Prime Minister of Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War
"The populace will come to understand ... that everything the PLO stands for will produce only disasters."
Yitzhak Shamir quoted in the New York Times.
As the prime minister of Israel during the Persian Gulf War, Yitzhak Shamir faced a difficult decision about whether or not to enter the war. Shortly after the fighting started, Iraq began firing Scud missiles at Israeli cities. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry) apparently wanted to draw Israel into the war in hopes of breaking up the U.S.-led coalition. Hussein believed that the Arab members of the coalition would leave it, and perhaps even switch sides and support Iraq, rather than fight alongside Israel, their longtime enemy. But Shamir responded to U.S. pressure and followed a policy of restraint in the face of the Iraqi attacks. Israel stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, while the coalition remained intact and defeated Iraq.
Fights for a Jewish homeland
Yitzhak Shamir was born Yitzhak Yizernitzky in 1915 in the village of Ruzinoy in eastern Poland. He changed his last name to Shamir, which means "hard substance" or "sharp thorn" in Hebrew, around 1940. Shamir was the son of prosperous Jewish parents, Shlomo and Penina Yizernitzky, and he enjoyed a happy childhood. He graduated from the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok, Poland, and attended Warsaw University Law School. During his student years, Shamir became a strong supporter of the idea of forming a permanent homeland for the world's Jews in the ancient region of Palestine in the Middle East.
After the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933, anti-Semitism (discrimination and hostility toward Jews) began to spread across Eastern Europe. The changing political climate convinced Shamir to immigrate to Palestine in 1935. At this time, Palestine was controlled by British authorities. The British were supposed to supervise the formation of a Jewish state in the region, but they moved slowly because of opposition to the plan from surrounding Arab nations. In 1939, when European Jews were trying to escape the Holocaust (the systematic extermination of six million European Jews by Germany during World War II), the British government restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Shamir's parents remained in Poland after he left, and they were eventually killed in the Holocaust.
Once he arrived in Palestine, Shamir attended Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He married Shulamith Levy and the couple had a son, Yair, and a daughter, Gil'ada. Shamir also joined a Jewish underground military organization called Irgun Zvai Leumi. This group opposed British rule in Palestine and sponsored violent attacks aimed at forcing the British to form a Jewish state. In 1940 Shamir helped create another underground military group called Lehi (Lohamei Eretz Yisrael, or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). He was involved in a number of Lehi attacks against the British government and in retaliation for Arab violence toward Jews. In his autobiography, Summing Up, Shamir admitted that he gave orders resulting in at least five deaths. He justified his actions as a necessary part of the fight for a Jewish homeland, and said that he recalled them "without apology or regret."
The creation of Israel
In 1946 Shamir was captured by the British and sent to a prison camp in Eritrea. He escaped to France the following year. Shamir returned to the Middle East in 1948, when the United Nations created the nation of Israel as a homeland for all Jewish people. The newly created state covered most of the region of Palestine, which Jews regarded as their historic holy land. But Palestine was also home to an Arab people known as the Palestinians, whose ancestors had lived in the region since ancient times. When Israel took over this territory, about five hundred thousand Palestinians fled and became refugees in neighboring countries.
Some of the displaced Palestinians formed a group called the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The purpose of the PLO was to fight to reclaim lost territory and establish an independent Palestinian state. The PLO often resorted to acts of violence and terrorism in its dispute with Israel. It gained the support of many Arab nations, however, and it was eventually recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Palestine.
The creation of Israel and displacement of the Palestinians angered many Arabs. In fact, five Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq—went to war against Israel shortly after it was formed. The Arab-Israeli War lasted for nine months before Israel defeated the Arab armies in early 1949. Over the next few years Shamir worked in the construction business, though he maintained a strong interest in politics. In 1955 he took a job as a secret security officer for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.
In 1967 the tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors once again erupted into war. Israel quickly prevailed in this conflict, which became known as the Six-Day War. Israeli forces crushed the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and took control over large areas of enemy territory. They captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the strategic Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank of the Jordan River from Jordan. Israel's military occupation of these Arab territories became another area of dispute between the Jewish state and its neighbors.
Becomes prime minister of Israel
In 1973 Shamir was elected to the Knesset (the 120-member Israeli parliament). He was elected speaker of the Knesset four years later. In 1980 Shamir served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In this position he helped improve relations between Israel and the Soviet Union, France, and several Latin American and African countries. When Begin resigned from office in 1983, Shamir took over and served one year as the temporary prime minister.
The results of the 1984 elections failed to give any political party a majority in the Israeli government. Shamir and his Likud party negotiated with the Labor party to form a coalition government. Under this arrangement, the two parties divided the prime minister's term between their two candidates. Shimon Peres served as prime minister for two years, while Shamir served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In 1986 the two men switched positions and Shamir became prime minister.
In 1987 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza launched a series of uprisings against Israeli occupation of these lands. The uprisings, which often included violence against Israeli troops and civilians, became known as the Intifada, which means "throwing off" in Arabic. As prime minister, Shamir took a hard line against the Intifada. He argued that the Palestinians were determined to destroy Israel and that he had a responsibility to defend it. He sent Israeli troops into the occupied territories and authorized them to use force to put down the rebellions. Some Israelis wanted to negotiate a political settlement, but Shamir rejected this idea. "The populace will come to understand from the bitter experience of the Intifada violence that this struggle will lead nowhere and that everything the PLO stands for will produce only disasters," he was quoted as saying in an October 1989 New York Times article.
Shamir won a full four-year term as prime minister in the 1988 elections. One of the biggest challenges of this term involved finding a way for Israel to absorb hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. Helping the Soviet Jews to find homes and jobs placed a great deal of stress on Israel's economy. In fact, Israel depended on billions of dollars in aid from the United States to help it deal with the situation.
Shows restraint during the Persian Gulf War
In August 1990 the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor, Kuwait. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ordered his military forces to invade the neighboring country because he argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. Hussein also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. As the military buildup continued, a number of world leaders tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. During these negotiations, Hussein repeatedly tried to link Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait with Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories. But Shamir insisted that the two issues were not related and refused to consider giving up any land.
In November 1990 the United Nations (UN) Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war. When Hussein failed to meet the deadline, the U.S.-led coalition launched a series of air strikes against military targets in Iraq. A few days after the war began, Hussein ordered his forces to fire Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hussein chose to attack Israel, even though Israel was not involved in the war, because he wanted to provoke Israel into retaliating. He believed that the Arab countries would break up the U.S.-led coalition rather than fight alongside their bitter enemy.
Deciding whether or not to strike back against Iraq's attacks was very difficult for Shamir. He ultimately gave in to strong pressure from the United States and agreed not to retaliate unless Iraq used chemical weapons. Still, he admitted in his autobiography, Summing Up: An Autobiography, that the decision went against his personal feelings. "I can think of nothing that went more against my grain," he stated. Shamir earned international praise for his restraint and calm leadership in the face of forty Scud missile attacks against the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Many of the Scuds were intercepted and destroyed by American Patriot missiles before they reached their targets. The Scuds that did land in Israel destroyed thousands of homes and apartments but caused only one death.
The coalition air strikes went on for nearly six weeks and caused major damage to Iraq's military capability. On February 24 the coalition launched a dramatic ground assault to force the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. It met with little resistance from Hussein's army, which had been devastated by the air strikes. The Persian Gulf War ended on February 27, when coalition forces succeeded in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
Takes a hard line in peace talks
Once the Persian Gulf War ended, the U.S. government turned its attention to establishing lasting peace in the Middle East. Knowing that Israel needed their financial help, American leaders placed a great deal of pressure on Shamir to grant self-rule to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Shamir participated in the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid, Spain, in October 1991. This conference marked the first direct negotiations between Israel and neighboring Arab states.
The peace talks failed to produce an agreement, however. Shamir believed in permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories and was reluctant to exchange land for peaceful relations with the Arab countries. In fact, he encouraged Jewish immigrants to build settlements in the occupied territories in order to strengthen Israel's hold on them. But this policy displaced Arab residents and triggered more violence from angry Palestinians.
Shamir's policies strained relations with the United States and drew criticism from many people in Israel. In Summing Up: An Autobiography, Shamir characterized his constant struggle with his political opponents as a "dispute between those who believed in immediate gain and were ... willing to settle for the least and those who believed that they were responsible for future generations and bound ... to hold out for the most."
Shamir was defeated in the 1992 elections by Yitzhak Rabin, who spent a great deal of time and energy seeking a peace agreement with the PLO. Although he was no longer prime minister, Shamir continued to influence Israel's government by holding a seat in the Knesset. Shamir criticized Rabin's efforts to make peace with the Palestinians in Summing Up: An Autobiography. He claimed that Israel became "a nation led by men who made peace paramount, like a golden calf, to be worshiped at the expense of the values and aspirations that made Israel unique." In 1996 Shamir retired from the Knesset and left public life.
Where to Learn More
Diehl, Jackson. "Israel's Moment of Truth: Restraint or Retaliation? As Scuds Fell, Shamir Faced Tough Choices." Washington Post, March 19, 1991.
Hull, Jon D. "Angling for the Postwar Edge: Fearing Pressure to Compromise with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Shamir Carefully Plots His Strategy." Time, February 18, 1991.
Shamir, Yitzhak. Summing Up: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.
"Yitzhak Shamir." Current Leaders of Nations, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
"Yitzhak Shamir." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
"Yitzhak Shamir." Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Available online at http://www.israel-mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00gb0 (accessed on March 27, 2004).
Yitzak Shamir (born 1914) was prime minister of Israel (1983-84, 1987-88), leader of the Likud Party and vice premier and minister of foreign affairs in the National Unity government (1984-86).
Yitzak Shamir (Yizernitsky) was born in 1914 in eastern Poland. While a student at the Hebrew "gymnasium" in Bialystok he was also involved with the Revisionist Zionist movement known as Brit Trumpeldor, or Betar. In 1935 instead of pursuing law studies in Warsaw he immigrated to Palestine, where he worked as a construction worker and accountant in addition to studying at the Hebrew University. During the next decade Shamir was involved with the Jewish underground movement as a member of the more militant and nationalist groups pledged to resisting the British mandate authorities as well as retaliating against acts of Arab violence directed at the Jewish community.
Unlike most of the Jewish underground, which chose to fight alongside of the British during World War II, Shamir remained firmly opposed to Britain's presence in Palestine. In 1940 he left the Irgun organization and helped to form the Lehi (Lohamei Eretz Yisrael), or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, also known as the "Stern Gang" because of its commander, Avraham Stern. When Stern was captured and killed by the British, Shamir was a member of the triumvirate which took charge of Lehi in 1942, until Menachem Begin assumed command in 1943.
As Lehi chief of operations, Shamir was involved in a number of underground attacks and daring exploits. After the famous bombing incident at the King David Hotel, the British command center in Jerusalem, he was captured and deported to a prison camp in Eritrea in 1946, but escaped in 1947 to Djibouti, where he was detained by the French authorities. Only at the end of May 1948 was Shamir able to make his way back to what by then had become the independent state of Israel.
The next 20 years are almost a blank in the biography of Yitzak Shamir. The record suggests that for much of the period he operated inconspicuously deep within the structure of the Israeli secret intelligence service, the Mossad. Toward the end of the 1960s he left this service to manage several businesses in the private sector and to campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Shamir's career entered a new, more public phase in 1970, when he joined the opposition Herut Party headed by his former commander, Begin. In the 1973 elections he became a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Then, following the Herut-led Likud bloc's dramatic 1977 electoral victory, Shamir was elected speaker of the Knesset. In this position he chaired the historic session on November 20, 1977, when Egypt's president launched his peace initiative by coming to address the Knesset. However, at a crucial moment in the peace process Shamir chose to abstain on the key vote which endorsed the 1978 Camp David accords. Feeling that Prime Minister Begin had made excessive concessions to Egypt by returning all of the Sinai Peninsula, Shamir showed consistency when he also abstained from approving the final Israel-Egypt Treaty in March 1979. Still, in later years he pledged to uphold the agreement, while giving it a hard-line interpretation.
In October 1979, following the resignation of Moshe Dayan as minister of foreign affairs, Begin turned to Shamir in seeking a successor. Despite his lack of experience in international diplomacy, Shamir applied himself to the post and with time impressed outside observers and foreign statesmen as hard-working, receptive, and devoted. In the early 1980s he was active in pursuing closer ties with France, in exploring a dialogue with the Soviets and their Eastern European allies, in renewing relations with African states, and in developing economic trade in Latin America. However, whether due to his loyalty to Begin or to other reasons, Shamir came in for indirect criticism by the Kahan Commission set up to inquire into aspects of the 1982 Lebanese intervention; while cleared of complicity in the specific Sabra and Shatilla camp massacres, he was faulted in the final report with having ignored early rumors.
On August 28, 1983, Premier Begin made a surprise announcement that, due to personal reasons, he was resigning, having led the Herut in opposition and in power for over 35 years. In an effort at filling this void, a hastily-convened Herut Party on September 2 selected Shamir as its leader. In the coming five weeks of arduous inter-party negotiations Shamir finally succeeded in putting together a viable coalition with 64 Knesset votes, giving it a four vote majority. The coalition, however, lasted less than a year. In the 1984 national elections Shamir headed the Likud campaign. When the results were tabulated, Likud gained 41 Knesset seats as against 44 for the Labour/Alignment, giving neither of the two main parties a clear majority. The political stalemate was resolved only through a unique arrangement based on the principle of rotation. By the terms of the agreement, Labour's head, Shimon Peres, served as prime minister for the initial two years, with Shamir as vice premier and minister of foreign affairs, after which the two men switched positions.
Despite skepticism on the part of the experts, this arrangement held together; while not exactly a cordial relationship, Peres and Shamir were sufficiently motivated by a sense of national responsibility to preserve good working relations. Under the National Unity government, and while waiting for the rotation to take place, Yitzak Shamir in the years 1984-86 was fully preoccupied with two principal tasks: maintaining leadership of his fractious Herut-Likud political movement in the post-Begin era, and improving Israel's international diplomatic position in the post-Lebanon period.
Shamir took a hard line against the Palestinian uprisings that began on the West Bank and in Gaza in late 1987. He remained prime minister, as head of a Likud-Labor coalition, following the elections of November 1988.
After the government lost a vote of confidence in March 1990, Shamir put together a coalition of Likud and several right-wing and religious parties. He agreed to participate in the comprehensive Middle East peace talks that began in 1991, but his ardent support for new Jewish settlements on the West Bank hampered negotiations with the Palestinians and strained relations with the United States. When Likud lost the parliamentary elections of June 1992, Yitzhak Rabin succeeded Shamir as prime minister. In March 1993 Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded him as head of Likud.
On July 12, 1992, Shamir bid farewell as Prime Minister. In a televised speech he gave to his Cabinet, he claimed advances in employment, in securing Israel against foreign attacks and in opening relations with a host of foreign countries during his last two years in power. Shamir concluded: "I seriously doubt if any past government in Israel has had such achievements."
The uncompromising comments from Shamir appeared to be aimed at easing the shock of the election defeat. Citizens reduced Likud's share of the vote to less than 30 percent. Voters apparently did not agree with Shamir that a government which had left the country in a recession, had been reluctant to offer a long-term solution to the Palestinian conflict, had quarreled with Washington, and had botched the chore of welcoming tens of thousands of Russian immigrants could be ranked among Israel's greatest.
There is no published biography of Shamir to date. Background information can be found in Robert Freedman, editor, Israel in the Begin Era (1982) and in Bernard Reich, Israel: Land of Tradition and Conflict (1985). Updated information gathered from the Los Angeles Times "Shamir Says Farewell," July 13, 1992; Britannica Online, The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia. □