Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir died at the age of 96 on Saturday, at the nursing home in which he lived in Tel Aviv, after a long illness.
|With Barbra Streisand, April 3, 1984|
He left behind two children and five grandchildren. Shamir’s wife, Shulamit, died last year at the age of 88.
Shamir was the state’s seventh prime minister from 1983 to 1984 and again from 1986 to 1992, the longest-serving premier after David Ben-Gurion. He was known for resisting international pressure to make concessions, yet initiated a peace process in Madrid that led to many diplomatic overtures by his successors.
|With Shimon Peres, 1988|
Shamir also served as foreign minister, Knesset speaker and opposition head, and was an agent in the Mossad. He was among the leaders of the Stern Group (Lehi) in the Jewish underground in Mandatory Palestine.
President Shimon Peres, who fought bitterly with Shamir in the 1980s, issued a statement in which he described Shamir as a courageous fighter both before and after the establishment of the state. Peres said Shamir had left a lasting legacy of bravery.
“He remained true to his beliefs, was a great patriot of his people and a great lover of Israel who served the nation loyally and with great dedication for many years,” Peres said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said 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.”
He said Shamir, whose family died in the Holocaust, fought in the Stern Group and as prime minister to build up the security of the state and ensure its future out of concern for its citizens.
“We lost a great man who was a great leader, who was fundamentally a man of the people,” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said.
“To really understand him and his refusal to be enticed by diplomatic overtures that would have weakened Israel, you had to have heard him speak on Holocaust Remembrance Day,” he continued.
“Shamir was a symbol of Israel’s rising from the ashes of the Holocaust to strength and staying power. Out of this developed his personality as an enlightened realist and a stiff ideologue who withstood internal and external pressure and fought to prevent a situation in which the people of Israel will not have their own land and state.”
By contrast, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who served as a minister in Shamir’s cabinet, praised Shamir for negotiating with the Palestinians, initiating peace talks in Madrid and resisting pressure to attack Iraq after Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the First Gulf War.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed sorrow at Shamir’s death, saying he acted all his life as an “uncompromising and focused granite rock.”
“In the underground, in the Mossad, in the governments of Israel and as prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir always strove to ensure Israel’s freedom,” Barak said.
The defense minister added that Shamir “asked himself only what is good and right in the struggle for Israel’s security, what is good and right for the people of Israel, and thus he acted.”
|With Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (centre) in 1980|
“I had the honor of knowing Shamir personally and I will always remember him and his great contribution to the country,” Liberman said.
Opposition leader Shelly Yechimovich called Shamir “a determined prime minister who dedicated his life to his country in his own ideological fashion, with integrity, humility and with a modest way of life worthy of a leader.”
Yechimovich praised Shamir for exercising restraint during the First Gulf War, keeping Israel from unnecessarily becoming entangled in a war with Iraq despite his hawkish beliefs.
Born in Ruzhany, then part of Poland in the Russian Empire and now part of Belarus, with the surname Yezernitzky, Shamir moved to British-ruled Palestine in 1935. Steely and secretive, he ran missions against British and Arab targets for the Irgun, taking his Hebrew name from an alias used to evade police dragnets.
He joined the Stern Group when it split from the Irgun in 1940.
Captured and deported to Eritrea in 1946, the diminutive, beetle-browed Shamir missed much of the fighting that led to the state’s founding two years later. Upon his return, he found himself out of step with the country’s left-leaning political leadership of the day.
The Mossad spy service provided Shamir a back door to power. Recruited in 1955, he clambered up the Mossad’s ranks during shadow wars with Middle East foes and international hunts for Nazi fugitives.
He credited a posting in France with lending some refinement to his style – “the scenery, the way people looked, the food, the wine, Piaf,” he would later say – and prepared him for his 1980 breakthrough as foreign minister for the Likud.
Although known as a hardliner, Shamir nonetheless showed teeth-gritting restraint during the 1991 Gulf War. At the urging of the United States, he held Israel’s fire in the face of Scud missile salvoes by dictator Saddam Hussein rather than retaliate and endanger the US alliance with Arab powers battling to expel Iraq from Kuwait.
His forbearance on that occasion drove home Israel’s consideration for Washington’s Middle East interests.
“I can think of nothing that went more against my grain as a Jew and a Zionist, nothing more opposed to the ideology on which my life has been based, than the decision I took... to ask the people of Israel to accept the burden of restraint,” Shamir said later.
After the war, US president George H.W. Bush called on Israel to accept multi-party peace talks with the Arabs. His administration drove home the demand by postponing $10 billion in US loan guarantees that the Shamir government needed to absorb new immigrants.
Shamir hinted darkly that Bush, the leader of the country’s most important ally, was an anti-Semite but relented on attending the Madrid peace conference, where he became the first Israeli leader to sit opposite Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese delegates.
The event was short on reconciliation – Shamir spoke of peace with only “self-government” for the Palestinians – but paved the way for the bilateral negotiations pursued by Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, who rode a wave of Israeli optimism to defeat Shamir in a 1992 election.
Daniel Clinton, Greer Fay Cashman and Reuters contributed to this report.