Yitzhak Shamir
Yitzhak Shamir; drawing by David Levine


In July 1946 British troops surrounded Tel Aviv in an effort to wipe out the headquarters of the Jewish underground fighters, who they assumed were somewhere in the city. Yitzhak Yzernitsky, one of the commanders of the underground group called the Lehi—otherwise known as the Stern gang—happened to be in Tel Aviv that day, to meet with Menachem Begin, the commander of the other underground group, the Irgun. Yitzhak Yzernitsky was disguised as an Orthodox rabbi in traditional dress, and he used the name Rabbi Shamir. A British detective officer, John Martin, identified him immediately in spite of his disguise and ordered his arrest. That he did so cost the detective his life. Two gunmen from the underground, dressed as tennis players, waited for Martin at the court of his tennis club on Mount Carmel, and there they shot him down.

Many years later Yitzhak Hasson, who had been in charge of intelligence for the underground, wrote that Shamir, who knew all the secrets of the underground, was lucky not to have fallen into the hands of security services like the ones he now presides over.1 For it never entered the minds of the British to torture Shamir in order to get information out of him. They blindfolded him with a smelly rag and took him to Damascus, where, befitting his status as a dangerous man, they put him on a special plane and sent him to a detention camp in Eritrea. Together with his friend Ben Eliezer, Shamir escaped from the camp in January 1947, to the French colony of Djibouti. The French governor described the two of them as follows: “They brought me these two guys—one with the face of an intellectual and the other, his bodyguard, with the face of a killer.” (The governor thought Ben Eliezer was an intellectual.)

It is important for members of an underground, like members of the Secret Service—and Shamir was both—to have an appearance that does not attract attention. Shamir, however, has sharp, distinct features. His large head sits on a solid, dwarflike body. His jaw is square, and his eyebrows are especially bushy. Indeed, the first time Shamir wore a disguise, the uniform of a Polish officer, he was quickly spotted. In 1942, after he had escaped from the British Mazra prison in northern Palestine, and was walking along the road from Haifa to Tel Aviv, a former guard from the prison approached him and asked, “You’re in the Polish army? How did that happen?” Shamir uttered a Polish curse and ran away.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was born Yitzhak Yzernitsky in 1915, in the small Polish town of Rzhnoi.2 In his family he was known by the nick-name “Itzel.” The first name Shamir chose for himself in the underground was “Michael”—an interesting choice, for Shamir took the name from the Irish underground fighter Michael Collins, whom he greatly admired. Michael Collins, who had sprung de Valera from prison, headed the British list of wanted men. That Shamir identified himself with a professional revolutionary who had fought both the British and his own people—a tough, practical organization man rather than a man of words—is not surprising. But it is worth recalling that Collins was the person largely responsible for signing the 1921 pact with Britain which established the Republic in the southern part of the island and gave up the provinces that are now called Northern Ireland. Shamir should be compared not with Michael Collins but with the revolutionaries who ambushed Collins at Beal na Blath and killed him as a traitor for giving up a part of his ancient homeland.

A friend told me that he once heard Shamir say the biblical figure he most identified with was King Saul. It seems surprising that this melancholy, indecisive, moody king should appeal to Shamir. It may be that Shamir identifies with the Saul who went looking for his father’s donkeys and stumbled upon the kingship. Shamir always insists that he is in power not because he has chosen a career as a politician but because he is carrying out a mission. An analyst trying to trace the winding paths of his psyche would not be satisfied with such a simplistic explanation, and might risk a “deeper” one. Saul was the underground name of Eliyahu Giladi, Shamir’s friend, who had escaped with him from the Mazra prison in 1942. Believing that Giladi was an adventurer who might endanger the underground, Shamir later was responsible for his execution. Yet Shamir named his daughter, who was born in 1949, Gilada, after the same Giladi. Giladi is a skeleton that pops out of Shamir’s closet from time to time, and we will return to him later in this article.

The name Shamir, which Yitzhak Yzernitsky later adopted as his civilian name, is also interesting. To an Egyptian journalist Shamir once offered the explanation that shamir in Hebrew means a hard rock: the name was intended to show the Arabs whom they were dealing with. This meaning of the word is one that appears in the Bible in Ezekiel 3:9: “I will make your forehead like adamant [shamir], harder than flint. Do not fear them, and do not be dismayed by them.” Shamir did not mention the other meaning of his name—thorns growing in deserted wastelands: “And I will make it a desolation; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers [shamir] and thistles” (Isaiah 5:6).


“I’m seventy years old today,” Shamir said in 1985. “I’ve been in the Land of Israel for fifty years and I’ve been fighting for our principles for sixty years. Do you really think I’ll give up these principles for anyone?” Seven years have passed since then. Shamir likes to say that the sea is still the same sea and the Arabs are still the same Arabs. One can just as easily say that Shamir is still the same Shamir: he will not give up the convictions of his youth. Shamir’s statement in 1985 is in my opinion the key to understanding the man and especially to understanding his policies. A man who was close to him in the underground but who is very far from him now told me, “It isn’t a matter of principles but of something much more animalistic: Shamir is a bulldog that is gripping a bone called the Land of Israel in its jaws and will not let go.”


To understand Shamir one must turn to the distant past. The Yzernitsky family were tanners and not poor. Shamir’s father was a Zionist, who sent Itzel first to a modern religious Jewish school and then to the Herzliya High School in Bialystok, in eastern Poland. This high school belonged to the distinguished Tarbut Jewish educational network of Eastern Europe. The classes were held in modern Hebrew, and they included studies of the Bible and of Hebrew literature, subjects that were not taught in traditional Jewish schools in Eastern Europe. In comparison to Begin, a powerful public speaker, Shamir is almost inarticulate, but his Hebrew is precise. He also learned French for his work in the Mossad’s Paris office, and when he was elected prime minister he mastered basic English. “If I had to learn Chinese I would do it,” he said, and meant it.

The first youth movement Shamir joined was the “Gordonia.” This was a Tolstoyan Zionist youth movement, and young Itzel soon realized that it was not the place for him. He joined the “Betar” movement instead. Betar was the youth organization of revisionist Zionism, the movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which aimed to revise the official Zionist policy and doctrine of Chaim Weizmann. Revisionist Zionism exploited the disillusionment that arose from the British government’s failure to carry out its promise, stated in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to use its “best endeavours” to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Unlike Weizmann, Jabotinsky believed that only strong pressure—which, he claimed, Weizmann was unwilling to use owing to the “obsequiousness of his Diaspora mentality”—could compel Britain to assist in the fulfillment of the aims of Zionism. These aims, in Jabotinsky’s view, were to create a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan River and, in consequence, a Jewish state there.

The adult revisionists came from the circles of the “white” Jews in Russia after the 1917 revolution. They were extreme anti-Bolsheviks, but they had liberal politics. By contrast, most of the members of the Betar youth movement came from the Jewish communities of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, which were all very much influenced by Polish national and Catholic romanticism. These trends, in some of their manifestations, came to have fascist overtones, as indeed did the Betar movement itself. The Betar members wore neat uniforms with brown shirts and took part in quasi-military drills honoring Jabotinsky as if he were a Führer. The central idea of revisionism was the creation of Jewish armies, even in the Diaspora. This was an “orthopedic” thought—to straighten the people’s back. But it was also seen as politically necessary—Zionism would be realized in blood and fire. In practice Betar specialized in elaborate martial ceremonies: “Man’s superiority over the beast is the ceremony,” said Jabotinsky. (Ceremonies, however, have always made Shamir uncomfortable.) Betar’s central theme was nationalism mixed with much talk of blood and earth: “With blood and sweat,” a Betar anthem ran, “we will create a race, proud and generous and cruel.” Many are still waiting for the generous part to emerge.


Two tendencies were in conflict within the revisionist movement. One was a patriotic liberal nationalism, reminiscent of the spirit of the Risorgimento in Italy. The other was the Italian-style fascism of the 1920s and 1930s. Jabotinsky, at different times, expressed both. Menachem Begin, who was the head of Betar in Poland before he came to Israel, had his own inner conflicts. In the Knesset, he was a liberal; he was against imposing military government on Arabs inside Israel, and while he was the prime minister, he stopped systematic torture by the Shin Bet. But when he addressed crowds in the street he revealed himself as a ferocious demagogue.

In Shamir’s case, on the other hand, one finds no such conflicts. He’s made of different stuff. Although Shamir comes from Betar, from which he absorbed his all-encompassing nationalism, he is not, in contrast to Begin, a Betar type. He was actually shaped more by the “Maximalist Zionism” he encountered in Palestine when he first arrived there in 1935, after studying for a year at the Law School of Warsaw University.

The twenty-year-old Yzernitsky came with a student’s certificate to study Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem but he never studied there. The Hebrew literature he knows he read on his own: the writers who influenced him included Uri Zvi Greenberg (1894-1981), the highly gifted and visionary chauvinist poet and essayist whose work he still knows, and Yonatan Ratosh, whose poems he may not have read but whose militant essay, “We Aspire to Power,” he read and cherished. Shamir found a place for himself in the fringes of the Yishuv (the organized Jewish community in Palestine), where Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders were severely criticized for preaching restraint in the face of the Arab violence that erupted in the pogroms of 1929 and continued from time to time during the 1930s, erupting in the great Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939. The greatest shock was the Arab massacre of the Jews in Hebron, who had lived there for generations and were in fact not Zionists at all.

The maximalist critics to whom Shamir was drawn included not only Uri Zvi Greenberg but ideologues such as Abba Ahimeir and Yehoshua Yevin. These men felt that the Yishuv’s policy of relying on the police force of the British mandate to protect Jewish fighters was humiliating. They called for retaliatory strikes against the Arabs. They had their differences with the Irgun Zvai Leumi—the National Military Organization—but they approved of its martial strategy. Late in 1937 Shamir joined the Irgun and until 1939 he took part in its terrorist activities, which were little different from the ones conducted in present-day Beirut: the Irgun placed bombs in the markets of Arab towns, and fired on Arabs in their buses.

This terror was both preceded and accompanied by a dramatic change in the maximalist Zionists’ attitude toward the Arabs. Previously they had talked of possible co-existence with Arabs under Zionist rule; now they considered the Arabs as foreigners who were defiling the fatherland: “No peace to the Hebrews and the Arab wolves in Sion,” wrote Uri Zvi Greenberg. “But blood will determine who is the ruler here.” “And I say: The country conquered by blood, and only her conquered by blood is made holy for a people of holy blood…” However embarrassing it is to admit it, Greenberg is a world-class poet—the Ezra Pound of Hebrew poetry.3 The maximalists called him a “Poet and Legislator.” In 1949, in the only interesting speech he ever gave in his life, Shamir accepted Greenberg as a poet but rejected him as a legislator:

From him we learned vision and fervor, but when it comes to the realization of the vision I will not accept his advice. I have reached the conclusion, out of past experience, that if we take his advice on how to realize the vision we will damage his vision severely—it will not be fulfilled. After all, our ambition is not only to read poetry, but mainly to realize, to act.4

The maximalist Zionists criticized not only the leadership of the Yishuv under Ben Gurion but also Jabotinsky himself. A central political question for Zionism was always on which international power the Jews should depend in order to carry out the Zionist plan. Jabotinsky’s answer, in spite of his criticism of the Zionist leadership, was Britain. Even after the pogroms of 1929, to which the British turned a blind eye, he felt that Britain should be given another chance. The maximalists argued that Britain had no intention of helping the Zionist enterprise and should be considered a foreign power in the land, and that another powerful country had to be found to support the Zionist cause.

This search for a helpful foreign power underwent, as we shall see, many transformations in Shamir’s circle, whose members turned from their original attachment to the semi-Fascist Poland of the colonels, to the Fascist Italy of Mussolini, to Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and finally to Stalin’s Soviet Union. One thing is clear—they considered Britain and the decadent Anglo-Saxon world to be treacherous, and believed it had to be replaced as an ally. This suspicion of the Anglo-Saxon world has remained with Shamir to this day.

The maximalist criticism of Weizmann and Jabotinsky was not only political but took the form of highly emotional and often bitter rhetorical claims which one can find in the writings of Greenberg, among others: Zionism must not be based on Jewish misery. The Land of Israel is not an orphanage. The justification of Zionism is not anti-Semitism and oppression but the idea of establishing a kingdom by achieving mastery—Herrschaft, i.e., legitimate repression—over the land. We are the masters: the land belongs to the “Supermen,” the children of the Zionist revolution.

The concept of mastery remains with Shamir to the present day. As for the other concept, that of “the kingdom,” although it is somewhat ridiculous to picture Shamir as a Davidic king, with biblical robes and sandals, one aspect of the idea stuck with Shamir: that historical Jerusalem is and must be “the heart of the kingdom.” Also, a kingdom is not a democratic institution—and for Shamir and his friends, to carry out the Zionist vision does not mean one has an inherent commitment to democracy.

Although many of the maximalists originally derived from the labor movement, they became its bitter enemies. They hated communism, but they had an immense admiration for revolution and for Lenin. They saw him and his revolution as having set an example for the Zionist revolution: heroic sacrifice, cruelty, asceticism, readiness for radical social change, concentration on a single goal, contempt for the bourgeoisie, and the ability to create myth and symbols that had the emotional intensity of religion. They wanted to transfer all these attributes to the Zionist revolution, while adding a new element of their own: a deep revolutionary contempt for the intelligentsia. According to Shamir, intellectuals lack a sense of timing and they are impatient and stupid about tactics. He considered Uri Zvi Greenberg and his friends to be such intellectuals who are incompetent in practical matters. There is only one thing you can’t take away from the intellectuals, in Shamir’s opinion: the ability to create myths and symbols and to outline a vision of large goals.5

The myth that meant the most to the maximalists was that of the great Jewish revolt against the Romans in the first century AD. They identified with the zealots, especially with the sect known as the sicarii, named for the short knives (sica) they wore in their clothes. The sicarii used these knives to spread terror in order to ensure that the revolt would continue without compromise. Shamir once recalled how, after emerging from a British prison, he came to an orchard where he met a young man whom he described as follows: “Long-bearded, wild, swarthy and thin. He reminded me of an early Hebrew zealot hiding from the Romans and their traitorous allies in a Judean cave.” The Jewish revolt against Rome, which caused half the population of Judaea to be killed, made roughly the same amount of sense that a declaration of war by Israel against the US would make today. But it is precisely considerations of sense and cost that the myth of the revolt is intended to obliterate.

The other myth that inspires Shamir, to this day is the myth of the traitor. For Uri Zvi Greenberg, the evils of treachery were personified by Sanballat the Horonite, who in the fifth century BC opposed the building of the walls around Jerusalem after the Jews returned there. (See Nehemiah, Chapters 3–4.) When Shamir’s current rivals on the left protest the settlements in the territories, and expose the facts about them, he does not consider them merely political rivals in a democratic regime who disagree with his policies. In his eyes they are traitors—Sanballats who act as “informers” to the Americans. In Shamir’s world there are three types of people: those who are faithful to the maximalist idea; people who are not informers even though they are not helpful; and traitors. The last category is the most extensive for Shamir: once it even included Begin and the Irgun. Shamir is not a religious man, but there are many Orthodox people among his assistants, because he believes in believers. They are more likely to be loyal.

Shortly before Jabotinsky died while visiting the US in 1940, there was a split in the Irgun between the group headed by Irgun commander David Raziel, who remained loyal to Jabotinsky, and those who were loyal to Avraham Stern, known by his underground name of “Yair.” There were personal reasons for the split, but the main factors were ideological and political. The central problem facing the underground at the time was what to do during World War II. To the followers of Jabotinsky, it was obvious that the war against Nazi Germany must be supported by the Jewish nation. All attacks against the British must cease, and the Jews must rally to their support. Indeed, Raziel was killed commanding an attack in Iraq that had been coordinated with the British army.6 Menachem Begin, who had arrived in Palestine in 1942 with General Anders’s Polish army, was appointed to replace him in 1943.

Stern, by contrast, made a distinction between an enemy and a foe. The enemy is the occupier of your homeland, i.e., the British, while a foe is anyone with strong anti-Semitic views. Stern recognized no obligation to fight one’s foes, and he even believed that it was permissible to enter into agreements with them. According to this view, Hitler was a foe, but not an enemy; it was the British who must be fought. Stern’s goal was to establish a Jewish kingdom within the borders of the biblical promise—from the Nile to the Euphrates—while deporting the Arabs from this region.

At first Shamir did not join Stern and he was not yet a member of his organization in the summer of 1941 when Stern sent a messenger to Beirut to contact the Nazis and offer them the following proposal:

The establishment of the historical Jewish state, on a nationalist and totalitarian basis, tied by treaty to the German Reich, in accordance with the preservation and strengthening of future German power positions in the Near East.7

Through his messenger Stern offered to actively cooperate with Hitler’s forces on the condition that this effort would be appropriately recognized. The mission failed; the Nazis were simply not interested.

We can reconstruct approximately when Shamir became privy to these dealings with the Nazis.8 In the fall of 1941 Stern’s underground command group met to discuss the threat—which was shortly to be carried out—by two important commanders to leave the group, partly because of the failure of the mission to the Germans. The discussions continued for three days in an atmosphere of crisis. On the third day Shamir joined them—that is, he was immediately included in the command group. Even if Shamir had not previously known about the dealings with the Nazis—which is highly implausible, since he was so quickly admitted to the group of top leaders—he obviously knew about them from that day on. He also knew that Stern was determined to renew his connections with the Nazis, for a decision was made to do so during the discussions; and in fact a second and equally futile attempt to contact the Nazis was made later in 1941.9 It was also decided at that time that Shamir would have a part in planning robberies to provide financing for the underground.

Shamir thus became a partner in an underground movement which was wholly isolated from the Yishuv. Most of the other Jewish leaders rejected its actions, especially after members of the Lehi killed two Jewish police officers while trying to murder several British detectives. In February 1942 the British murdered Stern himself when they discovered his hiding place in Tel Aviv. Most of the members of the underground were arrested and put in the Mazra prison. When in August 1942 an opportunity arose for some of them to escape, Shamir was chosen first in the hope that he would put the underground back on its feet. He had to take an assistant with him, and he chose Giladi.

The Giladi affair is still surrounded by mystery. Shamir decided to eliminate him, arguing that he was a dangerous adventurer who planned to assassinate the leaders of the Yishuv. But Giladi was never given a trial by the underground, and his own version of the story is buried in the sands. In any event, after Giladi was killed, Shamir called together thirteen of the underground commanders and demanded their approval of the execution, which he got.

To this day no one knows precisely what Giladi was planning to do or what was the basis for Shamir’s claims against him. He is described by his fellow Stern group member Nathan Yelin-Mor as subscribing to the nihilistic credo of the mid-nineteenth century Russian revolutionary Dmitri Pisarev: “Whatever can be smashed must be smashed. Whoever can withstand the blow is healthy…. Hit out hard right and left.”10 Giladi was apparently a brave man, and by Shamir’s standards he was loyal to the Zionist idea. He may also have been a psychopathic revolutionary. But the actual evidence about him is hazy. What is clear from the evidence we have is that it was Shamir who decided that he had to be killed.11

What began as Stern’s underground was now known as “Lehi” (Lohamei Herut Israel—Fighters for Israel’s Freedom) and was headed by a three-man command, with Shamir in charge of organization and operations. The underground was organized as a revolutionary conspiracy, not as a quasi military group like the Irgun. There were no ranks, only “tasks” to be carried out. Against the background of the organized Yishuv, whose Zionism was characterized by the slogan “yet another dunam and yet another goat,” Shamir’s Zionism was ridiculed by his rivals from the Irgun as adhering to “yet another dead British policeman and yet another one.” A circular put out by Lehi in 1944 for its members—Shamir most probably took part in drafting it—speaks about three stages of battle: the stage of terror, to educate the people and attract the world’s attention; the stage of guerrilla warfare and sabotage, to prepare the general public for revolt; and, finally, the stage of revolt itself—a general revolt of the entire nation. Translated into Arabic, this could be George Habash’s plan for revolution.

Lehi’s most important action, which was planned by Shamir and his colleagues at the time of his escape from prison, was an attack on Lord Moyne, the British minister of state for the Middle East, who was in Cairo during the war. The idea was to demonstrate that, in contrast to the Irgun, Lehi was fighting against British imperialism in general and not just against the British administration in Palestine. When Moyne was assassinated in November 1944 the two Lehi men who killed him were caught, put on trial in Egypt, and executed.12 They won considerable sympathy from the Egyptian intelligentsia in Cairo.

The year 1944 also marked a political turning point for Lehi: its leaders now saw the Soviet Union as a candidate for an alliance with the Jewish national movement. The idea of turning to the Soviet Union for support became a central issue in 1949, when the underground was transformed into a political party in the new State of Israel. Shamir headed the pro-Soviet faction. Joseph Heller, in Lehi: Ideolgy and Politics, his comprehensive study of Lehi’s ideological development, speaks of Lehi as committed to the kind of “national Bolshevism” expounded by extreme nationalists who, during the Weimar period, admired the Bolsheviks for their ruthless political methods.

But was Shamir really a national Bolshevik? I am convinced that the ideology that has always meant the most to him is instead one that can be characterized as national egoism. In other words, the national interest, as defined by a dedicated ascetic revolutionary avant-garde prepared for sacrifice, is the supreme value, and no moral constraints apply to it. National egoism is built upon two strong inclinations. A readiness for sacrifice, which gives the individual an uplifting moral feeling, and a willingness to cast off any moral inhibitions, allowing the collective to do whatever serves its interests.

Shamir was never a Communist, and seems to have no interest in one vision of the social order as preferable to another. But as a national egoist he was attracted by the possibility of a national communism, as in Tito’s Yugoslavia, that would have Soviet support but without Soviet rule. From the mid- to the late Forties this seemed a serious possibility to Shamir. The proposition that “the end justifies the means” is a ridiculous phrase. “What else could justify the means,” the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser asks, “if not the end?” The Hebrew expression, “The end sanctifies the means,” is more precise. Shamir has always believed in this. He is not by any means an ideological Communist, but he is a psychological Bolshevik. However, in one important sense, Shamir is a revolutionary of a pre-Bolshevik type. He does not believe in mechanical history. He is a voluntarist; history, in his view, is shaped by strong wills. Hence the Jewish people, if united and resolute, can impose its will against all odds.


In May 1948, when the British left Palestine, Shamir returned, via Paris, from his place of exile in Eritrea. Along with the rest of the Lehi leaders, he considered Ben Gurion’s government defeatist, prepared to abandon Jerusalem by allowing it to become an international city. They saw Count Bernadotte, the United Nations emissary who had saved many Jews from the Nazis, as a pro-German Swedish aristocrat whose suggestions for internationalizing Jerusalem they suspected Ben Gurion might accept; and they decided to kill him.

After Bernadotte was assassinated by order of the Lehi command, of which Shamir was one of the three principal leaders, many members of the underground were arrested and Lehi was outlawed by the new Israeli state. Shamir organized the remaining Lehi members into an illegal underground movement but now against the Israeli government. During the first Israeli elections in 1949 there appeared a “Fighters’ Party,” with Shamir, along with five other Lehi members, among its main leaders. The Lehi soon obtained a state pardon and became a legal party.

It attracted few votes, however, and Shamir found himself with a family to support but no job. He became a book-keeper in a small commercial agency. When a government position as an inspector became available, he applied for it. Ben Gurion said to the minister of the interior, “I understand that you intend to employ the terrorist Yzernitsky. I oppose it.” That was enough. Shamir went into the movie business and even planned to import art films from France.

In 1956 after Ben Gurion lifted his ban on employing members of Lehi, Shamir was offered a job by Isser Harel, who was serving at that time as both head of Israel’s internal security services and as head of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA. The similarity between the two men is striking—both have the same short stature and the same Cheka mentality, which sees the Secret Service as a kind of ascetic order which is absolutely loyal to an idea and is capable of any act of cruelty or terror that is considered to be for the good of the state. When some documents fell out of the car of Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who later served as prime minister, Harel demanded that Sharett be investigated on suspicion of spying. Paranoiac fantasies were not uncommon in the Mossad; it is the Jesuit order of national egoism, and as such it suited Shamir perfectly. Shamir was directly accountable to Harel, not to the head of a department, and this created the impression that Shamir held a position of high importance. But the jobs he carried out and the numbers of agents assigned him show that he was by no means a central figure in the Mossad organization.

Five of Shamir’s Lehi friends were hired by the Mossad along with him, among them an expert in explosives and the inventor of letter bombs. In the late 1950s President Nasser of Egypt undertook an ambitious project of manufacturing missiles under the supervision of German scientists. The “Al Kahira” missile, Nasser boasted, was capable of reaching Beirut. This was enough for Harel. He proposed that Israel should give the highest priority to the threat of these missiles and should try to kill the German scientists involved. In this he won the support of Foreign Minister Golda Meir; but Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres, who was then the deputy minister of defense, believing that the missiles were not sophisticated enough to seriously threaten Israel, felt it would be more worthwhile to extort considerable military assistance from Germany in compensation, since the embarrassed Germans were still trying to get rid of their Third Reich image.

In the meantime the Mossad went ahead with its campaign, called Operation Damocles, to assassinate the German scientists. Letter bombs were sent to German scientists in Egypt as well as in Europe. Some of them were opened by secretaries or by members of the scientists’ families, and several people were killed or injured; some were blinded. Ben Gurion wanted to stop the campaign against the scientists, and as a result Harel left the Mossad; he was followed shortly by Shamir, who left in March 1963. The fact that Shamir left the Mossad at this time, and that he became Harel’s partner in a factory for prefabricated buildings, suggests that he agreed with Harel’s position on the operations against the German scientists; but this has yet to be proven. In any event, the hostility and lack of trust Shamir displays towards Peres seem to have originated during this period.

In 1970, at the age of fifty-five, Yitzhak Shamir entered politics. Avraham Stern’s brother, the contractor David Stern, recommended him to Begin; and Shamir was attracted to Begin’s Herut party as the only one advocating a “Greater Israel,” the single issue of importance in Israeli politics so far as Shamir is concerned. He was put in charge of organization in Begin’s Herut Party, and he became a member of the Knesset in the elections following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. During the election of 1977 he worked in the party’s campaign headquarters, which was headed by Ezer Weizmann and was highly effective in getting Begin elected prime minister. Begin did not ask Shamir to be a minister in his government, but appointed him speaker of the Knesset. “We appointed the head of Lehi to be speaker of the Jewish Parliament. What a revenge of history!” he is said to have remarked.

Shamir was openly opposed to the peace treaty with Egypt. He once summed up his attitude to peace treaties in general by saying: “Peace is an abstract thing. You sign a paper and say, ‘Here is peace,’ but what if tomorrow you tear up the paper and with one stroke of the pen you abolish the treaty?” The same remarks apply to his views of political agreements in general. During the last Knesset elections Shamir signed an agreement with Tehiya, the extreme right-wing party, promising that Tehiya members would join the government. When he violated the agreement, the head of Tehiya, Yuval Neeman, called Shamir and asked him, “What about the agreement? Should I hang it in the museum?” Shamir answered, “Do whatever you want with it.”

No one in Israeli politics has ever broken agreements as blatantly as Shamir. His statement, “For the sake of the Land of Israel it’s all right to lie,” is often quoted in the Israeli press. Israeli politicians caught on to this a long time ago, and none of them believes his promises. Recently, to Shamir’s annoyance, Bush and Baker have caught on as well. Still, both in Israel and abroad the most unreliable Israeli politician is thought to be Shimon Peres, even though Peres, not Shamir, has almost fanatically kept the agreements he has made. He even kept his agreement to rotate as prime minister with Shamir in the national unity government formed after the 1984 elections.

Very few Israeli politicians would have withstood the temptation to violate that agreement, especially since Peres was very successful as prime minister. He eliminated the 700 percent inflation of the previous Shamir government, withdrew the army from Lebanon (a move opposed by Shamir), and for a time was even quite popular. He kept the agreement with Shamir in order to be seen as trustworthy, but it didn’t do him much good. Reliability in Israeli politics does not depend on a commitment to tell the truth and honor agreements. Reliability means having an aura of authenticity, which has much to do with toughness of manner. Shamir and Rabin are perceived as authentic, while Peres is perceived as slick.

Moshe Dayan, one of the negotiators of the peace treaty with Egypt, resigned as foreign minister in the Begin government when he realized that Begin in fact regretted having signed the treaty and was trying to avoid keeping his commitments to the Palestinians. Begin did not offer the post to Shamir, but offered it instead to two ministers of another party, both of whom refused. For six months Begin took over the portfolio himself, and only then, partly owing to internal pressure from his own party, did Begin appoint Shamir foreign minister. In that capacity Shamir was one of the first people to receive reports about the massacre taking place in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. Morally insensitive as usual, he did nothing. The commission of inquiry set up following the massacre clearly blamed Shamir. But the one who paid with his job, and was later dropped from the Likud Party list by the party convention, was the minister who told Shamir by telephone about the massacre going on in the refugee camps.

Begin resigned from office in September 1983. Shamir ran for prime minister in the Likud central committee and obtained a 60 percent majority. He set up a new government, keeping the portfolio of the foreign ministry for himself. The government lasted less than a year, and early elections were held in a situation of economic catastrophe, with the army stuck in Lebanon and soldiers being killed each day. Moreover, the uncharismatic Shamir had to run in the shadow of Begin, who was worshiped by his party and its supporters. Yet he didn’t lose. The Likud had established itself as a major party, and people voted for it regardless of its leader. For Likud voters, especially those of Oriental origin, the Likud is not a party, it is a second home. (Its status as a home is now seriously eroded by the internal power struggle between Shamir and David Levy, the Sephardic foreign minister. Levy accuses Shamir and the Likud leadership of treating the Sephardic community with contempt.)

Two major blocs emerged, Likud and Labor, neither of which was able to form a government on its own. Instead, a national unity government was formed in 1984 with the position of prime minister in rotation: first Peres, then Shamir. What happened then might recur in this year’s elections, in which Shamir is now running against Yitzhak Rabin. Although it seems possible, as I write in the early spring, that Rabin could defeat Shamir, the popularity of the Labor Party usually peaks too early. The elections are in June, and Shamir, who has held the office of prime minister longer than anyone else in Israel since Ben Gurion, may still recover unless the economic situation worsens before the elections.

This may happen if the United States government continues its policy of witholding loan guarantees, for without the guarantees Shamir will find it more difficult to manipulate the economy to the Likud’s advantage during the election campaign. Thus his position is not an easy one. The Israeli stock exchange fell sharply when the news arrived that the guarantees would not be forthcoming. Many people who have money invested in stocks are middle-class Likud supporters who understand the gravity of the economic situation. Some of them may prefer to vote for Rabin as a prime minister who would freeze the settlements and “bring peace,” at least with the United States. If Shamir loses the election and is forced into the opposition, he will probably retire. Aside from the fact that he is seventy-seven years old, parliament is not for him.

In 1988, following the Knesset elections, another national unity government of Likud and Labor was formed, this time without rotation. Shamir was the sole prime minister, and in May 1989 his government authorized an Israeli peace initiative. This was called “the Shamir initiative,” a contradiction in terms since Shamir does not initiate anything, certainly not peace. The American pressure on him to do something forced him to accept, as a temporary stalling tactic, what was actually Rabin’s initiative in the hope that the Arabs would continue their usual practice of rejecting any Israeli initiative. This did not happen, and to Shamir’s great misfortune, Baker and Bush acted as though they were taking him seriously. Thus Shamir finds himself conducting discussions with the Arab states and the Palestinians. Until now he has been successful in making sure that the only thing that happens at the discussions is what Rabin rightly calls “grinding water.”

Menachem Begin died in March, and since then Israelis have been asking two questions about him: Why did he retire in 1983? And why did he then become a recluse? One of the answers offered for both questions is that he regretted the Lebanon war and felt guilty about its victims, but this seems to me doubtful. After Begin’s resignation there was a hunger strike of Israeli doctors, and Begin met with a group of them which included Jabotinsky’s granddaughter. She later said to some of her friends, “I know the signs of clinical depression from my work, and Begin is a textbook case.” Begin had previously had severe attacks of depression; and the most convincing explanation for his resignation is that he was suffering from a clinical form of depression. But the true enigma, in my view, is not why he resigned but why he closed himself off from the world for nine years. That he was in a state of depression for all those years does not appear to be a likely explanation. The answer, in my opinion, is pride. Israel is too small to provide any place to retire to—it has no country houses, no Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Like God, Begin was forced to preserve his honor by hiding from his believers.

A few days after Begin’s resignation, a Knesset member from Shamir’s party entered the office of the new prime minister. “How good it is to come into the office and not feel that you’re in the presence of God,” he said. Shamir blew up at the astounded Knesset member: “I’m like Begin, I’m like Begin!” he shouted. This should not be interpreted as an outburst of megalomania, but as an attempt to say in effect: “I intend to assert my authority just as Begin did, and you’d better not feel at ease in my office.” But the enigma of Begin seems a simple one compared to the enigma of Shamir. Two sorts of accounts can be given of Shamir, and it’s hard for Shamirologists to decide between them.

Thesis: There is no such man. Shamir is nothing but an incarnation of the status quo. He doesn’t take any initiatives. He has no analytical understanding of Israel’s situation. He lacks imagination and the capacity to lead. He represents the members of a powerful bureaucracy who preserve their authority by making use of a man as gray as a foggy day, just as the apparatchiks ruled the Soviet Union in the name of Chernenko. He has no distinctive abilities or even an ego that drives him forward; a group of his close associates is effectively running things. It’s a waste of time to discuss Shamir and his past because he is a deeply boring man who has never said anything interesting in his life; he is not, in any case, the one who decides things.

Antithesis: Shamir is a cold-blooded man of iron will who cares about one thing only—the Greater Land of Israel. He’s not particularly intelligent but he’s clever and sly. He feels no need to impress people but he is acutely aware of what is happening around him. He doesn’t have his head in the clouds as Begin did. He constantly reads intelligence reports and masters their details. He fudges decisions in matters that seem unimportant. But the so-called status quo has been carefully created by Shamir, and not by an invisible apparat. He is not just passive, he’s hyper-passive. He devotes enormous effort to ensuring that nothing will happen, and that Israel will keep the territories.

Synthesis: Shamir is exactly what the thesis claims in all matters he considers of secondary importance, which is almost everything. But he is exactly what the antithesis claims on issues of primary importance to him; and what is most important to him is the power to leave to the next generation the decision to extend Israeli sovereignty to the occupied territories, which are part of the historic Land of Israel. Shamir’s success with many American Jews seems based on their confidence that he is essentially a tough bargainer—a Jewish Assad. But Shamir is not a bargainer. Shamir is a two-dimensional man. One dimension is the length of the Land of Israel, the second, its width. Since Shamir’s historical vision is measured in inches, he won’t give an inch. He will not bargain about the Land of Israel or about any interim agreement that would involve the least risk of losing control over the occupied territories.

How can one tell a hard bargainer from someone who, in the end, won’t bargain at all? Looking at Shamir’s past record is not always useful. After all, the most important peace agreements in recent world history were achieved by people of integrity who reversed their previous commitments: De Gaulle’s agreement on Algeria, Begin’s on the Sinai, de Klerk’s on apartheid and white control. Why should Shamir be different? Because Shamir, unlike the other people I have mentioned, isn’t interested in being “written down in history,” as he puts it. De Gaulle, Begin, de Klerk all seemed highly conscious of their place in history. Shamir, from all the evidence we have, does not have any comparable consciousness. His past record, together with the fact that he doesn’t care what people think, provides good reason to believe that he is not a bargainer at all—in other words, that he is not open to any sort of compromise.

An ancient Jewish legend tells of a small worm that was used by King Solomon to break up large rocks for the construction of the Temple. Shamir doesn’t want to be considered a bulldozer, like Sharon. His ambition is to be the worm that breaks up the rocks for the Temple; it’s enough for him to be a tiny, practically invisible, but inexorable force. Indeed, the Hebrew name for King Solomon’s worm is Shamir.

This Issue

May 14, 1992