(July 2, 2012 / JNS) Israel’s seventh prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, passed away June 30 at the age of 96.
Shamir, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, served intermittently as prime minister from 1983 to 1992 as the head of the Likud. Before entering politics, he worked at the Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, and was a member of the Revisionist underground movements Irgun and Lehi in pre-state Israel. Soon after his health began to fail in the early part of the last decade, he took residence at a Herzliya nursing home, where he stayed until his death. He is survived by two children, Gilada and Yair, and five grandchildren.
Shamir’s daughter, Gilada Shamir-Diamant, told Army Radio Sunday that his death was not unexpected. “I could hug him, even though we were not able to communicate so well,” she said. “He would sometime take my hand and place it next to his heart; sometimes he would have this twinkle in his eye, which made me think he was aware of what was taking place around him.”
Soon after news broke of Shamir’s passing, Israeli leaders eulogized the former premier. President Shimon Peres, who was Shamir’s political archenemy and his senior partner in two national unity governments, said that Shamir was “was true to his convictions, a great patriot that loved his people and Israel, who served his state with honor and dedication for dozens of years.”
Referring to Shamir’s controversial statement—“The sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs,” implying that just like the sea doesn’t change, the Arabs would never accept Israel and make peace with it—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Shamir “may have been criticized back then, but today we know that he did not tailor his inner truth according to the latest trends in public opinion; people now know that these were well-thought out words that carried a-lot of meaning; today we bid farewell to one of our most fiercest defenders.”
A White House statement said “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, born Yitzhak Jaziernicki, was born to observant parents in 1915 in Ruzhany (a Polish town that is now part of Belarus). His parents were Zionists and sent him to the Hebrew Gymansium, or college preparatory school, in Bialystok, Poland. Upon turning 14, he joined Beitar, a Zionist youth movement that espoused the nationalist views of Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In 1935, while studying law in Warsaw, he decided to emigrate to British-controlled Palestine, where he enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In 1937 he joined the Irgun, the nationalist right wing underground movement, and later, in 1940, became a founder of one of its splinter groups, the Lehi, or Stern Gang. When the group’s leader Avraham “Yair” Stern was killed by the British authorities in 1942, he became one of the group’s three top members. He was arrested twice in 1940 by the British, and in both cases managed to escape. The second time was from a detention facility in Eritrea.
Between 1955 and 1965 Shamir served as a senior Mossad official. He entered politics in 1970, when he became a top politico at the Herut party apparatus, the precursor to today’s Likud. Four years later he was elected to the Knesset. In 1977 he was appointed Knesset Speaker and three years later, upon the resignation of Moshe Dayan, he was tapped by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to be his foreign minister.
When Begin resigned in 1983, Shamir took the reigns of government for 11 months until elections, in what eventually became an on-and-off premiership spanning six and a half years. In the wake of the 1984 elections, neither the Left nor the Right could form a governing coalition. Consequently, Labor and Likud signed a unique power-sharing rotation agreement that had then-Labor leader Peres and Shamir each serve as prime minister for half a term, or two years, and as foreign minister while the other was in power.
After the 1988 elections Shamir formed a short-lived national unity government. In 1990, Peres, as head of Labor, orchestrated a successful no-confidence vote after which he was tasked with forming an alternative coalition (known as “the Stinking Maneuver”). Eventually Shamir frustrated Peres’s efforts and established a new narrow right-wing government that lasted until the 1992 elections.
Shamir’s public image owes much to his handling of the Gulf War crisis in 1991, which had a lasting effect on his political career. During the Persian Gulf War in January, Shamir overruled those in his government who wanted to strike Iraq after Israeli population centers were hit with Scud missiles. This decision won Shamir tremendous respect among U.S. policy makers at the time. Later that year he decided to take part in the Madrid Conference, sending Israeli negotiators to peace talks with Syrian and Lebanese delegations, as well as with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The Tehiya, Tzomet and Moledet parties left the coalition to protest the talks. This precipitated early elections in which Labor trounced Shamir’s Likud party.
As prime minister, Shamir presided over one of the largest waves of Jewish immigration, or aliyah. The biggest endeavor involved the absorption of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who had been allowed to emigrate by the communist regime. Shamir even encouraged Washington policymakers to make Jews go through many hoops before they could arrive in the U.S., hoping that such red tape would have them choose Israel instead. Shamir also launched Operation Solomon, in which 14,400 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted into Israel. Shamir won the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and contribution to the state in 2001.