Yitzhak Shamir, Former Israeli Prime Minister, Dies at 96

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir
Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's prime minister, is seen in this file photo in his Jerusalem office on October 23, 1986. Photographer: Yaakov Sa'ar/GPO/Getty Images

Yitzhak Shamir, who went from Jewish underground leader to become the first Israeli prime minister to attend a regional peace conference with Arab heads of state, has died. He was 96.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced the death in a text message to journalists yesterday. The premier expressed “deep” sorrow at the passing of Shamir “who belonged to the generation of giants who established the state and fought for the freedom of the Jewish people in their homeland.”

As prime minister, Shamir in 1989 set in motion the immigration of about 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union and in May 1991 the airlift of some 15,000 Ethiopian Jews. During the 1990 Gulf War, when Israel came under Iraqi missile attack, he withstood calls to retaliate, concerned such a move would unravel the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein.

Under U.S. pressure, he agreed to attend the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid that marked the first public bilateral talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors as well as the start of multinational regional negotiations. Yet Shamir, a diminutive man with a white mustache, never swayed from his belief that Israel shouldn’t relinquish land for peace.

“He was a very honest, very idealistic man with a strong belief in the land of Israel,” said Avi Pazner, who served as Shamir’s media adviser for 10 years. “He saw Israel becoming a strong democracy in the Middle East with good ties to its neighbors but without a Palestinian state.”

Funds for Settlements

Following the Madrid conference, Shamir agreed to begin negotiating with the Palestinians on the start of self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war. Even as he acquiesced to U.S. prodding, Shamir appeared to stonewall attempts to make progress.

“I would have carried out autonomy talks for 10 years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria,” he said in an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Ma’ariv in July 1992 after losing national elections to Yitzhak Rabin, who reversed Shamir’s stance and entered direct negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that led to the Oslo peace accords.

Shamir later said he was misquoted, but during his tenure as prime minister he approved funds that allowed then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon to begin a construction drive of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that caused the U.S. to block $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel needed to help finance the cost of absorbing the wave of immigration from the Soviet Union.

Oslo Accords

He opposed the 1993 Oslo accords. “He thought it was a big mistake because he did not trust Arafat,” Pazner said.

Shamir was born Yitzhak Yzernitzky on Oct. 15, 1915, in the village of Ruzinoy, now known as Ruzhany and part of Belarus. He joined a Zionist youth movement at age 14 and completed a high-school education in Poland.

When he was 20, he moved to British-ruled Palestine where he joined a radical, military Jewish underground faction called the Lehi, or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, but better known as the Stern Gang.

Yzernitzky used the name “Rabbi Shamir,” when he masqueraded as an Orthodox rabbi in traditional dress to hide from the British and later adopted the name, according to an article by Avishai Margalit published in the New York Review of Books in 1992.

Imprisoned Twice

As a member of Lehi, Shamir was imprisoned twice by the British Mandate government, the second time at a British prison camp in Eritrea. Both times he escaped.

Shamir was granted political asylum in France after fleeing the Eritrea camp and returned to Palestine in 1948, the year Israel was established. He resumed command of the Lehi until it was outlawed by the fledgling Israeli government after the September 1948 killing of United Nations mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. Bernadotte was targeted by the Jewish underground because of his insistence that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their homes in the newly founded state of Israel.

Shamir never expressed any regret for actions he took as a member of the Lehi. “He was very proud of his role in the underground,” Pazner said.

Before entering politics and winning a seat in parliament in 1973, Shamir held senior positions in the country’s intelligence agency, the Mossad. As speaker of the house, he presided over the historic 1979 visit to Jerusalem of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but abstained on the vote over the peace agreement, opposed to the dismantling of settlements in the Sinai Peninsula.

Lebanon Agreement

As foreign minister, he negotiated a 1983 peace agreement with Lebanon that was never ratified by the Lebanese parliament.

Shamir took over as prime minister after Menachem Begin resigned in 1983, yet his failure to tackle Israel’s hyperinflation prevented his Likud Party from winning a decisive victory in elections the next year, forcing him into a “rotation” government with the Labor Party. Labor leader Shimon Peres served as prime minister for the first two years, with Shamir taking over in 1986-1988.

He led Likud to an outright victory in the 1988 elections, serving again as prime minister until his defeat in 1992.

Netanyahu described Shamir as “blunt, a man of truth, simple, direct and, of course, with great inner strength,” in comments to the Cabinet today.

Strict Schedule

A man of routine, Shamir had a strict schedule that included lunch at home and an afternoon nap, even during his tenures as prime minister. He spoke five languages: English, French, German, Polish and Yiddish. His memoirs, published under the title “Summing Up,” appeared in 1994.

Shamir had two children with his wife, Shulamit, who died in 2011. His body will lay in state for six hours at the Israeli Knesset on July 2 and the funeral will take place afterwards, Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir said.

“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,” a statement from White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the people of Israel.”

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