Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, A Stalwart of Israeli Conservatism

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir died Saturday at the age of 96. In his seven years as prime minister between 1983 and 1984, and again between 1986 and 1992, Shamir came to symbolize hawkish Israeli conservatism. He was known for his toughness, his honesty, his unwavering refusal to compromise over territory and his steady, conservative stewardship of Israeli foreign affairs. He symbolized the skeptical and cautious approach to Israeli diplomacy, always preferring to calmly weather the storm and withstand international pressure over bold—and in his view reckless—attempts to shape the diplomatic sphere. His ironclad opposition to territorial compromise remains his hallmark policy, was summed in a simple phrase: “not an inch.”

Shamir–who came to British Palestine from eastern Europe at the age of 20–was a member and senior commander in the Lehi (“Stern Gang,”) the most extreme, and the smallest, of the Jewish undergrounds under British rule. In early years, he was regarded as a terrorist both by the British and by many in the mainstream Zionist movement. By the end of his term as prime minister, he was one of Israel’s longest serving leaders and headed the Israeli delegation to the Madrid peace conference in 1991.

Shamir was an unlikely prime minister. He ascended to the post in 1983, when Prime Minister Menahem Begin surprised the government and the nation and resigned from office. Shamir, then foreign minister, lacked an independent political base or notable charisma; he was not a member of Begin’s inner circle, which consisted primarily of veterans of Begin’s Etzel (“Irgun”) underground, from which Shamir had seceded along with Stern and his Lehi faction. To a large degree, Shamir’s selections both as foreign minister and prime minister were compromises aimed at avoiding internal confrontations in Begin’s Likud party. And yet, with his steady hand and conservative approach—the epitome of Israeli diplomatic inaction as a strategy—Shamir left a deep mark on contemporary Israel.

National Unity Government

Shamir’s first national elections as head of the Likud produced a stalemate and he found himself in a peculiar political arrangement, a national unity government of the two main political parties in which the prime ministerial post was alternated between Shimon Peres, leader of the Ma’arach (the Labor alliance) and Shamir. The unity government had remarkable success early in its tenure, under Peres, scaling down the Israeli military presence in Lebanon and, most notably, bringing the Israeli economy back from the brink and reigning in inflation that had reached an annual rate of 445% in 1984. But as Shamir returned to the post of prime minister in 1986, deep divisions emerged between him and Foreign Minister Peres. Shamir felt that Peres did not accept his secondary role after the “rotation” in the prime minister’s office, and worked to undermine and circumvent Shamir. This sentiment was shared by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, himself of Labor, following Rabin’s own tenure as prime minister in the late 1970s when, he felt, he was undermined by his defense minister – Peres. The awkward management of the national unity government featured the tense relationship between the three figures, often known as the “prime ministers’ club” (all three had previously served as prime ministers,) in which Shamir and Rabin, of two different parties, often allied against Peres.

The most consequential clash point between Shamir and Peres came in 1987. Without Shamir’s support, Foreign Minister Peres negotiated and signed a memorandum with King Hussein of Jordan that would have convened an international peace conference to launch negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza that would have, presumably, returned much of the territory to Jordanian control. Shamir’s rejection of the “London Agreement,” as it became known, effectively ended the “Jordanian option” for settling the status of the West Bank; in 1988, after the outbreak of the first Intifada, King Hussein officially severed legal ties between the Hashemite Kingdom and the West Bank, which Jordan had until then regarded as part of the Kingdom. To this day, many in Israel, including current President Shimon Peres, view Shamir’s rejection of the London Agreement as a historic mistake that squandered the best chance to resolve the status of the territories in conjunction with Jordan. Peres would later comment that those who refused to accept King Hussein would later have to accept Yasser Arafat.

The Gulf War and Madrid

In other instances, Shamir’s conservatism and caution earned him important diplomatic points. During the first Gulf War of 1991, he withstood political and public pressure inside Israel–including from his defense minister and political ally, Moshe Arens–and refrained from responding militarily to Iraqi missiles fired at Israeli cities. Preferring as always to take the long view, he opted to let coalition forces deal with the threat without the complication of Israeli involvement; in doing so he uncharacteristically assumed a dovish role (albeit for conservative reasons) and broke with a popular Israeli principle of self-reliance in matters of defense.

The aftermath of Cold War and the first Gulf War transformed Israel’s international environment, with the United States taking a leading role throughout most of the Middle East and aiming to capitalize on its new position to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shamir’s reluctance to attend an international peace conference—the objection to which was the Likud’s main political campaign message in 1988—and the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Shamir’s last government of 1990-1992, brought him into public confrontation with the U.S. administration and especially with Secretary of State James Baker. And yet, faced the economic and social challenge of absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and a U.S. administration ready to withhold loan guarantees that would aid Israel face this challenge—Shamir’s government reluctantly joined the Madrid conference.

Shamir’s speech at Madrid, like the speeches of his Arab counterparts, was true to form: tough, uncompromising and free of fanfare or diplomatic pleasantries. Shamir viewed the Madrid conference as yet another storm to weather; he had no trust in the intentions of the Arab parties nor willingness to contemplate territorial compromise. As someone who had abstained in the parliamentary vote on his own leader Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt (in which Israel returned all of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt,) he made clear his intention to avoid any further compromise in the negotiations started at Madrid. As he commented later, Israel could have dragged the negotiations on for a decade while continuing to build in the territories.

And yet, the Madrid conference also signaled Shamir’s downfall. Shamir’s right-wing coalition partners—miscalculating badly—withdrew their support over the talks that followed Madrid and Shamir went to—and lost–early elections against Labor’s old-new leader, Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, would follow the Madrid-Washington process with a secret negotiation in Oslo with representatives of Yasser Arafat’s PLO.

Interestingly, for the Madrid conference, where most delegations were lead by foreign ministers, Shamir opted to head the delegation himself, rather than send his foreign minister, and rival in the Likud, David Levy. In Levy’s stead, Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acted as the main spokesperson for the Israeli delegation. It was in Madrid that Netanyahu, a gifted public speaker, fluent in English and master of media appearances—the complete antithesis of Shamir—became a national figure, setting the stage for him to succeed Shamir as head of the Likud

Shamir’s view of Netanyahu was mixed. Netanyahu’s personal style and seeming willingness to engage in international diplomacy over territory—signing the Hebron and Wye River Memoranda during his first term as prime minister—earned Shamir’s scorn. When Netanyahu contemplated a return to politics, following his defeat in 1999, Shamir famously summed up his ever-skeptical approach to diplomacy and to his successor, saying: “The sea is the same sea, the Arab are the same Arabs, and Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu.”