Patriot, fighter, uncompromising Zionist: Yitzhak Shamir dies at 96
Israel mourns death of its seventh prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died Saturday • A former member of the Jewish underground and the Mossad, Shamir rose to become one of the longest-serving premiers and was widely credited for not dragging Israel into 1991 Gulf War and orchestrating massive Aliyah waves.
Shlomo Cesana, Gideon Allon and Mati Tuchfeld
The late former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Photo credit: AP
Shamir at a street-naming ceremony in Petach Tikva in 1992.
Photo credit: AFP
Shamir as Knesset Speaker during a special history-making session with then Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Photo credit: AFP
Shamir was praised for his decision to keep Israel out of the 1991 Gulf War during which Iraq launched dozens of Scud missiles against Israel.
Photo credit: Moshe Shai
Israel's seventh prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, passed away on Saturday at the age of 96. Shamir's coffin will lie in state at the Knesset plaza on Monday to allow Israelis to pay their last respects before the funeral procession commences later that day. Shamir, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, will be buried in the plot reserved for the nation's leaders in Mt. Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem.
Shamir 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."
Michal Diamant, Shamir's granddaughter, told Army Radio she "admired him." She also recalled the many hours she spent with him. "The more I got to know him the more I appreciated this man and his unique personality. Unlike his image of a man who had a spine of steel, he was a very warm and loving person, particularly over the past several years." She added that when she asked him if Israel has nuclear weapon capabilities, he said he didn't know. "He didn't like talking politics."
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 "a brave fighter both before and after the founding of the state; he fought with courage against the British Mandate in the era of the underground movements and his great contribution at the Mossad will forever be etched in our nation's history that tells the story of brave individuals. He 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."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed Peres, releasing a statement that reflected great sorrow. "Yitzhak Shamir belonged to the generation of giants that established the State of Israel and fought for the freedom of the Jewish People in its Land. Shamir led the State of Israel out of an abiding loyalty to the people and the land. Shamir, who lost his family in the Holocaust, fought in the Lehi [a right-wing underground group] and as prime minister worked to strengthen the security of the State of Israel and ensure its future; the citizens of the country were always his first and foremost concern. Shamir showed exemplary loyalty to the Land of Israel and to the Jewish people's eternal values."
At Sunday's weekly cabinet session the government observed a moment of silence in memory of Shamir. The prime minister told ministers that Shamir "who did not exude charisma, simply had an inner charisma, which I believe is the most important thing." Netanyahu went on to say that the people of Israel have lost "one of the strongest leaders in our history." 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 - 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."
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that "Shamir was an ideologue who knew how to stand his ground — be it small or grave matters — but he could also be pragmatic. His ability to exercise forbearance in the face of missile attacks during the Gulf War [in 1991] was a testament to the very levelheaded personality he had; he had Israel's security at heart more than anything else."
Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister MK Dan Meridor, who served as Justice Minister under Shamir, said that "without any doubt he always acted with great purpose; in 1991 he displayed an amazing ability to show restraint by refusing to attack Iraq [in response to Scud missile attacks]; he then presided over talks with Syria and fought against the U.S. decision to declare the Soviet Jews as a having no national home. Shamir made it clear back then that every Jew should come to Israel, and riled against Jewish organizations in the U.S. I remember once when he took issue with then-U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who told him, 'Since 1948 there are no nationless Jews.' This is a small story that says a lot about Shamir."
Minister of Defense Ehud Barak said that Shamir "was resilient like a granite rock who would did not take his eye off the ball and would not compromise; he always asked himself what is right for the People of Israel and how they will be best served."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that "Yitzhak Shamir was a man of the Land of Israel in every bit of his body; he always stuck to his guns regardless of the capacity in which he served, and was a man of principles that served as an example."
Opposition leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) said that "Shamir was a determined prime minister who dedicated his life to the state and while remaining true to his ideological world view, with integrity, modesty and with a layman's way of life, the way a leader should behave. The citizens of Israel will forever remember the wisdom displayed during the first Gulf War, when despite his hawkish views, he showed restraint and exercised forbearance by avoiding a pointless entanglement in a war."
Journalist Yosef "Yossi" Ahimeir, who was Shamir's right-hand man between 1984 and 1992, said Saturday that "he was, above all, a man of principles who put his money where his mouth is; there was no other leader who loved the Jewish people more than he did; he was willing to accept a peace deal where the two sides exchange peace for peace; he was willing to accept tactical compromises but not ideological ones."
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said that "Yitzhak Shamir was made of steel, who had great inner strength that made him stand tall in the defense of the People of Israel and the Land of Israel."
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.”
After he retired from politics, he was asked how he would have liked to be remembered. His response, in what combined his two core traits throughout his life, was — as a man who loved the Land of Israel and had great modesty. "If history remembers me at all, I hope it will remember me as someone who loved the Land of Israel and stood on guard in its defense all his life, in every possible way."
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' 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.