Shamir in His Labyrinth

Gershom Gorenberg

My take on Yitzhak Shamir is up at The Daily Beast:

In mid-October 1986, Yitzhak Shamir was about to begin his second term as Israel’s prime minister. In anticipation, a top settlement planner from his Herut party prepared a map hand-marked with sites for new settlements in the West Bank. I’d seen the map, because the planner accidently handed it to me during an interview, then had an aide call me to ask desperately for it. His boss needed it for a meeting with Shamir.

Shamir was returning to the premiership under a power-sharing agreement with Shimon Peres’s Labor Party. Shamir didn’t adopt the settlement proposal, which would have required a loud fight with Labor. He didn’t need to, because Labor acquiesced as a government-financed housing boom continued in existing settlements. From 1983, when Shamir succeeded Menachem Begin and began his first stint as premier, until 1992, when he lost to Yitzhak Rabin, the number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza quadrupled. (That’s based on government figures, which don’t include East Jerusalem.) During the 1992 campaign—despite U.S. pressure to stop building—his government launched bus tours to suburban settlements where homes were on sale for a bit more than nothing.

Shamir, who died Saturday at 96, was a very quiet, utterly relentless man, devious but incorruptible, rigid as rock. Since the custom is to praise the dead, critics and adversaries have looked back wistfully at his lack of ego. His successors have made him look better. He would not have smoked Ehud Olmert or Benjamin Netanyahu’s overpriced cigars, or lived in Olmert or Ehud Barak’s ostentatious homes. If he was capable of Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon’s bombast, he hid the ability with many other secrets. Then again, he could never have reinvented himself as Olmert, Peres and Yitzhak Rabin did, embracing new ideas about peace. Despite his modesty, let us not be nostalgic for Shamir: He began and ended his career as an extremist who damaged the cause of Jewish independence to which he was dedicated.

As a young man in pre-state Palestine, Shamir moved from the rightwing Irgun underground to the breakaway Lehi, the faction so single-minded about driving the British from Palestine that it would not suspend its violence while Britain fought the Nazis. Lehi promoted grandiose fantasies of a “third kingdom” of Israel and—according to scholar David Rapoport—was the last twentieth-century organization to identify proudly as a terror group. After founder Avraham Stern was killed, Shamir became part of Lehi’s ruling triumvirate. In that role he authorized the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in Egypt, and the  assassination of Count Bernadotte, the U.N. negotiator who sought to end the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. “Haunted by conspiracy theories,” as another scholar wrote, Lehi was sure that Bernodotte was plotting to bring back the British. …

Read the rest here.