Yitzchak Shamir

Yitzak Shamir (born 1914) was prime minister of Israel (1983-84, 1987-88), leader of the Likud Party and vice premier and minister of foreign affairs in the National Unity government (1984-86).

Yitzak Shamir (Yizernitsky) was born in 1914 in eastern Poland. While a student at the Hebrew "gymnasium" in Bialystok he was also involved with the Revisionist Zionist movement known as Brit Trumpeldor, or Betar. In 1935 instead of pursuing law studies in Warsaw he immigrated to Palestine, where he worked as a construction worker and accountant in addition to studying at the Hebrew University. During the next decade Shamir was involved with the Jewish underground movement as a member of the more militant and nationalist groups pledged to resisting the British mandate authorities as well as retaliating against acts of Arab violence directed at the Jewish community.

Unlike most of the Jewish underground, which chose to fight alongside of the British during World War II, Shamir remained firmly opposed to Britain's presence in Palestine. In 1940 he left the Irgun organization and helped to form the Lehi (Lohamei Eretz Yisrael), or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, also known as the "Stern Gang" because of its commander, Avraham Stern. When Stern was captured and killed by the British, Shamir was a member of the triumvirate which took charge of Lehi in 1942, until Menachem Begin assumed command in 1943.

As Lehi chief of operations, Shamir was involved in a number of underground attacks and daring exploits. After the famous bombing incident at the King David Hotel, the British command center in Jerusalem, he was captured and deported to a prison camp in Eritrea in 1946, but escaped in 1947 to Djibouti, where he was detained by the French authorities. Only at the end of May 1948 was Shamir able to make his way back to what by then had become the independent state of Israel.

The next 20 years are almost a blank in the biography of Yitzak Shamir. The record suggests that for much of the period he operated inconspicuously deep within the structure of the Israeli secret intelligence service, the Mossad. Toward the end of the 1960s he left this service to manage several businesses in the private sector and to campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Shamir's career entered a new, more public phase in 1970, when he joined the opposition Herut Party headed by his former commander, Begin. In the 1973 elections he became a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Then, following the Herut-led Likud bloc's dramatic 1977 electoral victory, Shamir was elected speaker of the Knesset. In this position he chaired the historic session on November 20, 1977, when Egypt's president launched his peace initiative by coming to address the Knesset. However, at a crucial moment in the peace process Shamir chose to abstain on the key vote which endorsed the 1978 Camp David accords. Feeling that Prime Minister Begin had made excessive concessions to Egypt by returning all of the Sinai Peninsula, Shamir showed consistency when he also abstained from approving the final Israel-Egypt Treaty in March 1979. Still, in later years he pledged to uphold the agreement, while giving it a hard-line interpretation.

In October 1979, following the resignation of Moshe Dayan as minister of foreign affairs, Begin turned to Shamir in seeking a successor. Despite his lack of experience in international diplomacy, Shamir applied himself to the post and with time impressed outside observers and foreign statesmen as hard-working, receptive, and devoted. In the early 1980s he was active in pursuing closer ties with France, in exploring a dialogue with the Soviets and their Eastern European allies, in renewing relations with African states, and in developing economic trade in Latin America. However, whether due to his loyalty to Begin or to other reasons, Shamir came in for indirect criticism by the Kahan Commission set up to inquire into aspects of the 1982 Lebanese intervention; while cleared of complicity in the specific Sabra and Shatilla camp massacres, he was faulted in the final report with having ignored early rumors.

On August 28, 1983, Premier Begin made a surprise announcement that, due to personal reasons, he was resigning, having led the Herut in opposition and in power for over 35 years. In an effort at filling this void, a hastily-convened Herut Party on September 2 selected Shamir as its leader. In the coming five weeks of arduous inter-party negotiations Shamir finally succeeded in putting together a viable coalition with 64 Knesset votes, giving it a four vote majority. The coalition, however, lasted less than a year. In the 1984 national elections Shamir headed the Likud campaign. When the results were tabulated, Likud gained 41 Knesset seats as against 44 for the Labour/Alignment, giving neither of the two main parties a clear majority. The political stalemate was resolved only through a unique arrangement based on the principle of rotation. By the terms of the agreement, Labour's head, Shimon Peres, served as prime minister for the initial two years, with Shamir as vice premier and minister of foreign affairs, after which the two men switched positions.

Despite skepticism on the part of the experts, this arrangement held together; while not exactly a cordial relationship, Peres and Shamir were sufficiently motivated by a sense of national responsibility to preserve good working relations. Under the National Unity government, and while waiting for the rotation to take place, Yitzak Shamir in the years 1984-86 was fully preoccupied with two principal tasks: maintaining leadership of his fractious Herut-Likud political movement in the post-Begin era, and improving Israel's international diplomatic position in the post-Lebanon period.

Shamir took a hard line against the Palestinian uprisings that began on the West Bank and in Gaza in late 1987. He remained prime minister, as head of a Likud-Labor coalition, following the elections of November 1988.

After the government lost a vote of confidence in March 1990, Shamir put together a coalition of Likud and several right-wing and religious parties. He agreed to participate in the comprehensive Middle East peace talks that began in 1991, but his ardent support for new Jewish settlements on the West Bank hampered negotiations with the Palestinians and strained relations with the United States. When Likud lost the parliamentary elections of June 1992, Yitzhak Rabin succeeded Shamir as prime minister. In March 1993 Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded him as head of Likud.

On July 12, 1992, Shamir bid farewell as Prime Minister. In a televised speech he gave to his Cabinet, he claimed advances in employment, in securing Israel against foreign attacks and in opening relations with a host of foreign countries during his last two years in power. Shamir concluded: "I seriously doubt if any past government in Israel has had such achievements."

The uncompromising comments from Shamir appeared to be aimed at easing the shock of the election defeat. Citizens reduced Likud's share of the vote to less than 30 percent. Voters apparently did not agree with Shamir that a government which had left the country in a recession, had been reluctant to offer a long-term solution to the Palestinian conflict, had quarreled with Washington, and had botched the chore of welcoming tens of thousands of Russian immigrants could be ranked among Israel's greatest.


Further Reading on Yitzchak Shamir

There is no published biography of Shamir to date. Background information can be found in Robert Freedman, editor, Israel in the Begin Era (1982) and in Bernard Reich, Israel: Land of Tradition and Conflict (1985). Updated information gathered from the Los Angeles Times "Shamir Says Farewell," July 13, 1992; Britannica Online, The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia.