative, daring and
timing that should be studied in schools of government.
Fueled by an
ideological conviction – that Ethiopian Jewry deserves to arrive in Israel
regardless of rabbinical misgivings and social challenges – Shamir displayed
diplomatic intuition as he captured and exploited a brief twilight moment
between Ethiopia’s communist and post-communist eras, and he inspired
operational agility when he had the Mossad and the air force execute the airlift
jointly, secretly and impeccably under the command of then-deputy chief of staff
The same goes for the absorption of East European
Jewry. Today it is taken matter-of-factly, but back when the floodgates opened
some in Jerusalem were panicking, arguing that Israel was unprepared for the
task, that it would have to build tent cities, create busywork and maybe also
slow down the pace of the immigration itself.
Shamir took none of that.
He steered the system to let the markets create much of the housing and
employment that the situation demanded, and shun the bureaucracies that did all
this back in the 1950s, at an exorbitant social and economic cost. Two decades
on, it is clear that his formula worked, and Israel’s benefit from that
immigration is immeasurable.
Certainly, Shamir also had his fair share of
SHAMIR’S FIRST big failure of judgment – if one does not count
his largely symbolic abstention as Knesset speaker in the vote over the Camp
David Accords – came as deputy premier in 1984, when he opposed the retreat from
the Lebanese heartland. I never understood that.
After all, even he had
no national claims for the lands between the Litani and Awali rivers, the IDF’s
vulnerabilities out there were fatal, the costs of stretching its supply lines
that far were prohibitive and the damage to our national cohesion was
Then Shamir voted against the economic stabilization plan that
led Israel from its founders’ socialism to their successors’
Though nominally economic conservatives, all Likud ministers
except then-finance minister Yitzhak Moda’i voted against the plan because it
abolished subsidies for basic goods – a measure Likud populists considered as
hitting their core constituency. The plan still passed, and proved so successful
it became an international model for defeating inflation, fueling private
enterprise and empowering the middle class.
Even more lamentable was
Shamir’s derailment of the London Agreement between Peres and Jordan’s King
Hussein. Yes, Peres had his own share of mistakes in this saga, having moved
ahead as foreign minister without harmonizing with Shamir, a recipe for personal
mistrust, political sabotage and diplomatic paralysis. Even so, Peres understood
that confrontation with the Palestinians was approaching one way or another, and
a deal with Jordan would prevent it.
The confrontation indeed arrived
that same year with the outbreak of the first intifada, which in many ways rages
to this day. Who knows how history might have unfolded had Shamir cooperated
with Peres and Hussein in ’87. And as history’s ironies go, the international
peace conference, which Hussein sought and Shamir dreaded, later convened after
all, and the Israeli delegation that arrived there was headed by Shamir
And yet, in this as in most of his other calls, Shamir was
driven by conviction rather than opportunism, let alone egotism. For he was a
nationalist of the east European mold, a follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky already
as a boy in interwar Belarus, where he later lost most his family in the
Holocaust, a trauma from which he emerged with a deep mistrust of anyone who
tried to take anything from the Jews, least of all land, even for
SHAMIR’S LONG years as an underground fighter and Mossad agent
evidently inspired his political conduct.
That is how he emerged with his
legendary poise, introversion and disdain for publicity.
His escape from
a British prison in Africa inside a barrel, where he stayed cramped for endless
hours until that cylindrical container was finally thrown atop a truck and then
rolled through unknown roads before he at last emerged from it – was a feat of
daring and nerve that most people would not endure.
Then again, in some
situations Shamir seemed still trapped inside that barrel. That is how he
derailed the emerging agreement in 1984 with Labor to have most lawmakers
elected personally and by district. Threatened with political war by
ultra-Orthodox politicians, and ensconced in his partisan barrel, the
ultra-secular Shamir chose Likud’s unholy alliance with ultra-Orthodoxy over the
national interest, which was, and remains, that small parties be consigned to
the political margins.
Yet this too Shamir did out of conviction, fearing
that a two-party system would ultimately compromise greater Israel. In fact, his
lack of personal calculations now looms as a perfect antithesis to the political
Woefully uncharismatic and anti-telegenic, the man who only
entered politics in his late 50s was never in that game for himself. The thought
of him using his office in order to ingratiate mammon, accumulate property,
travel pompously and lodge lavishly was as absurd as the prospect of him
elbowing his way to hobnob with celebrities, scrambling for a magazine profile
or handing guests a box of Cuban cigars.
Avoiding all these was not even
a concession to that ascetic, an idealist with little appreciation for pleasure,
exhibitionism and fame, a shadows- man who entered public life not for himself
but for his people.
There was a time when such selfless people were
common in Israel’s ruling class, which perceived itself as “a serving elite.”
With Shamir’s departure, the last of them is gone.
The writer is a fellow
at the Shalom Hartman Institute