Shamir: a colourless tough guy

By Colin Shindler, July 5, 2012
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Yitzhak Shamir was the accidental prime minister. When Menachem Begin resigned in 1983, the mantle of responsibility fell on Shamir's shoulders. The colourless, uninspiring, 68-year-old was the stop-gap choice instead of the feared Ariel Sharon and the lightweight David Levy. Yet, including the two years when he almost shared power with Shimon Peres in the Labour-Likud rotational government, Shamir was at the helm for nine years - a period exceeded only by David Ben-Gurion.

Shamir was lucky in politics. He entered its arena late in 1970 and was elected for the Likud in 1973, becoming Knesset speaker in 1977. When Moshe Dayan resigned as foreign minister, Begin could not persuade other notables to take the post and wanted to stave off claims from the Liberals. Shamir was deemed a safe pair of hands and led his ministry for three undistinguished years before unexpectedly becoming prime minister.

The smooth path to power was also due to Shamir's stewardship of Lehi, pejoratively dubbed "the Stern Gang", in the struggle against the British authorities in the 1940s. The commander of the Irgun, Begin had therefore passed the baton of political power to the head of military operations of Lehi.

Yet Shamir was not an admirer of Begin. He found Begin's speeches "filled with pathos and overstatement" and complained of his need for popularity, his acceptance of "fawning and flattery". This rivalry was anchored in Avraham Stern's breakaway from the Irgun in 1940.

He studied Trotsky and especially IRA literature

The Irgun had decided to collaborate with the British military in the struggle against the Nazi enemy. In a period before the implementation of the Final Solution, the British, for Stern, remained the real enemy - he saw the Nazis as persecutors but not exterminators. On the basis of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", Stern approached the German Legation in Beirut - which dismissed his proposals out of hand. It was at this time that Shamir aligned himself with Stern.

Shamir had arrived in Palestine in 1935. His parents had been members of the Jewish socialist Bund, but Shamir had been captivated by the rhetoric of the Revisionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who had urged his followers "to learn to shoot". He had meant it in an educational sense, as a means of raising the self-esteem of downtrodden young Jews. Begin, Shamir and their generation took it at its face value - and pursued a far more radical approach than their mentor.

While Begin saw the Irgun as an underground army, Lehi indulged itself in political assassinations. Although Lehi was far smaller than either the Haganah or the Irgun, it carried out 71 per cent of all assassinations between 1940 and 1948. Nearly half were of Jews who worked for British intelligence. Ben-Gurion refused to allow Lehi veterans to enter the Mossad until the mid-1950s. Until that time, Shamir worked in a factory in Kfar Saba.

Shamir's expertise came from studying revolutionary tracts while in the Lehi underground. He studied Trotsky and in particular Irish Republican literature, detailing the struggle with the British. He appreciated the military campaigns of Mao Zedong in China and later the Viet Cong in driving first the French, then the Americans, from Vietnam. He owed more to the revolutionary tradition of the Russian populists than to Jabotinsky's teachings. In Lehi, he took the underground name of "Mikhail" after his hero, Michael Collins, the progenitor of the IRA. In 1944, he strongly opposed any merging with Begin's Irgun. Shamir was certainly not the conventional right-wing ideologue.

Shamir looked like a cuddly grandfather, but in reality he was tough and silent - someone who did not consider the possibility of compromise. A 1984 Likud election advertisement contained the line: "His pleasant smile hides an iron will". Friend and foe alike will recognise Shamir in that phrase.

Colin Shindler's latest book is 'Israel and the European Left' (Continuum)

Last updated: 12:27pm, July 5 2012