When Yitzhak Shamir was Israel’s prime minister, he liked to point American visitors to a gift he received when he retired as director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.
It was a depiction of the famed three monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
“He didn’t say anything,” recalled Dov Zakheim, then a deputy undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration. “He just smiled broadly.”
Shamir, who died on June 30 at 96, had the reputation of a man who said the most when he said nothing at all, his American interlocutors recalled. He used that reticence to resist pressure from the George H.W. Bush administration to enter into talks with the Palestinians and other Arab nations.
“He was the most underrated politician of our time,” Zakheim said. “He sat on the fence on issues until the fence hurt.”
Shamir’s willfulness was born of the conviction that his Likud Party’s skepticism of a permanent peace with the Arabs represented the majority view in Israel, and that the world had to reconcile itself to this outlook, said Steve Rosen, who dealt with Shamir as the foreign policy chief for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
“He would argue that the world will never prefer us — the Likud — over Labor, but when the world sees that we are the Israeli majority, they will have to deal with us,” Rosen said. “We will not succeed in being more popular than the others, but we are right.”
There was inevitably a personal element to his clashes with the elder President George Bush, said Zakheim.
“He had his difficulties with the United States in part because he came from such a different place than George H.W. Bush,” he said. “One was a product of old-time Jewish Lithuania whose father was shot in the face by the neighbor when he was looking for protection from the Nazis; the other was an aristocrat. Since most relations at that level are personal, that always complicated matters.”
His detractors, while praising Shamir’s patriotism, also fretted that his steadfastness cost Israel during his terms as prime minister.
Douglas Bloomfield, in 1988 the director of AIPAC’s legislative arm, recalled in his weekly column how Shamir, then the prime minister, was blindsided by President Ronald Reagan’s decision in his administration’s closing days to recognize the reviled Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
“The premier’s chief of staff immediately phoned his contacts on Capitol Hill urging them to ‘start a firestorm of opposition’ to block the move,” Bloomfield wrote. “It was too late. Too many members of Congress shared the Reagan administration’s frustration with what they considered Shamir’s intransigence and did not seriously object when Reagan decided to recognize the PLO on his way out the door as a favor to his successor.”
During his tenure, Shamir clashed with much of American Jewry when he flirted with changing the Law of Return to define Jews according to strictly halachic terms to satisfy potential Orthodox coalition partners, and also because of his insistence on settlement expansion.
Shamir was a politician dedicated to advancing his principal goal, which was maintaining Israeli control of the lands won in the 1967 Six-Day War, recalled Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who at the time Shamir was prime minister headed ARZA, the Reform movement’s Zionist wing. When reaching out to the Orthodox advanced that goal, Shamir did so, and when backing away from changing the Law of Return made more sense in order to preserve the alliance with U.S. Jews, he did that, too.
“When he realized there would be this profound breach, he backed away,” Yoffie said. “When you’re a hardheaded realist and Greater Israel is your goal, you need allies.”
But the community rallied around Shamir in December 1991 when President George H.W. Bush sought to tie a $10 billion U.S. loan guarantee to help resettle Jews flooding into Israel from the former Soviet Union to money Israel spent on settlements. Bush cast himself as “one lonely guy” facing “some powerful political forces” — a framing many Jews saw as borderline anti-Semitic.
Shamir’s successful absorption of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the collapsing Soviet Union, and his surprise secret transport of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon, also restored respect and affection for him among American Jews.
Shamir’s most lasting legacy might be his scuttling in 1987 of the London agreement after he assumed the prime ministership from Shimon Peres in a power-sharing agreement following the deadlocked 1984 elections. The agreement, which Peres worked out — mostly in secret — with Jordan’s King Hussein would have restored a degree of Jordanian authority to the West Bank and might have spared Israel the First Intifada that broke out soon after. The intifada bore the failed Oslo peace process, which bore the much bloodier Second Intifada, culminating in today’s impasse.
“His shooting down of Shimon Peres’ ‘London Agreement’ with King Hussein of Jordan was arguably the most disastrous decision an Israeli leader ever took,” David Landau wrote in an appreciation in Haaretz on July 2.
Zakheim also recalled Shamir intervening when AIPAC tried to stop the sale of combat aircraft to Kuwait.
“He was extremely pragmatic and somebody who when the chips were down tended to make good decisions,” Zakheim said.