A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Yitzhak Shamir, 1915-2012: A Life Largely Lived in the Shadows, Then the Prime Minister Who Wasn't Supposed to Be

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has died at age 96.

In the mid-1980s I was for a few years in a job where I was working on Israeli (and Arab) defense issues; that job meant I visited Israel at least once a year for several years, and sometimes twice. During much of that period Yitzhak Shamir was either Prime Minister, Foreign Minister in rotation, or leader of the Opposition. I didn't meet him as much of my work was with the Defense Ministry, but I did see him on public occasions.

And I have one other quick story from that era: I was talking with a friend in the defense world who didn't know Israel particularly but had been reading up on the pre-state guerrilla movements and had an interest in the Irgun (Etzel) and Lehi (the "Stern Gang"), the two more radical guerrilla groups. We were talking about the leadership of Lehi and the name of Yitzhak Yzernitzky came up: one of the three co-leaders of Lehi after Stern's death, famous for his role in the assassination of Lord Moyne; imprisoned by the British; later deported by the British to a prison camp in Africa (from which he escaped); after independence Lehi was disbanded after the assassination of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte and the new State of Israel declared its leadership terrorists. Yzernitsky was a legendary underground figure. My friend asked, "Do you know whatever happened to Yzernitsky?" I answered, "Yes. He's the Prime Minister of Israel."

Wanted: Yzernitsky (Shamir), center
One of his underground noms de guerre had been "Rabbi Shamir." He adopted it as his Hebrew name.

Shamir was never supposed to become Prime Minister. He entered politics in his mid-50s, but became Menachem Begin's successor in 1983. Before that, he served in Mossad, serving (among other postings) in Paris and being, it is said, Mossad station chief for European operations. (His Israeli obits say he served in Mossad but omit details.)

When he left Mossad he entered politics, and his background in Lehi drew him to Likud, then headed by the old Irgunist Menachem Begin. Though Shamir became Speaker of the Knesset in 1977, but abstained on the peace with Egypt, despite his mentor Begin supporting it. He became Foreign Minister in 1980.

Shamir was not a career Likud politician and became Prime Minister almost accidentally, though in the endhe served as Prime Minister longer than anyone since David Ben-Gurion. The Lebanon War in 1982, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and the subsequent Kahan Commission Report sullied Ariel Sharon's reputation and blocked him from the Likud succession at that time, while Shamir challenged the next in line, David Levy, and won the leadership. He became Prime Minister in 1983, but the 1984 elections left both major parties without a majority, and a agreement was reached under which Labor Leader Shimon Peres and Shamir "rotated" the premiership, with Shamir replacing Peres in 1986. The rotation continued after a 1988 election but Labor withdrew in 1990, during the First Gulf War buildup, and Shamir led a narrow coalition until his defeat in elections in 1992.

Shamir was born in 1915 in the Russian Empire in a place that was Poland when he left it at age 30 to go to Palestine and is part of Belarus now.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

The late Mossad official David Kimche told several of us American diplomats that joining Mossad was part of the process of Shamir's rehabilitation from outlaw status. Although Shamir showed aptitude and advanced rapidly, initially Kimche was his case officer. As a State Department official when Shamir was Prime Minister, I took special glee in hanging a PLO poster in my officer. The poster did not mention Shamir by name, but it was a portrayal of the assassination of Count Bernadotte.