The Road from Rujenoy
by Yitzhak Shamir.
Little, Brown. 288 pp. $24.95.
Toward the close of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, startled his fellow delegates by supplementing his denunciation of Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, with an illustration. “Let me show you,” he said, “an old picture of Shamir when he was thirty-two.” He then held up a British police poster from 1940’s Palestine, calling for Shamir’s arrest.
It was certainly odd of the senior Syrian diplomat, a prominent member of a regime that regards itself as a leader in the anticolonial struggle, to include in his indictment of Shamir a document demonstrating, as it were, the Israeli’s anticolonialist bona fides. Odd or not, however, it is unquestionably true that in his youth Yitzhak Shamir was a bitter and extreme foe of British imperialism. Summing Up, Shamir’s autobiography, is the engrossing and ironic story of his long odyssey from the fringe of Jewish political life to its core.
Yitzhak Yezernitsky—Shamir was the name on his forged ID when the British arrested him in 1946, and he retained it for “sentimental reasons”—was born in 1915 in the small Polish town of Rujenoy. His parents, ardent Zionists, immersed him in Hebrew, and from early childhood Shamir’s life was centered on the land of Israel to which, as a twenty-year-old, he emigrated in 1935. His family remained behind and perished in the Holocaust.
When Shamir arrived in Palestine, Britain was already in headlong retreat from the obligations it had assumed under the League of Nations Mandate to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home. As Hitler began his war against the Jews, the British, fearful of antagonizing the Arabs, began their own campaign to prevent Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine.
In 1940, Shamir’s bitterness against this policy led him to abandon the militantly anti-British Irgun for the even more militant Lehi, known to its opponents as the “Stern Gang,” a tiny underground group dedicated to fighting the British even as the British were fighting the Nazis. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian Jews, believing that the common struggle against Nazism should supersede all else, strongly opposed Lehi, and the Haganah, the mainstream Jewish self-defense force under the control of David Ben-Gurion, joined the British effort to suppress it. But despite the fact that only the British army stood between Palestine and Rommel’s Afrika Korps, Shamir (who took the underground alias of Michael, after IRA leader Michael Collins) had “not a shred of doubt,” as he writes here, that Great Britain and Nazi Germany were both evil empires: “By barring Jews who could still get out of Europe from entering Palestine, and doing so for reasons of expedience, the British were, in fact, sharing in the guilt of the Nazis.”
In 1941, after Lehi’s charismatic leader, Abraham Stern, was gunned down by the British, the twenty-six-year-old Shamir and two other Lehi members took control of the group. While his confederates focused on ideology and propaganda, Shamir assumed command of the organization’s paramilitary activities, a role in which he “made, checked, and approved the detailed plans for Lehi operations.”
Shamir’s description of life in the underground is extraordinarily vivid, in part because he shuns euphemisms. Writing about Lehi’s finances, for example, he explains:
In view of the circumstances, . . . there seemed no alternative to robbery. My father would have called it expropriation (as in revolutionary Russia); others called it confiscation; but in plain language it was robbery—bank robbery. After all, where else would one go for money?
And explaining his differences with Menachem Begin of the Irgun, Shamir simply notes that Begin failed to approve of, or understand, “Lehi’s modus operandi.” Begin’s principal shortcoming: “He opposed all assassination.”
Shamir, of course, did not. In 1944, Lehi succeeded in assassinating Britain’s resident minister in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, thereby alienating Winston Churchill, Zionism’s most powerful ally. Shamir is proud of this and other Lehi actions, and regards Lehi members as heroic freedom fighters.
The Shamir who emerged from the underground after Israel achieved independence was a most unusual figure. Inspired by no economic or social vision and basically uninterested in partisan politics, he had no other ambition than to place his formidable talents at the service of the new state. Yet, given the Labor establishment’s intense hostility to Lehi, this was no easy task. At first Shamir undertook a variety of business ventures, “of which the best that can be said,” he writes, “is that . . . when they vanished, it was quickly.” Only in 1955 did Isser Harel, the head of Israeli intelligence, invite him to join the Mossad, an offer he accepted with alacrity.
Because Shamir may be one of the few Israelis who believe in strictly obeying the law against unauthorized disclosure of Mossad activities, his description of his decade’s work in that shadowy organization is quite sketchy. There is little doubt, however, that Shamir enjoyed coming in from the cold:
I felt at home very soon. I knew, of course, that I was surely rubbing shoulders with men who had tried, not so long ago, to hunt me down. . . . But it didn’t bother me. I felt that what happened before the state was proclaimed was one thing; everything after was something else. . . .
After leaving the Mossad, and spending a few years in yet another covert crusade—this time on behalf of Soviet Jewry—Shamir joined Begin’s Herut party in 1970. In 1973, at the age of fifty-eight, he became a full-time politician, a member of Israel’s Knesset. In 1977, after Begin’s electoral triumph, Shamir was appointed Speaker of the Knesset, where his most notable actions were his decisions to abstain from endorsing both the 1978 Camp David accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, on the grounds that they set dangerous precedents: dismantling Jewish settlements and withdrawing in the Sinai to the pre-1967 lines.
Needless to say, neither vote endeared him to Begin. Nonetheless, after Moshe Dayan resigned as Foreign Minister in 1980, Begin picked Shamir to succeed him. Shamir would continue to occupy the heights of Israel’s political life, either as Foreign Minister or as Prime Minister, for the next twelve years.
In his early years as Foreign Minister, the most important lesson Shamir reports learning was that in the game of nations, Israel really does not bring many chips to the table:
Nothing I had to sell to would-be customers, to put it bluntly, could compete with the Arabs’ wares, which included oil, gold, and UN votes—and when and if these failed to win them friends, there were always the threats, and the realities, of the Arab boycott, of economic blackmail, and of terrorism to fall back on. After all, how can one compare Arab power with the infinitely lesser potential, in all respects, of a small country like Israel whose main resource is the motivation and brightness of its manpower?
Given these harsh realities, Shamir’s conclusion was quite reasonable: “Big countries can afford to make mistakes; small ones cannot.” As both Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, his efforts were mainly directed not at attaining some positive objective but at preventing Israel from making mistakes—of which the most serious, in his view, would be allowing a Palestinian state to emerge in the West Bank and Gaza. As Shamir saw it, if only Israel held firm, the Arabs would eventually tire of their struggle and settle the conflict.
Shamir’s years as Israel’s Prime Minister will be remembered primarily for three episodes: the outbreak of the intifada, his role during the 1991 Gulf war, and his conflict with President George Bush.
Concerning the intifada, Shamir correctly notes that
one of the main reasons it lasted as long as it did . . . was that the rioters were only too familiar with the restraints we imposed on ourselves . . . and counted with justification on Israel’s collective morality and restraint.
What he neglects to say is that in declining to take draconian measures against the Arab population as a whole, measures which might well have crushed the intifada, Shamir was essentially adopting the old Haganah doctrine of havlagah (self-restraint) which he had so bitterly opposed in the 1930’s.
About his decision not to retaliate when Iraqi Scud missiles landed in Israel during the Gulf war, he confesses: “I can think of nothing that went more against my grain.” Indeed, some have argued that by not responding, Shamir undermined Israel’s deterrent capacity. He himself is unapologetic about his decision, yet it is a curious twist that the firebrand who would not accept a policy of restraint toward Britain in World War II later found himself advocating restraint toward Iraq.
Shamir’s conflict with President Bush is also laced with irony—though it is Bush who comes off looking worse. Had Israel not set back Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program by years when it destroyed the Osirak reactor with a precision-bombing attack in 1981, Bush’s finest hour—his splendid leadership throughout the Gulf crisis—might have ended, literally, in a flash. Yet in 1981, Bush, then serving as Vice President in the Reagan administration, was one of the harshest critics of the Israeli action.
Even after it became clear to all that the raid had been justified, Bush never acknowledged his debt to the Israeli government that ordered it. As President, he pulled all the levers of American diplomacy to unseat the governing Likud party and replace it with the Labor opposition (which had criticized the raid in 1981).
The Israeli electorate granted Bush’s wish in 1992. Shamir, however, attributes his defeat in that year’s elections not to American meddling but to the wave of Russian immigrants who had recently arrived in Israel. Angered and disoriented by the hardships they encountered in their new home, these new Israelis, he writes, took their frustrations out on his government. If true, this is yet another irony of Shamir’s career: undefeated by the Arabs, the British, the Haganah, or George Bush, he was finally brought down by the Jews of the former Soviet Union on whose behalf he had selflessly toiled for years.
How, then, will history regard Yitzhak Shamir? In assessing his behavior during World War II, one is reminded of Paul Johnson’s argument that statesmanship is the ability to distinguish among different degrees of evil. By this criterion, the anti-imperialist Shamir of the 1940’s was far indeed from statesmanship; in fact, Lehi’s actions during the war were the height of folly.
The same cannot be said of Shamir’s behavior in office. When he came to power, he largely followed the policies that had been pursued by Israel’s Labor party in an earlier era: restraint, settlements, and a hard-nosed realism about Israel’s enemies. His position on Jewish settlement of the land of Israel, in particular, had been a keystone of the Labor movement and of the Israeli Left since the days of David Ben-Gurion. Yet for practicing the kinds of policies which the Left had once preached but had lately come to abandon and even to repudiate, Shamir will probably never be forgiven by the heirs of Ben-Gurion. That may be the deepest irony of all.