Guest Columnist: Jewish rights and Arab peacemaking

The passing of Yitzhak Shamir has triggered recollections in around the world of a man little noticed during the past decade.

YITZHAK SHAMIR 370 (photo credit: Courtesy: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Courtesy: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The passing of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir on June 30 at the age of 96 has triggered recollections in Israel and around the world of a man little noticed during the past decade. His advancing age and failing health kept him far from news reporters, television cameras and lecture halls. Now, as with Jewish and Israeli leaders before him, his death calls upon history to brand his legacy.
Some global news outlets, quoting British Mandate-period Foreign Office officials, have branded Shamir to be “among the most fanatical terrorist leaders” and noted his bona fides as a “senior Mossad spy, lifelong hawk and advocate of the aggressive expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Shamir’s political allies and adversaries alike agreed that his battle to protect the Jewish people and their right to self-determination in their nation-state served as a guiding principle of his leadership.
In 1990, Shamir undertook one of the most daring rescue operations of modern times. He ordered an emergency airlift, code name “Operation Solomon,” executed by his special appointee Ambassador Uri Lubrani, of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews caught in the crossfire of a bloody civil war, who were airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel over 36 hours of nonstop flights.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who served as deputy foreign minister during Shamir’s second term, recalled his former boss as “a giant fighter for the freedom of the Jewish people in their homeland.” His former arch-rival, President Shimon Peres, remembered him as “a great patriot and a lover of the Land of Israel.” Opposition and Labor Party Leader Shelly Yechimovich remarked, “He followed his ideological path honestly and humbly, as a leader should,” adding, “The wisdom he demonstrated during the First Gulf War showed restraint and saved Israel from undue entanglement in the war in Iraq.”
While Shamir was excoriated by some and celebrated by others as an uncompromising fighter for the people and land of Israel, Israel’s seventh prime minister is less recognized for his commitment to Arab- Israeli peacemaking and Israel’s participation in the path-breaking 1991 Madrid peace conference. In retrospect, and in the context of the current intensifying political assault against Israel’s legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Shamir’s willingness at the time to discuss a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace together with some of Israel’s most intractable enemies without conceding Israel’s most fundamental rights is a model worthy of reconsideration and even emulation.
Shamir reached out to Israel’s Arab neighbors at Madrid, saying, “With an open heart, we call on the Arab leaders to take the courageous step and respond to our outstretched hand in peace.” At the same time, he told the international assembly in no uncertain terms, “We are the only people who have lived in the Land of Israel without interruption for nearly 4,000 years; we are the only people, except for a short Crusader kingdom, who have had an independent sovereignty in this land; we are the only people for whom Jerusalem has been a capital; we are the only people whose sacred places are only in the Land of Israel.”
Shamir’s insistence on fusing Middle East peacemaking with asserting the Jewish people’s legal and historical rights in their own homeland captured the attention of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. These delegations listened attentively yet remained seated around the peace table in Madrid. None quit the talks.
While many observers downplay Madrid as having failed to yield concrete results, Shamir scored a victory in the Arab acceptance of the establishment of the guiding principles for negotiations: mutual acceptance of negotiations without preconditions – multilateral normalization talks with Arab neighbors in parallel with talks with a Jordanian Palestinian delegation; negotiations based on the principles of territorial compromise rooted in UN Security Council Resolution 242 that included defensible borders for Israel; the United States and Russia – Madrid’s co-sponsors – undertook to refrain from imposing a settlement or borders on the sides. Perhaps most importantly, Madrid was tethered to a “code of conduct” that girded the peace talks.
The code prohibited violence or incitement by or against either side and recognized a mutuality of rights and claims. Moreover, Shamir’s team carefully negotiated a letter of assurances from the US, which clarified that, “Jerusalem would not be a subject for negotiation, Israel’s right to build communities on both sides of the June 4, 1967, green lines were not an obstacle to advancing either bilateral talks with the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations or multilateral peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”
While Madrid produced a framework, Shamir’s tough love approach bore fruit. For the first time, Israel opened trade relations with some Arab states, including Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania. It also launched diplomatic relations with major powers, such as the former Soviet Union, India and China.
While Shamir was defeated in the following year’s election by Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin and Madrid was replaced by the Oslo exchange of letters between Israel and Yasser Arafat’s PLO, Shamir’s role at the Madrid peace conference brands a significant part of his legacy. He will almost certainly be remembered as one of Jewish history’s most committed and uncompromising ideologues who battled for Jewish rights to the Land of Israel.
Some will continue to brand him an incorrigible hard-liner unworthy of diplomatic credibility. However, as former Foreign Ministry director-general Eitan Ben-Tzur has noted, “the Madrid peace conference and the peace process it initiated… brought the region closer to a ‘New Middle East.’” It was new because Shamir helped establish a balanced and symmetrical approach to peace talks between Israel and all its neighbors, based on mutuality of rights and claims: mutual recognition, mutual compromise, and adherence to a behavioral code of conduct.
Today, after the second intifada and the failure of the Oslo Accords and in light of the new political reality across the Middle East and North Africa, Israel and the Jewish world would do well to remember Yitzhak Shamir’s legacy of seeking peace while securing Israel and asserting the Jewish people’s historical, legal, and diplomatic rights to sovereignty in its ancient homeland.

The writer is the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.