The Shortest Giant: The Legacy of Yitzhak Shamir (1915-2012)

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J.Scott Applewhite / AP

Israel‘s giants keep falling.  With the death of Yitzhak Shamir, at age 96, in the nursing home where he was treated for Alzheimer’s Disease, the scale of the public lives that long drove Israel’s politics becomes, at least for the time it takes to read an obituary, alive again in an imagination not much fired any more by the biographies of public servants.  But Shamir’s was an epic story and it is impossible to trim his life to a sentence, leaving out the prison breaks, assassinations and Holocaust. He went from robbing banks to support a terrorist organization committed to establishing a Jewish state, to serving longer as its prime minister than all but one other person.

The record-holder remains David Ben-Gurion, the erudite, socialist, and atheist founding father of Israel, who regarded Shamir as a criminal and a thug.  Ben-Gurion’s longtime aide, Shimon Peres, who now stands as the last of Israel’s founding generation, would in due course share the prime ministry with the one-time outcast.  At 89 Peres himself is finally immensely popular in Israel, the largely ceremonial office of the presidency fitting him like a fine suit.  In person only his hands look old, an almost eerie youthfulness on display with Peres’ prodigious, elastic intellect.  Each year he hosts an international conference, which always seems to include several panels on brain studies, not by coincidence his pet subject.

Who else fires the imagination? Ariel Sharon remains in his coma, kept alive by feeding tubes the six years since suffering a series of strokes while in office.  A junior officer when the giants bestrode the young state, Sharon straddles the founders’ generation much as he does the line between life and death, but is crowded into their vicinity by sheer force of reputation.  His great girth seemed of a piece with his rapaciousness as a warrior.  Field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi,  when he was still jjust Egypt’s defense minister, once asked one of Sharon’s aides if it was true that the great man ate an entire lamb for breakfast every morning.  Told the story was apocryphal, Tantawi appeared to regard the denial as dissembling and preferred to go on believing the myth.

Shamir inspired no such legends. “They will not write or say in the eulogies of Yitzhak Shamir that he was a fierce, charismatic leader who knew how to inspire his people,” one of his successors and protégés, Ehud Olmert, wrote in Yedioth Ahronot on Sunday. The headline in Haaretz: “A modest man, an uninspiring leader – and a genuine zealot.”    Yet the sweep of his life describes the arc of modern Israel — from its birth in the ashes of the Holocaust, which claimed every member of the family Shamir left in Poland when he emigrated to what was then Palestine – to the new mainstream he thrived amid as inheritor of the Likud, the party that evolved from another Jewish militia regarded as outlaws by the Labor Party mainstream Ben-Gurion led.

Shamir believed in a physically expansive Israel, one that must include the West Bank and Gaza, at the minimum.  He encouraged the settlements (as did Perez) and disdained talk of a exchanging land for peace with Arabs who also claimed the territory.   “There is the sense that no one had the impact that he had,” the philosopher and journalist Avishai Margalit told the Washington Post. “He was the ultimate true believer in the idea of Greater Israel.” (From TIME’s archives: an interview with Yitzhak Shamir)

Before becoming a statesman, however, Shamir spent time living alone in orange groves, and moving stealthily through Jerusalem crowds dressed as a Hasidic rabbi.  He was on the run from British troops who controlled present-day Israel in the years between World War I and 1948.  As a leader of the Lehi militia, also known as the Stern Gang, Shamir plotted assassinations, including the Cairo shooting of Lord Moyne, the top British official in the Middle East.  Born Icchak Jazernicki, he took the Hebrew name “Shamir” after emigrating. It translates as “thorn.”

“A man who goes forth to take the life of another whom he does not know must believe one thing only — that by his act he will change the course of history,” Shamir once said.  Captured twice, he also escaped twice, the second time from a prison in Eritrea in 1948.  The government of the new state he found on his return had no place for him, at least at first.  But he got work by 1955 in Mossad, the Israeli state clandestine service that operates overseas, sometimes ruthlessly.  When Shamir shifted to politics, it was in the party run by Menachem Begin, whose own pre-independence militia, the Irgun, also operated on the rightward fringe ( though not at the extremes of Lehi).

Shamir succeeded Begin as premier in 1983, at age 68, and brought a spymaster’s habits to the job.  “He often met separately with each aide,” the Post’s Glenn Frankel noted, “compartmentalizing tasks and duties. There were huge gaps in his official diary, when aides said Mr. Shamir spent his time alone poring over diplomatic cables and intelligence reports. He preferred raw data from field agents.”

Stolid and diminutive at barely five feet tall, Shamir nonetheless loomed so large — and served so long — that the official announcement of his death could not avoid the question of stature: Shamir “belonged to the generation of giants who founded the State of Israel,” said the statement issued by the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who, in elections expected next year, is positioned to surpass Shamir’s tenure in office. He might not have enjoyed living to see it, according to Chemi Shalev, who covered Shamir for Haaretz.  Shamir “disliked ‘professional politicians’ and was no great fan of Shimon Peres… nor… Netanyahu, the Likud superstar who would eventually take Shamir’s place after his 1992 electoral loss to Yitzhak Rabin,” Shalev wrote. “Netanyahu’s slick, American-style politicking was alien to Shamir, and his willingness to grudgingly adopt the Oslo Accords in order to win over centrist voters in the 1996 elections was viewed by Shamir both as betrayal and as a vindication of his earlier mistrust.”

But it’s also possible he would not have minded. The single-mindedness that drove him as a young man remained with Shamir into his late 80s, according to Olmert, who recounted a Saturday night phone call from his old mentor in November 2003.

“Did you see the news?” Shamir asked,  “agitated and excited” watching coverage of car bomb attacks on Istanbul synagogues. There was still blood on the streets. “The reporter asked a Jew, wrapped in a prayer shawl, if he was afraid,” Olmert wrote. “ The Jew replied: “No, I am not scared.” The reporter asked him “How are you not afraid?” and he replied “Because the State of Israel exists.”