Into the jungle

As the right merges, Yair Shamir enters politics as a top figure in Yisrael Beytenu.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Yair Shamir 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Binyamin Netanyahu, Yair Shamir 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite years promoting and investing in Israeli hi-tech, Yair Shamir is wary of social media like Twitter.
“It is like a jungle,” he says.
For a man who spent a great deal of his life supporting free markets and a globalized economy, it may seem surprising that he shies away from these Internet portals. But he is adamant.
“There is no law there,” he says. “I think it brings out the worst in human nature. Usually if you went into such a place you would arm yourself, but there is no protection.”
Now he is preparing to enter a different sort of jungle where personal attacks are frequent: Israeli politics. With Yisrael Beytenu and Likud set to run on a combined list for the 2013 elections, Shamir is confident they have made the right choice. “I think the deal is good because it clearly defines the National Camp and provides the informed voter with an opportunity to make the changes that are drastically needed in the State of Israel.”
He recalls walking past the social justice protesters several times a week on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard near his office last year. With all the sloganeering, what he saw were people who were not satisfied.
“What I picked up there is one major issue: that the protester wants to get an apartment, a decent one at a reasonable price, so he is not a slave to paying high rent. So for a year I’ve looked at this issue and spoken to CEOs of construction companies and economists.”
He sees the government’s role as facilitating the infrastructure that could aid people.
“I wouldn’t need to be education minister [to help fix this problem],” he says. “If I have a plan, I’ll push it.”
One plan on which he is focused is developing public transit, particularly rail service.
“If you can live in Kiryat Gat and work in Tel Aviv, then you can buy or rent a house for a decent price,” he explains. “But today to get from Kiryat Gat to Tel Aviv, it is two to three hours. Reliable mass transport will change everything.”
This is a hallmark of Shamir’s thinking – he believes that the free market can solve the problem, with the government providing what the government should provide: a level of infrastructure that will encourage investment.
SHAMIR SPORTS the same white mustache and stout frame as his late father, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. His namesake was the Jewish underground hero Avraham “Yair” Stern, whom the British killed in 1942. Stern was a romantic leader of a disparate group of Jewish fighters who left the Irgun Zva’i Leumi to form their own organization, the Stern Group, in 1940. Yitzhak Shamir was one of a triumvirate of men who led the organization after Stern’s death.
It was in the midst of the struggle against British rule that Yair was born in 1945, six months after Stern Group operatives had assassinated Lord Moyne in Egypt and a year before the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem.
The son came of age when his father was the director of the Mossad, and by the time the elder Shamir had left that organization in 1965, Yair was commander in the IAF.
The air force was a formative experience, not only because it provided him connections to an industry that would figure prominently in his life, but also because it taught him valuable lessons about technology and mass organization.
“All through my years in the air force, from 1963 to 1987, from pilot to commander, my highest ranking was as an engineer,” he says (he completed a degree at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa). “I was responsible for electronics and logistics, maintenance and manpower. One time I was nominated to be a squadron commander, and I turned it down. I preferred the engineering channel.”
Most importantly, he stresses, he got to see hi-tech up close. “There was at that time a revolution from analog to digital. I saw that the future was in digital, [but at that time] we were an analog country. For instance, this was a time, in the 1960s, of movement from French radar to American radar. All these changes illustrated what the future would bring.”
At this point in his career, he made a choice that would impact his relationship with his father and the state.
“The relationship with my father was very unique. We were like good friends. One friend is older than the other, but that was the relationship. Of course, I called him ‘Abba,’” he adds.
Shamir relates a childhood in which his father was busy much of the time. Then, when the elder Shamir entered politics, there wasn’t a great deal of family time, either.
“We had a tradition of meeting every week. Even when he was prime minister and I was a chief of a company, we would meet like this. We would discuss everything. I told him my experiences and concerns, and I gave him advice sometimes.”
During one of these meetings, he informed his father that he was moving into the private sector. “I didn’t ask his permission or consult him, and he took it bitterly that I didn’t stay in the air force. He felt I had changed my Israeli national flag to that of the dollar.”
But for the younger Shamir, the decision to leave public service was no less a commitment to the national project. If Israel could stand on its own economically, he believed, the country would prevail.
The private journey took the businessman into digital printing at Scitech and then to running Elite, the coffee and chocolate manufacturer. He took a video-conferencing company public in 1998 and started an investment fund. He is proud of his achievements and narrates them as if he were a professional turn-around man, a sort of fireman brought in to save ailing companies that have become cobweb-encrusted dinosaurs.
“At Elite, I didn’t look for the job. I got a phone call. It took me two years and I put the company straight,” he recalls. “It was a managerial issue. They had no clear brand, were not focused. There was too much politics, too many products.”
To add to his list of successful ventures, Shamir was tapped to be chairman of the board of El Al in 2004. He describes meeting Avigdor Liberman, who was transportation minister at the time, and being immediately impressed.
“In my relationship with Yvet [Liberman], a promise is a promise, word is word and execution is execution. We met a lot over the years and shared many things. I found I had a real partner.”
At El Al, Shamir presided over the privatization of the national airline, and then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz approached him to serve as chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries. Shamir relates that from 2005 to 2011, the company totally turned around.
“The company was sick. It took me six years, and I left it with $1.7 billion cash, no debt. Profits high. And my plan was to take it public at NASDAQ in 2012. But I was not allowed to continue the third term by the ministers. So I left.”
He moved on to the National Roads Company, which manages roads and railway infrastructure, but was already eyeing a place in Yisrael Beytenu in May when Liberman announced that he would be No. 2 in the party. As many recall, elections slated for the summer were canceled when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu entered into a coalition with Kadima.
WHY DID Shamir choose this moment to enter politics? “I came to the point at age 67 – either you do it or you don’t,” he explains. “Either you jump or not. I decided on this option.
Maybe I could be the first [politician] in a long list of people who came from business and the private sector. I believe that the mixture of both sectors will be a better mix than what we have today, which is professional politicians who forget why they are there.”
Though he comes from a Likud background, he says, he does not see his choice to join Yisrael Beytenu earlier this year as contradicting that background.
“I was part of the Likud – maybe not as a party member, but I was part of this Likud right-wing bloc. Not on the extreme side of it, though,” he says. “I always saw Yisrael Beytenu as part of this bloc... [and] you have to go where it is most effective.”
He also cites his relationship with Liberman as a motivator in his decision, although he adds that “I have many friends and partners in Likud as well.”
In his view, Yisrael Beytenu was “the anchor for the Likud in government. Wherever you go, the most stable part of the coalition was Yisrael Beytenu. So I see myself as part of this same family. It is not a contradiction.”
The decision to run together in the next elections does not sit well with every traditional voter from the two parties. However Shamir thinks this is the right choice. “This is the first step towards meaningful political and electoral reform against a pattern of fragmentation within the Israeli political map which will lead it towards paralysis. It is similar to the revolution that ended the three decades of rule by the Left in the 1977 elections. In the lead-up to the elections, several parties joined together to form the Likud and this unity in the National Camp won the elections. I believe this unity deal will have a similar effect.”
Over the years the two parties have shared several members, such as Uzi Landau. Danny Ayalon once served as Binyamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser. Furthermore larger parties will make coalitions more stable.  “We need to move more towards fewer and bigger parties or blocs to give the voter a clear choice and the government a clear chance to move forward on issues like reforming the political and electoral system and equalizing the national burden... [In the past] after the voters have had their say and the election results are known, the coalition horse-trading begins behind closed doors. By having a joint platform long before the elections, the voter will fully understand what we will do if we receive a mandate from the electorate.”
If he is elected, he says, there are many areas in which he can contribute.
“I am not looking for power,” he states. “I am looking for a place I can contribute in the most efficient way, such as the economy. I know the people, I’ve been abroad, I ran a company in China, and I spent a lot of time in Europe. I’m committed to education and transportation. I will take things I know. Now I am the chairman of [the National Roads Company]. I took on myself the rail link from Tel Aviv to Eilat, and I am the project manager. I think this is a huge project. It creates a lot of jobs and will make the Negev just half an hour away or 75 minutes, rather than hours, where it seems like it is another place.”
ASKED WHETHER he thinks his name helps him appeal to Russian Yisrael Beytenu voters, Shamir says he sees his father – who was prime minister when the major Russian aliya took place – as “the man who made the choice to bring the Russians and Ethiopians. No one else can take the credit the same way. It was in 1970 that he got back into politics and he got involved in ‘Let My People Go’ [the movement to free Russian Jewry]. He was focused on aliya.”
For Shamir, aliya is important in maintaining a Jewish state. “We are Jews first and then Israeli,” he says. “The real Jewish life is only in the State of Israel. So that is why we need millions more Jews here so it will stay the same. Let’s start with an additional million. That chunk my father brought made a tremendous change. The contribution of this aliya [from Russia and Ethiopia] is responsible for 60 percent to 70% of the economic change. Aliya is a must for survival.”
He says he has seen a lot of progress among many of the Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in 1991. “I remember when I first saw the Ethiopians going to the army, and then you see officers, and now you see them in university. There are gaps, but we see that at the university, their numbers are proportionate [to their percentage in society].”
Returning to the matter of the Negev, he acknowledges the other problems the southern region suffers – such as bureaucratic red tape slowing down the building of new communities on the mostly government- owned land, and numerous unrecognized Beduin villages illegally built there.
The solution, he suggests, lies in boosting the private sector. “The strongest sector is the private sector,” he says. “As long as we rely on government, it fails or is corrupted. To expect that big government can conquer the desert, that will not happen. We are not the Soviet Union. We cannot just move people. They go where it serves their interests. How do you do that? Build infrastructure to get there – railways, roads. Provide incentives. In the Negev, there are the private farms. The bureaucracy kills them. You have to facilitate the private sector. At least there is [now] a decent hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, and that is due to incentives.
“If you create a railway – I’ll quote the prime minister – a railway to Eilat, a new city will develop. He doesn’t know where, but I believe him. It is a fortunate land, it can do a lot of business and tourism – once you have access and communication.”
As for the hurdles that solar fields and new communities have faced, he says, “it is the regulations. The country’s origins are in a one-party state. In those days it was an advantage, one man can do this. In those days one man said, let’s put a factory here – but soon it became chaos, and there is no manager. Over the years, it became corrupted, so new regulations came along. The government keeps the land. They put a lot of regulation and barriers to keep the land. I understand it.
“But if there is someone [minding the store, so to speak], a real executive, things could change [in terms of providing land for investment],” he continues. “We should have focus and resources. But we face obstacles. In just this single project, the railway to Eilat, we were spitting blood [from obstacles we faced]. It is tough. There is an assumption that laws and regulation can solve everything.”
The solution, he says – rather than the government building and distributing houses – is to “give the private sector the incentive.”
“For instance, if you ask me who will recover first from the economic crises, Europe or the US, I am telling you the US will recover first, because in Europe they wait for the government,” he says.
The idea of independence through free markets and hard work are integral to Shamir’s worldview. As part of one project, he became chairman and co-founder of Gvahim, an organization that provides support for new immigrants. He is deeply committed to aiding new immigrants as part of his view that aliya is a source of strength for the country, but it is a strength that comes from having successful immigrants who realize their potential.
“At Gvahim, we are picking 40 or 45 people every two months, those with the best chances to be absorbed – those from the best schools and [with the] best personalities, and they go to a course,” he explains. “Most are young and single.”
The organization also started a project to aid entrepreneurs who want to start businesses but are unaware of the local laws and culture.
REGARDING US-ISRAEL ties, particularly ahead of the American presidential election on November 6, Shamir believes the relationship “is based on the same values.”
The US “saw us in the past as the new pioneers, the way they were once in the West,” he says. “As the Islamists become more of a threat to the free world, we are seen more and more as a pioneer, and if we are stronger, we will be admired as pioneers building [our] own country. The administrations come and go, but... fundamentally their attitude to us does not change.
“Part of the equation is [that] the founders of the US were immigrants [like us], and because of their religious sources and so on, they wanted to create a better place, and for them Israel is a symbol. Christianity in the US, except for some extreme [anti-Israel] churches, sees Israel as sharing the same values.”
Though the long-term attitude toward Israel does not change with the administrations, he adds, “there are nuances. The more they are persuaded we are self-sufficient, the more they support us. They wonder why they should spend money on us.
They want to be our friend, but not have us be dependent on them. So we have to stand on our own two feet, and we will find them much more friendly.”
SHAMIR’S SOLUTION to each situation is pragmatic, as an engineer with his background might approach a problem. When it comes to the political issues of an agreement with the Palestinians, he is pessimistic and argues that the best way forward is to focus on Israel’s internal development.
“I don’t want Israel to become ‘a state for all its citizens,’” he declares. “We prayed and begged and wept for the Jewish state. We want that it should be a Jewish state. I don’t want to dilute it with millions of people who don’t share that – because of the Arab world and the extremists and strong groups, there is no reasonable and sensible leader that would create any agreement with us. To spend my life with this illusion is stupid. My father said, ‘The sea is the same sea and the Arabs the same Arabs.’ We have to build a strong ship so we will not drown.”
For Shamir, the political problems in the West Bank seem unsolvable at present.
Instead, he says, “I want to focus on the internal strengths of the state. Whatever we do [in relation to the Palestinians], it will not help us. It is like the weather. You take an umbrella with you, you build defenses and you prepare. You cannot change the weather.”