With the hindsight that comes from looking at history from a distance, the struggle to create the state of Israel can seem as if it was a process whose outcome was inevitable. The victory of the Zionist movement was, however, won despite long odds, desperate hardships and grievous costs in blood. The men and women who battled those odds did so in the face of the conventional wisdom of their day that told them they had no chance of forcing the British Empire to make good on its promise to create a National Home for the Jews or to defeat an Arab and Muslim world determined to crush the newborn State of Israel. They needed not only courage but also an iron will and the patience to bear great suffering while never losing sight of their goal. No person embodied those attributes more than Yitzhak Shamir, the underground resistance fighter who would one day become Israel’s seventh prime minister.
Shamir, who died yesterday at the age of 96 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, left the prime minister’s office 20 years ago. In the time that has passed since then, Israel has changed greatly as its economy expanded and transformed a once poor country into an economic dynamo. It has also endured a failed peace process, fought wars and dealt with terrorist offensives as a subsequent generation of political leaders took up the mantle of power and sometimes succumbed to illusions about the country’s neighbors that never afflicted Shamir. His time in power as well as the period of the great struggles in his life seem like a very long time ago, and it is more than possible most Israelis, let alone foreign friends of the Jewish state, have largely forgotten him or regard him as merely a figure who connects the periods when it was governed by the more famous Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. But he is no mere footnote to history. The lessons of Shamir’s life and his tenure in power (he served longer as Israel’s prime minister than anyone other than David Ben-Gurion) could serve the country well today and in the future.
Though he was prime minister for a total of seven years, like Begin, Shamir (who was born Yitzhak Yezernitzky in Poland in 1915) looked back to his days as a young man fighting for Israel’s independence as the most important period of his life. And it is this period that will, no doubt, allow Israel’s enemies and Shamir’s detractors to merely dismiss him as a terrorist. As one of the leaders of the group known in Israel as the Lechi (the acronym in Hebrew for the Freedom Fighters of Israel) but better known abroad as the Stern Gang (after its founder Avraham Stern), it is true Shamir participated in and ordered terrorist attacks on British soldiers and civilian leaders who were carrying out the policies that were preventing Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust from coming to Palestine.
It is hard to defend the decision of Stern and Shamir to kill the British, even as they were standing alone against the Nazis in the first years of the Second World War. Most Jews — including most of the nationalist movement led by Vladimir Jabotinsky to which they belonged — thought as much. In retrospect, Shamir defended these tactics as justified. That is an arguable point, but to analogize what he did to the sort of mass murder of innocent civilians who are deliberately targeted by Palestinian and Islamist killers in our own time is to make the Lechi seem like Boy Scouts. To compare Shamir to Yasir Arafat or any contemporary terrorist is an absurd injustice and tells us more about how terrorism has changed in the last 70 years than anything else. Nevertheless, the assassinations carried out by the Lechi were widely condemned by most Jews and were certainly ill-advised if not counter-productive.
Yet by the end of World War II, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine was united in their determination to fight the British, who were determined not to let the Jewish state emerge. The political differences between the three groups struggling against the British and the Arabs: the mainstream Haganah controlled by the Labor Party, the Irgun Zvai Leumi led by Menachem Begin and Shamir’s Lechi, were enormous at the time, but they are rightly all seen as having contributed each in their own way to the great battle.
After the War of Independence, Shamir’s underground skills were made good use of by the country’s Mossad intelligence agency where, among other exploits, he helped lead those who killed some of the former Nazi rocket scientists who were working in Egypt to create new weapons to kill Jews. His political career began in the 1970s as Begin united the nationalist and centrist parties, creating the Likud, and finally ending Labor’s monopoly on power in 1977. He became foreign minister in 1980 and held that post until 1986. He served two separate stints as foreign minister beginning in 1983 and left office for the last time in 1992.
That such a quiet, even secretive person should hold such high public offices for so long seems incredible. And he was often criticized during his time in power for his lack of inspirational rhetoric and his unwillingness to play the role of a great man. His political vision was as low key as his manner of speaking. He simply sought to defend Israel against its enemies and to not allow its friends to weaken it for the sake of the hope of peace. This was a formula that infuriated the left, which preferred Shimon Peres’ high-flown talk about peace in a “new Middle East” as well as his own right-wing which looked to articulate spokesmen such as the young Benjamin Netanyahu as better leaders for the country. It also angered Americans such as President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker.
Yet in retrospect, Shamir’s cool, patient leadership style seems to have been far wiser than either Peres’ dreamy belief in the Palestinians’ desire for peace or those on the right who thought their rhetoric could persuade the West to see things from Israel’s point of view.
Shamir was a man whose life experience had been forged by European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the War of Independence. But rather than this limiting his understanding of the world as his critics charged, it gave him the foresight to avoid the traps that snare more idealistic leaders. For that he was accused of living in the past, of lacking imagination and of seeing only enemies and struggle. Yet rather than living in an imaginary world in which the Arabs would give up their war against Israel’s existence or where the West could be beguiled into embracing the cause of the Jewish state, Shamir preferred to dwell in the more bleak reality in which Israel actually existed. Though he made mistakes as all leaders do, Israel benefitted from his leadership. Indeed, when you compare his missteps to the blunders some of his more popular and dynamic successors committed (the Oslo Accords and the misbegotten process that empowered Arafat, the withdrawal from Gaza and the second Lebanon war, to name just a few), Shamir seems like a genius.
Looking back on Shamir over the passage of time, his patient stewardship of Israel and his refusal to indulge in the starry-eyed rhetoric of peace or even the muscular rhetoric that the right loves to cheer, seems like the height of wisdom and statecraft.
A courageous fighter for Israel’s freedom in his youth, he lived long enough to bring forth that valor again as its prime minister. There is much Israel’s current generation of leaders as well as those who will follow can learn by the way this small, taciturn man operated. May his memory be for a blessing.