El Al’s Shamir Parachutes Into Israel Vote as Liberman Fades

Yair Shamir, an ex-combat pilot who led El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. before entering politics, sounds a lot like his father Yitzhak when he talks about the prospect of peace with the Palestinians.

“There’s not enough room for two states here,” Shamir, 67, said in an interview at the office of his venture capital fund, Catalyst Investments LP, in Tel Aviv. “It will never work out. There will always be tension, there will always be war.”

Shamir’s stance suddenly matters because he’s set for a Cabinet job as opinion polls signal that Jan. 22 elections will keep his Yisrael Beitenu party in power as junior partner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Shamir, who’s running for election for the first time, is listed as No. 2 on the Yisrael Beitenu slate, behind only party leader Avigdor Liberman, who quit as foreign minister and was indicted on fraud and breach of trust charges last month.

Shamir’s rejection of Palestinian statehood puts him in sync with Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party which is gaining in polls, and a growing number of Likud leaders challenging Netanyahu’s professed support for a two-state solution. Yair’s father, who died in June, was strongly against the idea while he was premier.

While the U.S. and Israel’s European allies support a two-state solution and have criticized Netanyahu’s recently announced construction plans in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Palestinians say it’s the attitude expressed by Shamir and Bennett that most aggravates the conflict.

‘Civilized Behavior’

“These men are creating a public culture that pretends we don’t exist, and Israelis seem to consider this normal civilized behavior,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel since Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister in 1992.

The Likud-Beitenu joint list will probably win 34 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, more than double its closest rival, Labor, according to a poll by Haaretz released yesterday. Jewish Home will probably win 14 seats, followed by Shas with 11 and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatenuah party with 10. A poll released today by Israel Radio gave 35 seats to Likud-Beitenu, with 18 apiece for Labor and Jewish Home.

For Liberman, recruiting Shamir was part of an effort to stop Yisrael Beitenu from being pigeonholed as a sectarian Russian party, according to Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political scientist.

Job Prospects

“This is a guy whose father was chairman of the Likud and served twice as prime minister,” Rahat said in a phone interview. “How much more mainstream can you get?”

Shamir, whose gray moustache is slightly bushier than his father’s, said he expects a top Cabinet position, possibly running the Transportation or Housing ministries with an outside chance at Defense. “I want to achieve several things and I have to do it in the shortest way because I’m not so young,” he said in the Dec. 24 interview.

On economic policy, Shamir says Israel needs more competition in the housing and food markets and should sell state assets including Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., where he served as chairman. He said the government should sell IAI shares on the Nasdaq Stock Market, retaining a 49 percent stake.

Shamir earned an electronic engineering degree from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel. Besides steering IAI, a maker of drone aircraft and Israel’s biggest manufacturer, he was chief executive of Elite Industries Ltd., one of the country’s biggest foodmakers, chairman of VCon Telecommunications Ltd., which makes teleconferencing software, and chairman of Shamir Optical Industry Ltd., a maker of multifocal lenses.

No Backstabbing

“Israel’s future is based on defense for existence, and technology and industry for innovation,” said Shamir, whose 11th-floor office in downtown Tel Aviv is decorated with photographs from his days as an Air Force commander and head of IAI and El Al. “I’m bringing capabilities in these two arenas.”

Shamir says he chose Yisrael Beitenu, a party founded by Soviet Jewish emigres, instead of his father’s Likud partly because of his wish to attract skilled immigrants to Israel, and partly because of his admiration for Liberman. “You always know where you stand with him,” Shamir said. “He will not stab you in the back.”

Business Practice

Other prominent members of Yisrael Beitenu might disagree, including Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Knesset member Anastassia Michaeli, who were purged from the ballot for the coming election after various run-ins with the party chairman. In a sign of more drama to come, Ayalon was identified by prosecutors as a key witness in the Liberman case.

Shamir’s political views echo those of his father, who spent long periods away from the family while he was hunted by the British who accused him of terrorism in pre-independence Palestine, and later as an operative for the Mossad spy agency in Europe. The younger Shamir says the corporate world operates differently.

“He said, these are my beliefs and as long as I can push them, I will not sacrifice anything,” Shamir said of his father. “In the business world, it doesn’t work like that. You have to leave something on the table.”

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