As Israel enters its fourth election cycle in little over a year, I felt it was important to go down memory lane to see how we got to where we are.
The switch by Yitzhak Shamir’s granddaughter, Michal Diamant, from the Likud to Gideon Sa’ar’s “New Hope” Party gave me pause and reason to look back at the Shamir years.
On February 2, 1994, Prime Minister Shamir personally gave me a copy of his autobiography, entitled, Summing Up. I will quote heavily below from his book.
The life of Yitzhak Shamir is the life of modern-day Israel.
Yitzhak Shamir was born in 1915 in Poland to parents who “were dedicated followers of the Zionist cause, believers in the right of the Jews to a national home in the Land of Israel and my father’s insistence on the cardinal importance of a Hebrew education for me.” “He was steeped in Jewishness, something best described in Yiddish as ‘Yiddishkeit.’ Religion for him – as it was perhaps inevitably to become for me – was primarily that complex code of thought and behavior that strengthens the bond between Jews and enriches their shared legacy.”
His parents and sisters were murdered by the Nazis and Nazi collaborators.
Yitzhak Shamir himself moved to Palestine in 1935 after he heard Josef Goebbels was planning a visit to Warsaw. “I asked myself then and there, what are you doing here? Poland is lost. There was no room for me there anymore.”
He was inspired by Ze’ev Jabotinsky about whom he says, “Without doubt, Jabotinsky was the most dynamic and controversial of the many gifted men who left their mark on the Zionist movement and subsequently on the State of Israel.” “Essentially, Jabotinsky’s vision of Zionism achieved can be compressed into one sentence: a Jewish majority in a Jewish State in the whole of the Biblical Land of Israel.”
Shamir, fed up by the “Havlagah” (policy of restraint) of the Haganah first joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi. Then, following a policy split, he joined the Stern Group (Lehi, an acronym in Hebrew for “fighters for freedom”) led by Abraham Stern.
After being arrested by the British and exiled to Eritrea in 1946, he returned to Israel in 1948 and served as a Mossad secret service operative in Europe until 1965.
He joined with Menachem Begin’s Herut Movement in 1970, which in 1973 joined with other small parties to form the Likud. He was first elected to the Knesset in 1973 and became Speaker of the Knesset after the Likud’s election victory in 1977. Begin appointed him Foreign Minister in March of 1980. In 1983 he was elected by the Likud Party to succeed the retiring Menachem Begin. He became Prime Minister of Israel as part of a “Unity” Government 1983-1984 and 1986-1990. He formed his own Coalition as Prime Minister, 1990-1992. He lost the election in 1992 to Yitzhak Rabin. He retired from the Knesset in 1997.
Shamir was a legendary figure in Israel. He had many outstanding achievements. He was known as a “rock.” He never wavered.
His statements on the Camp David Accords, which brought “peace“ between Egypt and Israel, are quite telling and bear repeating.
“I was not party to the Camp David deliberations nor kept privately au courant regarding the many various setbacks – and less frequent gains. In fact, I was abroad in Denmark (heading a Parliamentary delegation) and thunderstruck to learn that we had agreed, pending Knesset approval, to Israel’s total withdrawal from Sinai – including, naturally, from the northern Rafiah Salient with its flourishing young Israeli settlements and the model town of Yamit that the Israeli government had helped to build, had consistently backed, and that had literally flowered in the desert. It was difficult for me to imagine that Begin had accepted even the possibility of these Jewish settlements being uprooted, and, in great suspense, I waited for confirmation of a decision that I regarded (and never ceased to regard) not only as wrong in itself but also a disastrous precedent.”
In October 1991 (ten months after the United States entered into the first Gulf War) came the Madrid Conference. This is where the boom was lowered on Israel as payback to the Arab nations who helped the United States go to war against Iraq.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was a formidable presence and proved his mettle once again. His comments on the “Conference” are important:
“As soon as I arrived in Madrid, I met with President Bush and Secretary Baker. We had been misled about the much-haggled-over and publicized Jordanian-Palestinian delegation: It was only in Spain that we learned that each of the two components had been allotted equal time to address the Conference and that the Palestinians were being treated as an entity unto themselves.”
Shamir said, “We know our partners to the negotiations will make territorial demands on Israel. But as examination of the conflict’s long history makes clear, its nature is not territorial. It raged well before Israel acquired Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and Golan in a defensive war. There was no hint of recognition of Israel before that war in 1967, when the territories in question were not under Israeli control.”
Shamir presented Israel’s case well. I remember the Madrid Conference vividly. Little did I know that it would metamorphosize into the dreadful Oslo Accords of September 1993. Truth be told, even though Yitzhak Shamir was exemplary at the Conference, it was the single most important event that I believe brought his Coalition down. I was personally so upset by the Madrid Conference, I teamed up with my Zionist mentor and great activist Jack Friedler, of blessed memory, to host a press conference with Christian leaders, including the late Ed McAteer and political heavyweight Senator Orrin Hatch at the National Press Club in DC to oppose the pressure being applied on Israel by Secretary James Baker and the Conference participants. One of the main antagonists against Israel and who was part of the so called “Palestinian Delegation” was Saeb Erekat who just happened to have passed away in 2020. He attacked Shamir and Israel at every turn.
At the National Press Club, I compared the Madrid Conference to wolves circling Israel, the lamb – the wolves ready to pounce at any moment.
Shamir has his take on how his Coalition fell. “However, not only the Bush administration was out to unseat the Likud. The small parties to the right of Likud – Tehiya, Tsomet and Moledet – blinded by their extremism, though knowing that the Government was committed to uphold the right of Jews to settle everywhere in the Land of Israel – and that I myself was as fervent an advocate of this policy as any of their members – began to distrust and defy me. To this day, I cannot grasp why this should have been so.”
Now fast forward to the present. Likud’s Transportation Minister, Miri Regev, wrote a now famous letter to Michal Diamant, the granddaughter of Yitzhak Shamir. In it, she said, “Elements within the Likud attacked him (your grandfather) as an internal opposition, Yitzhak Modai resigned in favor of the New Liberal Party, together with other right-wing Parties that split the bloc, we know how it ended; Rabin came to power and brought the Oslo disaster upon us at a terrible, bloody price.”
I only wish Michal Diamant well. I hope she can live up to her grandfather’s incredible strength under fire and that the government to be formed this year will be stronger than ever. It is always important to revisit the past. There is so much more to say about one of the Jewish people’s giants, Yitzhak Shamir.
Joseph M. Frager is a physician and lifelong activist.