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Former Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Shamir died yesterday after a a long battle with Alzheimer disease. If you watched the news reports Shamir was simply a hard-line Zionist who as speaker of the Knesset wouldn’t vote for the the peace with Egypt (he abstained) and as Prime Minster built many “settlements.” Both items are true, but is much more to the Shamir life story—he put his own country in danger to be a strong ally to the United States.


Shamir was the state’s seventh prime minister from 1983 to 1984 and
again from 1986 to 1992, the longest-serving premier after David
Ben-Gurion. He was known for resisting international pressure to make concessions, yet initiated a peace process in Madrid that led to many diplomatic overtures by his successors.

“The
truth is that, in the final analysis, the search for peace has always
been a matter of who would tire of the struggle first, and blink,” he
wrote in his autobiography.

While dealing with a most anti-Israel administration in history before the present one, (remember Secretary of State James “F*ck The Jews They Wont Vote For Us Anyway” Baker? ), Shamir overruled those in his government who wanted to strike Iraq after Israeli population centers were hit with Scud missiles. Shamir had promised the US he would not retaliate because it would hurt their alliance in the First Gulf War.

 In May 1991, as the Ethiopian government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was collapsing, Shamir ordered the airlifting of fourteen thousand Ethiopian Jews to Israel in an operation known as Operation Solomon.

My Friend Barry Rubin was part of the American delegation that met with Shamir just before the First Gulf War:

It was January 13, 1991. Everyone in the world knew that in 48 hours, a U.S.-led coalition was scheduled to attack Iraq in order to force Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Saddam had announced that if the coalition attacked he would strike at Israel with long-range missiles, possibly with biological or chemical warheads.

I was asked by a visiting American delegation to accompany it to a meeting with the prime minister. We arrived at the prime minister’s office and went to his quite modest meeting room. Along with Shamir was Elyakim Rubinstein, then the cabinet secretary but today a Supreme Court justice. I won’t tell you his name but the group’s leader, let’s call him Mr. Bird, later held high diplomatic positions in the U.S. government.

Shamir sought to break the ice with a friendly question. “So,” he said to the delegation’s leader, “how long are you planning to be here? A week?”

I don’t know if he was joking about the impending deadline but a look of pure fear and panic leaped onto Mr. Bird’s face. “Are you kidding!” His voice shook with dismay. “We’re getting out of here tomorrow!” (Those were his precise words.)

Almost immediately, however, he realized that he was making himself look like a fool. He tried to calm down and recover. So he added, albeit with equal ham-handedness, “But I guess you have to stay here.” (Honest, that’s what he said.)

Rubinstein answered with a big smile on his face: “Oh, no. We don’t have to stay here. We just happen to like it here.” I will never forget the even bigger smile on Shamir’s face. Mr. Bird and all the little birds who fancied themselves great statesmen and Middle East experts had no idea what had just happened.

The rest of the meeting was mere anti-climax. Shamir did what he had to do during the war that followed. More than three dozen missiles hit Israel but Shamir kept to his promise to the U.S. government, that Israel would remain passive and let the Americans go after the launchers in western Iraq. Some American anti-missile crews came to Israel. The defensive missiles didn’t do much good and the U.S. government didn’t keep its promise to reward Israel after the war, though U.S. aid for Israeli missile systems continues to this day.

Shamir was not a charismatic man. He didn’t appear enough during the war to reassure Israelis and to provide public leadership. Still, he did what he needed to do. Whatever my policy disagreements with him, Shamir, like Yitzhak Rabin, was an honest man of Spartan habits who genuinely sought to serve his people.

Compared to the arrogant foreign politicians who always thought they knew better what Israel should do and the know-it-alls who would have quickly run away if faced by similar problems, Shamir was modest, rock steady, and more concerned with doing what he thought to be right than what he expected to look good in the mass media.

He helped build a country that is—as any Israeli will tell you in the first sixty seconds—far from perfect but also one where people in the shadow of a threatened war of extinction could remain cool-headed, do what is necessary, and say, “We just happen to like it here.”

May his memory be blessed.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

 Yitzhak Shamir was a patriot, Zionist, a founder of the modern state of Israel, and despite what the newspaper reports may imply a very strong United States ally.

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