Middle Israel: Little big man

Yitzhak Shamir will be remembered, more than anything else, as Israel’s last modest leader.

Yitzhak Shamir listens to George Bush , 1991 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yitzhak Shamir listens to George Bush , 1991 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 1991.
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 state.
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.
Shamir’s 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 Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
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 failures.
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 glaring.
Then Shamir voted against the economic stabilization plan that led Israel from its founders’ socialism to their successors’ capitalism.
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 himself.
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 peace.
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 Zeitgeist.
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