Yitzhak Shamir, Former Israeli Prime Minister, Dies at 96 (NY) TIMES) By JOEL BRINKLEY 07/01/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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Yitzhak Shamir, who emerged from the militant wing of a Jewish
militia and served as Israel’s prime minister longer than anyone but
David Ben-Gurion, promoting a muscular Zionism and expansive
settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, died Saturday at
a nursing home in Tel Aviv. He was 96.
Mr. Shamir had Alzheimer’s disease for at least the last six years,
an associate said. His death was announced by the prime minister’s
A native of Poland whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, Mr.
Shamir was part of a group of right-wing Israeli politicians led by
Menachem Begin who rose to power in the 1970s as the more left-wing
Labor Party declined, viewed as corrupt and disdainful of the public.
Stubborn and laconic, Mr. Shamir was by his own assessment a most
unlikely political leader whose very personality seemed the perfect
representation of his government’s policy of patient, determined,
unyielding opposition to territorial concessions.
Many of his friends and colleagues ascribed his character to his
years in the underground in the 1940s, when he sent Jewish fighters
out to kill British officers whom he saw as occupiers. He was a
wanted man then; to the British rulers of the Palestine mandate he
was a terrorist, an assassin. He appeared in public only at night,
disguised as a Hasidic rabbi. But Mr. Shamir said he considered
those “the best years of my life.”
His wife, Shulamit, once said that in the underground she and her
husband had learned not to talk about their work for fear of being
overheard. It was a habit he apparently never lost.
Mr. Shamir was not blessed with a sharp wit, a soothing public manner
or an engaging oratorical style. Most often he answered questions
with a shrug and an air of weary wisdom, as if to say: “This is so
clear. Why do you even ask?”
In 1988, at a meeting of the political party Herut, he sat slumped on
a sofa, gazing at the floor as party stalwarts heaped praises on him.
Shortly thereafter, he said: “I like all those people, they’re nice
people. But this is not my style, not my language. This kind of
meeting is the modern picture, but I don’t belong to it.”
Rather than bend to them, Mr. Shamir often simply outlasted his
political opponents, who were usually much more willing to say what
was on their minds, and sometimes to get in trouble for it. To Mr.
Shamir, victory came not from compromise, but from strength, patience
“If he wants something, it may take a long time, but he’ll never let
go,” Avi Pazner, his media adviser, once remarked.
In a statement on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said
that Mr. Shamir “belonged to the generation of giants who founded the
State of Israel and fought for the freedom of the Jewish people.”
“As prime minister,” he added, “Yitzhak Shamir took action to fortify
Israel’s security and ensure its future.”
Prime Minister Begin appointed Mr. Shamir as foreign minister in
1980. When Mr. Begin suddenly retired in 1983, Mr. Shamir became a
compromise candidate to replace him, alternating in the post with
Shimon Peres for one four-year term. Mr. Shamir won his own term in
1988. He entered the political opposition when Yitzhak Rabin of the
Labor Party was elected prime minister in 1992. Mr. Shamir retired
from politics a few years later, at 81.
A Hard-Line Approach
As prime minister, Mr. Shamir promoted continued Jewish settlement in
the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Israel conquered in 1967; the
Jewish population in the occupied territories increased by nearly 30
percent while he was in office. He also encouraged the immigration of
tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to Israel, an influx that changed
the country’s demographic character.
One of the most notable events during his tenure was the Palestinian
uprising against Israeli control that began in December 1987, the so-
called intifada. He and his defense minister, Mr. Rabin, deployed
thousands of Israeli troops throughout the occupied territories to
quash the rebellion. They failed; the years of violence and death on
both sides brought criticism and condemnation from around the world.
The fighting also deepened divisions between Israel’s two political
camps: leftists who believed in making concessions to bring peace,
and members of the right who believed, as Mr. Shamir once put it,
that “Israel’s days without Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and the Gaza
Strip are gone and will not return.”
The intifada dragged on year after year as the death toll climbed
from dozens to hundreds. Israel’s isolation increased, until finally
the rebellion was overshadowed in 1991 by the first Persian Gulf war.
During that war, at the request of the United States, Prime Minister
Shamir held Israel back from attacking Iraq, even as Iraqi Scud
missiles fell on Tel Aviv. For that he won new favor in Washington
and promises of financial aid from the United States to help with the
settlement of new Israeli citizens from the Soviet Union.
Then in the fall of 1991, under pressure from the first President
George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Mr. Shamir
agreed to represent Israel at the Middle East peace conference in
Madrid, Israel’s first summit meeting with the Arab states. There, he
was as unyielding as ever, denouncing Syria at one point as
having “the dubious honor of being one of the most oppressive,
tyrannical regimes in the world.”
Yitzhak Shamir was born on Oct. 22, 1915, in a Polish town under
Russian control to Shlomo and Perla Penina Yezernitzky. He immigrated
to the Palestine mandate when he was 20 and selected Shamir as his
Hebrew surname. The word means thorn or sharp point.
Members of his family who remained in Poland died in the Holocaust;
his father was killed by Poles whom the family had regarded as
friends. Memories of the Holocaust colored his opinions for the rest
of his life.
In the British-ruled Palestine mandate, Mr. Shamir first worked as a
bookkeeper and a construction worker. But after Arabs attacked Jewish
settlers and the British in 1936, he joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the
underground Jewish defense league. In 1940, the Irgun’s most militant
members formed the Lehi, or Stern Gang, named for its first leader,
After the British police killed Mr. Stern in 1942, Mr. Shamir became
one of the group’s top commanders. Under his leadership it began a
campaign of what it called personal terror, assassinating top British
military and government officers, often gunning them down in the
To the Jewish public, and even to the other Jewish underground
groups, Mr. Shamir’s gang was “lacking even a spark of humanity and
Jewish conscience,” Israel Rokach, the mayor of Tel Aviv, said in
1944 after Stern Gang gunmen shot three British police officers on
the streets of his city.
Years later, however, Mr. Shamir contended that it had been more
humane to assassinate specific military or political figures than to
attack military installations and possibly kill innocent people, as
the other underground groups did. Besides, he once said, “a man who
goes forth to take the life of another whom he does not know must
believe only one thing: that by his act he will change the course of
Several histories of the period have asserted that he masterminded a
failed attempt to kill the British high commissioner, Sir Harold
MacMichael, and the killing in Cairo of Britain’s minister of state
for the Middle East, Lord Moyne. When Mr. Shamir was asked about
these episodes in later years, his denials held a certain evasive
It was during his time in the underground that Mr. Shamir met
Shulamit Levy, who was his courier and confidante, he wrote in his
autobiography, “Summing Up.” The couple married in 1944, meeting at a
location in Jerusalem and gathering people off the street as
witnesses, said their daughter, Gilada Diamant. After a hasty
ceremony in deep cover, each departed immediately for a separate city.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Shamir is survived by a son, Yair,
five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. His wife died last
For a brief period after World War II, the three major Jewish
underground groups cooperated — until the bombing of the King David
Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946. Scores of people were killed,
and Mr. Shamir was among those arrested and exiled to an internment
camp in Eritrea. But he escaped a few months later and took refuge in
France. He arrived in the newly independent Israel in May 1948.
Entry Into Politics
Mr. Shamir was a pariah of sorts to the new Labor government of
Israel, which regarded him as a terrorist. Rebuffed in his efforts to
work in the government, he drifted from one small job to another
until 1955, when he finally found a government agency that
appreciated his past: the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. He
served in several posts, including that of top agent in France, but
returned to Israel and spent several years in business.
He joined Mr. Begin’s Herut Party in 1970 and was elected to
Parliament in December 1973. When the Likud, or unity, bloc, which
absorbed Herut, won power in 1977, Mr. Shamir was elected speaker.
And when President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem in
November 1977, Mr. Shamir and Israel’s president, Ephraim Katzir,
escorted him to the speaker’s rostrum for his speech. But the next
year, when the Parliament voted on the Camp David accords, which set
out the terms for peace with Egypt, Mr. Shamir abstained.
In 1979, when Moshe Dayan resigned as foreign minister, Mr. Begin
proposed appointing Mr. Shamir to replace him. Yechiel Kadishai,
chief of the prime minister’s office under Mr. Begin, recalled that
Mr. Shamir was chosen because the prime minister did not want or need
a powerful figure high in his cabinet.
“Begin had already established himself,” Mr. Kadishai said. “But by
1980, he wanted no competitors for power and selected Shamir because
he was not so known in political circles.”
The liberal members of Mr. Begin’s coalition objected, so Mr. Begin
named himself foreign minister until 1980, when Mr. Shamir finally
took the post. The Labor Party saw his appointment as an mistake,
since it considered him an extremist.
Mr. Shamir’s political opponents said that his laconic nature played
into his handling of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee
camps in West Beirut in September 1982, during Israel’s war in
On the evening of Sept. 16, Phalangists — Lebanese Christian
militiamen — entered the camps and began killing hundreds of
Palestinian men, women and children while the Israeli Army, largely
unaware of the killings, stood guard at the gates.
The next morning in Tel Aviv, Ze’ev Schiff, a prominent Israeli
journalist, received a call from a military official who told him
about the slaughter. He rushed to the office of his friend Mordechai
Zipori, the minister of communications, and told him what he had
heard. Mr. Zipori then called the foreign minister, Mr. Shamir.
Mr. Shamir was scheduled to meet with military and intelligence
officials shortly, so with some urgency Mr. Zipori told him to ask
about the report he had received that the Phalangists “are carrying
out a slaughter.”
Mr. Zipori remembered that Mr. Shamir promised to look into the
report. But according to the official findings of an Israeli
government commission of inquiry, Mr. Shamir merely asked Foreign
Ministry officers to see “whether any new reports had arrived from
Beirut.” When the meeting ended, Mr. Shamir “left for his home and
took no additional action,” the report said.
Years later, Mr. Shamir said: “You know, in those times of the
Lebanese war, every day something happened. And from the first glance
of it, it seemed like just another detail of what was going on every
day. But after 24 hours, it became clear it was not a normal event.”
Mr. Shamir was certainly not the only Israeli official who failed to
act, but the commission found it “difficult to find a justification”
for his decision not to make “any attempt to check whether there was
anything in what he heard.”
When Mr. Begin retired in 1983, Mr. Shamir was designated his
successor largely because of his position in the Foreign Ministry.
Even many in his own party thought Mr. Shamir would lose the
election. And even after he took office, many saw this low-key,
colorless man as a caretaker. In some ways he was. Asked once what he
intended to do in his second full term in office, he said he had no
plans except to “keep things as they are.”
“With our long, bitter experience,” he added, “we have to think twice
before we do something.” Ethan Bronner and Jodi Rudoren contributed
reporting. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 07/01/12)
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