Yitzhak Shamir, hawkish Israeli premier, dies (REUTERS) By Dan Williams JERSALEM, ISRAEL 06/30/12 7:43pm EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Yitzhak Shamir, the hawkish Israeli leader who two
decades ago first balked at U.S. calls to trade occupied land for
Middle East peace, died on Saturday after a long illness. He was 96.
The second longest-serving prime minister after Israel´s founder,
David Ben-Gurion, Shamir clung to the status quo. Admirers saw
strength and resolve in his position, while critics called him an
intransigent naysayer who allowed Arabs to cast Israel as obstructing
"Yitzhak Shamir belonged to the generation of giants that founded the
State of Israel and fought for the freedom of the Jewish people in
its own land," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement
after his death.
Shamir professed a commitment to peace, calling it "the only
prize ... that can justify any war," but insisted Israel never be
rushed into a deal or lose its nerve.
"Big countries, I told myself, can afford to make mistakes; small
ones cannot," he wrote in his memoir "Summing Up".
Born in Poland with the surname Yezernitzky, Shamir moved to British-
ruled Palestine before the Holocaust, in which his family died.
Steely and secretive, he ran missions against British and Arab
targets for the hardline Jewish underground group Irgun, taking his
Hebrew name from an alias used to evade police dragnets.
He later became a leader of another underground group, the Lehi, or
Stern Gang. Captured and deported to Eritrea in 1946, the diminutive,
beetle-browed Shamir missed much of the fighting that led to Israel´s
founding two years later. Upon his return, he found himself out of
step with the country´s left-leaning political leadership of the day.
The Mossad spy service provided Shamir a back door to power.
Recruited in 1955, Shamir clambered up the Mossad´s ranks during
shadow wars with regional foes and international hunts for Nazi
He credited a posting in France with lending some refinement to his
style - "the scenery, the way people looked, the food, the wine,
Piaf," he reminisced - and prepared him for his 1980 breakthrough as
foreign minister for the rightist Likud party.
Shamir was a mistrustful diplomat. Prime Minister Menachem Begin had
signed a landmark peace accord with Egypt in 1979, yet Shamir
bristled at Cairo´s insistence that Israel make way for Palestinian
"Judea and Samaria are an integral part of the land of Israel,
neither ´captured´ ... nor ´returnable´ to anyone," he said, using
biblical terms for the occupied West Bank, which, along with the Gaza
Strip, the Israelis had extensively settled, and where the
Palestinians seek statehood.
Ruined by Israel´s 1982 Lebanon invasion, Begin resigned and was
succeeded by Shamir, who would later enter an awkward coalition with
Shimon Peres´ left-leaning Labour party in which the two leaders
rotated the premiership between them.
It was a turbulent time. Shamir was forced to crack down on
challenges from a new Jewish underground made up of West Bank
settlers, who attacked Arab notables and plotted to bomb a Jerusalem
mosque, and from the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which
erupted in 1987.
Rather than seek accommodation with the Palestinians, Shamir
championed new settlements and the immigration of hundreds of
thousands of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews in a bid to keep ahead of the
growing Muslim population under Israeli rule.
Although known as a hardliner, Shamir nonetheless showed teeth-
gritting restraint during the 1991 Gulf War. At the urging of the
United States, he held Israel´s fire in the face of Scud missile
salvoes by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein rather than retaliate and
endanger the U.S. alliance with Arab powers battling to expel Iraq
His forbearance on that occasion drove home Israel´s subordination to
Washington´s Middle East interests.
"I can think of nothing that went more against my grain as a Jew and
a Zionist, nothing more opposed to the ideology on which my life has
been based, than the decision I took ... to ask the people of Israel
to accept the burden of restraint," Shamir said later.
After the war, U.S. President George H.W. Bush called on Israel to
accept multiparty peace talks with the Arabs. His administration
hardened the demand by postponing $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees
that the Shamir government needed to absorb new immigrants.
Shamir hinted darkly that Bush, leader of the country´s most
important ally, was an anti-Semite, but relented on attending the
Madrid peace conference, where he became the first Israeli leader to
sit opposite Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese delegates.
The event was short on reconciliation - Shamir spoke of peace with
only "self-government" for the Palestinians - but paved the way for
the bilateral negotiations pursued by Labour´s Yitzhak Rabin, who
rode a wave of Israeli optimism to defeat Shamir in a 1992 election.
The White House said in a statement: "Yitzhak Shamir dedicated his
life to the State of Israel. From his days working for Israel´s
independence to his service as Prime Minister, he strengthened
Israel´s security and advanced the partnership between the United
States and Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and
the people of Israel."
Shamir was infirm and withdrawn from public life in later years. With
Likud back in power and his former deputy foreign minister Netanyahu
as premier, Israel remains at loggerheads with the Palestinians, with
many disputes still festering.
"The truth is that, in the final analysis, the search for peace has
always been a matter of who would tire of the struggle first, and
blink," he wrote in his autobiography. (Editing by Roger Atwood and
Doina Chiacu) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 06/30/12)
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