From the underground to the political spotlight

Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir never compromised on his belief in an Israel whose borders would include Jewish sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria.

Yitzhak Shamir 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yitzhak Shamir 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Alexander Zvielli Yitzhak Shamir, a leader of the pre-state Lehi underground movement, who later rose to become a prime minister in the national unity governments of the 1980s, died Saturday at age 96.
Despite a political odyssey that took him from the far-right fringes of the Zionist movement to the mainstream of Israeli politics, Shamir never compromised on his belief in an Israel whose borders would include Jewish sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria.
Right-wing supporters admired him as a stalwart defender of the Land of Israel, and left-wing critics assailed him as an inflexible hardliner. But even his political detractors credited him with being a public figure of iron integrity, rare modesty, fearless courage, a genuine family man and a true Israeli patriot.
A former Mossad agent, Likud MK and Knesset Speaker, he was was serving as foreign minister when parachuted into the prime minister's office in 1983 following the sudden resignation of Menachem Begin. Handed the reins of power during one of the most troubled periods in the nation's history, many pundits believed he would soon be defeated in elections or unseated by more charismatic rivals in his own party.
But the following year, after close elections in which neither Likud nor Labor could form a coalition, Shamir and Shimon Peres formed a unity government in which they alternated the prime minister and foreign minister positions after two years. Working together, they provided steady leadership that oversaw an IDF withdrawal from Lebanon down to the security zone, and eased the economy back to recovery from one of its worst recessions.
Shamir's electoral victory over Peres in the 1988 elections was shadowed by the spreading of the Palestinian intifada that had began the year before.
Conflicts over direction of the peace process led to Peres and Labor breaking up the unity government in 1990 after an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the government from Shamir.
Ironically, despite what many regarded as his hardline stances, Shamir become the first prime minister to negotiate directly with the Palestinians when pressured by the United States to attend the 1991 Madrid conference.
After being decisively defeated by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Shamir served a few more years in the Knesset before retiring to a quiet life in Tel Aviv with his beloved wife Shulamit.
The underground man Shamir was born in Ruzinov, Eastern Poland, on November 3, 1914, son of Shlomo Ben-Menachem Yitzhak Yezernitsky. He was educated at the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok, well-known for its strong Hebrew and Zionist leanings, and studied law at the University of Warsaw before making his aliya in 1935 to continue his studies at the Hebrew University.
In Poland he belonged to Betar, the Revisionist youth movement, and in Jerusalem, after the Arab riots broke out in 1936, he joined Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL), the national military underground organization.
Shamir never forgot the tragic circumstances of the death of his father who was murdered during the Holocaust by Polish farmers, friends of his youth, when he came to them seeking sanctuary after he escaped from a death train.
Yitzhak's sister, her husband and their children were also murdered by a Polish forest guard that previously worked for them, and in whose home they tried to hide. Their tragic fate continued to haunt Shamir throughout his life; he later commented that "Poles imbibe anti-Semitism together with their mother's milk." In June 1940, after Irgun decided on a war time truce with the British, Shamir faced a heavy test. He had to decide whether to join those Irgun members, who like their commander, David Raziel were released from the British concentration camp at Sarafand and volunteered their services to fight the Nazi Germany (David Raziel fell while helping to quell the German-inspired anti-British revolt in Iraq), or to join the Stern group, a splinter of Irgun, founded by "Yair," Avraham Stern, who pledged to continue the struggle against the British occupation and opposed the voluntary enlistment of Jews into the British forces.
Shamir choose to join the Stern group, which after "Yair" was murdered by the British officers of the Mandatory Criminal Investigation Department, on February 12, 1942, became Lehi (Lohamey Herut Israel).
There could have been little doubt that this choice was motivated by Shamir's perception that Britain was an enemy, an occupant who was never to be trusted if Eretz Yisrael was to be liberated. The 1939 White Paper convinced him that Britain will ultimately disregard any Jewish contribution to the Yishuv¹s war effort and will continue to side with Arabs, offering them a state and keeping a permanent Jewish minority, another ghetto, in Eretz Yisrael.
In the Stern Group Shamir assumed an underground name of "Michael", after Michael Collins who led the Irish Republican Army in its struggle with Britain. In his memories he describes how difficult it was in those days, when Britain fought Germany almost alone, to keep a small group of Jewish freedom fighters together.
To him Britain was an enemy and there could be no compromise until the entire Eretz Yisrael was liberated. The 1939 White Paper, the British refusal to honor the Balfour Declaration, to admit the persecuted Jewish refugees and their deportation to Mauritius, the tragedy of "Struma" and other "illegal" ships, convinced him that there must be no respite in his struggle.
After the death of Yair, Shamir who was his second in command, became a member of the reorganized leading Lehi¹s triumvirate and coordinated its organizational and operational activities, together with Nathan Yellin-Mor and Israel Eldad-Scheib. A tough disciplinarian, few people suspected that this rather kind-looking, soft-spoken gentleman was a totally dedicated, hard underground commander.
Only in 1994 Shamir acknowledged ordering the execution of a rogue member of Lehi, saying it was the hardest decision he ever made and gave him endless nightmares.
"The man simply lost his mind," Shamir wrote. "He was an extremist, a fanatic, a man free of fetters of personal loyalties or ordinary sentiments who threatened to kill his Lehi colleagues and commit terrorist outrages against Jews... I knew I had to make a fateful decision and I never avoided it." Shamir, who claimed that he had no alternative, had named his daughter Giladi after the man.
Many controversial Lehi activities, conducted under Shamir's command made history. In November, 1944, two Lehi members, Eliahu Hakim and Eliahu Bet-Zuri assassinated Lord Moyne, British Minister of State for the Middle East in Cairo. They were caught and hanged in March, 1945.
In July, 1945, however, when Britain had shown no inclination to alter the White Paper and stopped almost entirely the Jewish immigration and purchase of land, Lehi and IZL agreed to cooperate and in November Hagana joined together the newly-established Tnuat Hameri Haivri (Hebrew Resistance Movement) in an attempt to fight the British policy.
Lehi carried out sabotage operations and armed attacks on military objectives, government installations, army camps, airfields. It attacked individual members of police and of the hated Mandatory Criminal Investigation Department. It organized expropriations to mobilize funds. Its clandestine radio stations and bulletins carried propaganda. In April, 1947, Lehi mailed bombs outside Palestine to British statesmen responsible for closing the gates of Palestine to the Jewish remnant.
During this period, Shamir was arrested twice: in 1941 and 1946 and twice he had escaped. The second time, he was sent to a detention camp in Eritrea. He and another Herut leader Arye Ben Eliezer tunelled their way out under the wire, and Shamir managed to get to Djibouti. Eventually, the French agreed to give him political asylum and he arrived in France. But in May, 1948, he made his way back to Palestine to fight in the battle for independence.
On May 29, 1948, most members of the Lehi enlisted in the newly formed IDF, except for a hard core headed by Shamir. The final disbanding of Lehi came only after its assassination of the UN Mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem on September 17, 1948. Shamir, accused of being one of the ringleaders of the ambush, was arrested in a round-up of Lehi members by the newly-formed Israeli government, but was later released. Shamir¹s years in the underground were over Out of the shadows While on the run from British authorities, Shamir still managed to get married and have two children. It wasn¹t easy for him to adapt to the normal civilian life. The ruling Israeli Labor majority did not always look kindly at their former opponents. Shamir served for a time as the director of an association of movie-theater owners, among other jobs.
His return to public service came in 1955, when David Ben-Gurion personally approved his enlistment in the Mossad, where he served for 10 years. He was stationed for much of that time in Paris, becoming fluent in French. In the Mossad he was reputed to be as most dependable agent and a "brilliant operations man." True to his discrete character, he never publicly discussed his work for the Israeli espionage agency.
In 1965 he retired from the Mossad and returned to business, managing a small rubber factory in Kfar Saba. It was at that time that he started spending evenings and weekends working for Begin¹s opposition Herut party.
In 1973, Shamir, number 27 on Herut's list, was elected to the Eighth Knesset, and became member of the Defense and Foreign Affairs, and State Control Committees.
In 1975 he was elected chairman of Herut, now part of the larger Likud party. With his experience of working clandestinely on behalf of the Soviet Jewry, Shamir set up a new Likud immigrants¹ department and was elected to the party executive. In 1977, after the Likud¹s victory in the general elections, he was chosen as Knesset Speaker.
Shamir never complained that he was offered a largely ceremonial post, and kept to his chagrin of having been passed over by Begin, for a cabinet post.
In his memoirs Shamir stressed that Jewish people always suffered because of the personal ambition of their leaders; all he wanted was to be a faithful servant of the Jewish people.
Begin's reluctance to appoint Shamir to his cabinet might have been due to the perception of him as an almost inflexible hard-liner in the matters of defense and foreign policy. In 1978, Shamir abstained in the Knesset vote on the Camp David accords and in March 1979 he again abstained in the vote on the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty.
In 1980, Shamir finally got his cabinet posting after Begin appointed him as Foreign Ministry after Moshe Dayan resigned in a policy dispute over granting autonomy to the Palestinians. Shamir then surprised his critics who believed his policy views were too extreme for such a sensitive position.
He had a good public relations sense and firmly believed that Israel's case would be much better understood abroad if it were projected more effectively. Shamir undertook much bridge-building with Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, and proved to be a hard worker who put in 12-hour days at the office. He read profusely every cable, analysis and intelligence report that came across his desk, and had an excellent memory, keen interest in details, and did not indulge in office politics.
It was at that time that he begin to refute the popular perception which still regarded him as an uncompromising ex-Lehi hardliner. He became more tolerant of other views and persectives, shared by the majority of the formerly Labor-appointed diplomatic staff. He no longer perceived that there is only one way for Israel to follow, but started considering the possibility of a compromise approaches in some areas, while retaining his bed-rock belief in the unity of the land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria.
Shamir was reprimanded in the Kahan Commission report on the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla camps in Beirut for having failed to act on the information given to him as a foreign minister that Phalange Christians were perpetrating a massacre among the Palestinian civilians. But he was not regarded, along with Begin and then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, as one of the architects of the Lebanon War, and suffered no serious political fall-out from his role in it.
The unexpected Prime Minister On September 1, 1983, Shamir won by 436 votes to 302 Herut's nomination for the premiership to replace Begin, who had suddenly decided to resign after claiming exhaustion. It was expected that he would continue Begin's way.
While it was feared that Shamir¹s victory would cause some frustration among rival candidates like Moshe Arens or Sharon, it was hoped that such reactions would be shortlived.
After the deadlocked 1984 election, Shamir and Peres agreed on a joint Alignment-Likud coalition government, both alternating as Prime and Foreign Ministers. Thus first as the alternate prime minister from 1986 to 1988 and then re-elected as prime minister in 1988 Shamir reached the peak of his career. He continued to discuss various possibilities for the re-convening of the Geneva Peace Conference with US, but at the same time offered a consistent support for the Jewish settlement "everywhere in the Land of Israel." In his capacity as the sole prime minister from 1988 onward Shamir appeared to be softening his stance, and seemed to be ready to abandon the total commitment to the Camp David autonomy agreement. He revised his own version of the Camp David text, so that it could serve as a basis for talks with the Americans. In return for the U.S. Secretary of State virual freeze on the general international Arab-Israeli peace conference, Shamir appeared to be ready to negotiate some changes in the Camp David text as the Arab parties would propose. In 1991 Shamir was all for the renewed Geneva peace conference.
During the Gulf war of 1991, Shamir refrained to retaliate against Iraq, which sent Scuds against Israel, and later admitted that this one of the most difficult decisions he had ever to make. Had he entered the war, he explained, this could have destroyed the US-led coalition and led to a Middle East war, perhaps even a world war.
"A leader has to lead his people" and bear a full responsibility for his actions," he believed.
At the time of the 1992 elections Shamir apparently underestimated Rabin¹s popularity. He still firmly believed into Likud's re-election. He failed to grasp the people's desire for a change. He didn't believe that Rabin, an army general will offer them what they desired most: a more acrive search for peace. It seemed to him unbelievable that any elected government of Israel might ultimately recognize the PLO, a terrorist organization bent on an ultimate destruction of Israel. The 1992 Yitzhak Rabin¹s major electoral victory ended Shamir's rule and led him into a peaceful retirement.
In 1987, British publisher Lord Weidenfeld persuaded Shamir to write his life story. Shamir agreed and soon was dictating weekly to an editor. But those who thought that he will gossip remained disappointed. Shamir was a man of few words who disliked the flair for drama. The national interest always dominated. His biography was exceptional in what he choose to leave out, like his 10 years of service in the Mossad, some of them in France.
Most of the book was devoted to Lehi and the struggle for Israel's independence.