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Shamir, Yitzhak (1915–)

SHAMIR, YITZHAK (1915–)

Israeli political figure, born in Rozhno, Poland. In 1934 Yitzhak Shamir (born Yzernitsky) joined Betar, the youth wing of the militant right-wing Zionist revisionist movement headed by Vladimir Jabotinsky. The following year he emigrated to Palestine, which was under the British Mandate. He enlisted in Irgun Zvai Le'umi (IZL, or ETZEL) in Tel Aviv, participating in terrorist attacks against the Arab population and British interests. In 1940 he joined the radical Abraham ("Yaʿir") Stern splinter group known as IZL-Bet and became chief of military operations. In December 1943, with Nathan Yalin-Mor and Israel Eldad, he reconstituted the Stern Group, which had been dormant since the death of its leader, renaming it LEHI. In July 1946 he was arrested by British military police following an attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and was deported to Eritrea. He escaped a few months later, going to Djibouti.

In September 1948 a LEHI squad assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator in Palestine. Outlawed by Israeli authorities, LEHI was dissolved and succeeded by a political organization, the Fighters' List, with Shamir at its head. Between 1955 and 1968 he was in the Mossad, the Israeli special intelligence service. In 1969, having quit Mossad, he entered politics, joining the rightist Herut Party led by his friend Menachem Begin. In July 1973 three small dissident groups in Herut joined with the Liberal Party and Herut to constitute a new right-wing parliamentary bloc, Likud.


In October of the following year, as a Herut Knesset member, Shamir was critical of the policies of Yitzhak Rabin, who he argued was putting the existence of the Jewish state at risk through lax policies. In May 1977, ending thirty years of Labor hegemony, Likud came to power. The following month Begin became prime minister and Shamir was elected speaker of the Knesset.

In March 1980 he was named foreign minister in Begin's government. In the June 1981 Knesset elections, Likud won forty-eight seats and Labor won forty-seven. On the following 15 July, Begin, the head of Herut, became prime minister for the second time. In September 1983, weakened by his wife's recent death, his own illness, and criticism of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Begin resigned and Shamir replaced him as party leader and prime minister.

Within Likud, two currents surfaced, one led by David Levy and Ariel Sharon, the other by Shamir and Moshe Arens. In the Knesset elections of the following year, Likud won forty-one seats and the Labor Party won forty-four. The two parties constituted a National Unity government, agreeing that their leaders would alternate as prime minister. Shamir became deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the first cabinet headed by Shimon Peres. Two years later, in October 1986, he replaced Peres as prime minister. In the 1988 elections Likud won forty seats and the Labor Party thirty-nine. Another National Unity government was formed, headed by Shamir with Peres as finance minister.

On 13 March 1990 Shamir revoked the Labor ministers, breaking the agreement between the two parties. Two days later the Knesset censured the government by a vote of sixty to fifty-five, causing its dissolution. This was the first time an Israeli government was overthrown by a parliamentary majority. On 11 July, the Labor Party leader having failed to form a new government, Shamir formed one based on a union between Likud, the religious parties, and the extreme right. A few months later he was confronted by the Gulf War, during which the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories supported Baghdad. In response to Washington's demand, he agreed that Israel would not retaliate against a bombardment of Iraqi missiles. At the war's end, he agreed to participate in a peace conference on the Middle East, to take place in Madrid. In October 1991, he headed Israel's Madrid delegation, whose spokesperson was the rising star of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu. During the conference, Shamir would not yield to any of the significant Arab proposals. The extremist parties, however, opposing any negotiations with the Palestinians, withdrew their support from the Shamir government. On 23 June 1992, weakened by internal divisions, the right lost the elections and was replaced in power by the left, which won 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Shamir resigned from the government and backed Netanyahu as head of Likud. In December 1995, at the age of eighty, Shamir retired from Israeli politics.

SEE ALSO Arab-Israel War (1982); Begin, Menachem; Betar; Bernadotte, Folke; British Mandate; Eldad, Israel; Gulf War (1991); Herut Party; Irgun; Jabotinsky, Vladimir Ze'ev; Levy, David; Likud; Lohamei Herut Yisrael; Madrid Conference; Mossad; Netanyahu, Benjamin; Peres, Shimon; Rabin, Yitzhak; Sharon, Ariel; Stern, Abraham.

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