Yitzchak Shamir was a 1930s refugee, a 1940s revolutionary, a 1950s spy, and later a politician — and prime minister — who made no effort to be loved or to craft an image. Diminutive, barrel-chested, with a face like a clenched fist, he showed just how tough a shtetl Jew could be.
Never as eloquent, or as arousing of the emotions as was his peer, Menachem Begin; never achieving the international approval of other prime ministers, such as David Ben-Gurion, Gold Meir, Yitzchak Rabin, or Shimon Peres; without the flamboyance or bombast of an Ariel Sharon; as inarticulate in English as Benjamin Netanyhau is smooth; Shamir went about his business like the pre-state underground fighter and the post-state Mossad agent that he was, not saying any more than he had to, just looking to get the job done — the job of keeping Israel and the Jewish people safe in a century that was anything but.
He served as prime minister longer than anyone but Ben-Gurion, and yet in that time he never developed the bonds that some prime ministers had with presidents or other statesman. He was of the school that said a nation had interests, not friends. What were friends? His father was murdered by his own Polish friends during the Shoah. After the Shoah, Shamir fought the British with the cold-blooded tenacity of a partisan in the European forests. With the Stern Gang, he ordered “hits” that had him labeled a terrorist by both the British and Ben-Gurion alike. In the early years of the state, he was completely ostracized by Ben-Gurion. In death, Ben-Gurion’s protégé, Shimon Peres, offered not only forgiveness but gratitude, saying Shamir “was a brave warrior for Israel, before and after its inception.” Yes, even before.
He brought Israel into the Madrid peace talks, but believed that Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” and stiff-backed pride would bring peace more than “gestures” ever could. He abstained from voting his approval for the Camp David accords with Anwar Sadat, believing that Israel was sacrificing too much. He didn’t believe in land for peace, rather, peace for peace.
Thought of as rigidly ideological, he “rotated” the prime ministership with Peres in a remarkably cordial coalition over a four-year period. Thought of, from his pre-state days, as not one to walk away from a fight, he nevertheless obliged the Americans’ request and did not retaliate against Iraqi Scuds during the first Gulf War. He guided Israel through the successful absorption of more than a million Russian Jews, and thousands more from Ethiopia.
And yet, despite being more respected than loved, love was his guiding principal above all others — his love for his fellow Jews and love of the land, and so he was tenacious on behalf of both.
His was a rough life, but history should be kind.
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