To call Yitzhak Shamir taciturn is a bit of an understatement. He was a man of
few words and prominent among them was “no,” especially when it came to dealing
with President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker III
and their plans to forge a peace between Israel and the Arabs.
to office just weeks after the outgoing Reagan administration had announced
recognition of the PLO. Shamir personally got the word of Reagan’s decision just
hours before the announcement in a phone call from Secretary of State George
Shultz, and the premier’s chief of staff immediately phoned his contacts on
Capitol Hill urging them to “start a firestorm of opposition” to block the
It was too late. Too many members of Congress shared the Reagan
administration’s frustration with what they considered Shamir’s intransigence
and did not seriously object when Reagan decided to recognize the PLO on his way
out the door as a favor to his successor.
After the Gulf war the Bush
administration sought to use its victory and undisputed role as the world’s sole
superpower to launch a comprehensive peace process. Shamir wasn’t interested. He
rejected territorial compromise and Palestinian statehood, convinced that
Israelis were only deluding themselves if they thought the Arabs would accept
them and live in peace with a Jewish state.
Shamir, who died Saturday at
96 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease, had opposed the peace treaty with
Egypt and once boasted that he never gave up a single grain of Israeli
BUSH LATER demanded Israel freeze settlement construction and
threatened to withhold loan guarantees for resettlement of Jewish refugees from
the crumbling Soviet Union. When the Jewish community mounted a campaign to free
the funds, Bush complained during a White House press conference, “I’m one
lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces” made up of “a
thousand lobbyists on the Hill.”
That proved a turning point for Bush and
in Jewish voting for Republican presidential candidates. Many saw it as
challenging the loyalty of Israel’s supporters; Shamir reportedly saw it as a
sign of anti-Semitism. Reagan had won 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 and
Bush, riding his coattails in 1988 got 27 percent. But four years later “the
lonely little guy” got only 11% of the Jewish vote, and the Republican party
still has not been able to climb back to anywhere near the Reagan
Personal relations between Shamir and Bush were so frosty at times
that they barely spoke, if at all. Anger with Shamir’s stubbornness led Baker to
tell the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that if the Israeli leader was
interested in resuming the peace process he could call the Secretary at 202-
456-1212. That wasn’t really Baker’s number; it was the switchboard at the White
Privately Baker told a cabinet colleague who complained that the
administration was losing Jewish support, “[Bleep] the Jews, they didn’t vote
for us anyway.”
Despite the intensity of the animosity between the two
governments, Bush was instrumental in helping bring Jews out of the Soviet Union
and Ethiopia to Israel.
On one crucial issue Shamir took great political
risk to cooperate with a Bush White House request. He had been asked not to
respond to Iraqi missile attacks and other provocations during the first Gulf
War in the interest of helping Washington hold together its fragile coalition
that included most Arab states. Shamir agreed despite considerable pressure from
some of his closest associates to retaliate in response to 39 Scud
In another instance Shamir was too willing to go along with the
Reagan administration on an issue that put the prime minister in opposition to
most of Israel’s best friends in Congress, including nearly all the Jewish
members. That issue was South Africa.
WHEN CONGRESS threatened to cut off
aid to any country selling weapons to the apartheid government, Shamir shrugged
off the warnings that Israel would not be protected.
He continued to
ignore the warnings when the legislation passed both chambers and seemed
vindicated when Reagan vetoed the legislation, but his government finally acted
after the veto was overridden.
Shamir later told me that he felt safe
ignoring all the warnings because President Reagan had personally assured him
the legislation would never pass and that even if it did he’d veto it. The
Israeli government then said it would sign no new contracts with South Africa,
but few if any existing ones were cancelled.
Unlike some politicians,
Shamir was not one to say yes when he meant no. He took pride in standing up to
American pressure as a matter of ideology, but it cost him his
He lost the 1992 election to Yitzhak Rabin in large part
because of his failure to successfully manage the American
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