It is with great sadness that the Sun has received the news of the death of Israel’s seventh prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. He deserved a great deal more regard than he was accorded in the bien pensant precincts in America and Europe, where he was set down as an extremist and a stubborn … what? simpleton? Yet two decades after he left power it can be said that his policies, had they been pursued, would have put us in a better place than we are in today. His career, his character will repay careful study in a time when friends of both Israel and America are being serenaded by the sirens of appeasement.
Your editor first met Shamir in the early 1980s, when he was foreign minister of the Jewish state on a visit to New York. The minister received the young newspaperman and another editor of the Wall Street Journal for breakfast in his suite at the Hotel Regency. When he was asked about the issue of the day — external gas tanks for planes Saudia Arabia wanted — he replied with the word “oil.” All he said was: “Oiiiiiiil, Oiiiiiiiil.” Several years later, the young editor met with him again, this time in Brussels, when Shamir was on another mission as foreign minister, and asked him what he was doing in the capital of Europe. “Oranges,” he replied. “Orrrranges.”
Those exchanges are recounted in the Wall Street Journal in a review of Shamir’s memoir, “Summing Up.” They give a sense of one of his qualities, which is that he often seemed impatient or bored with the workaday details of modern diplomacy. This may have contributed to his perception as a simple man. Instead it no doubt reflected his higher priorities, based on a clear-eyed view of what mattered most in the long struggle of the redemption of the Jews in their own state in the land of Israel. What an extraordinary role he played in that struggle, from his days in the underground organization known as Lehi through the search for peace that brought him in 1991 to Madrid, which might be called the last realistic peace parley.
Shamir was in the leadership of Lehi when, in 1944, its agents assassinated Lord Moyne, the highest British official in the Middle East. Moyne had been responsible for, among other things, Britain’s default in the affair of the refugee vessel known as the Struma. The ship was sunk by the Russians after the Turks and British failed to find a way to get its 768 mostly Jewish passengers to Palestine. The assassination of Lord Moyne shocked the world, including one of Zionism’s greatest friends, Winston Churchill. “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of an assassin’s pistol, and the labors for its future produce a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany,” Churchill rumbled, “then many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.”
Yet Shamir never had any apologies for any aspect of his years in the underground. When, with the formation of the state in 1948, Lehi’s leaders were given amnesty, Shamir began a long and distinguished career above ground. He was the second longest-serving premier, after Ben Gurion. It was under his leadership that Israel attended the Madrid peace conference. The parley was established without crossing Shamir’s redlines; the Palestine Liberation Organization did not have a seat, nor did the Madrid talks include Arabs from Jerusalem. It was a more hard-headed, more principled process than the one for which it was abandoned, namely Oslo.
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One of our favorite facts is that history doesn’t disclose her alternatives. The world will never know what would have happened had America and the other parties been held to the standards Shamir insisted on at Madrid. No doubt there are many who will scorn the very thought. But here we are a generation after Oslo, and the Iranians are building an a-bomb, the Arafat who was embraced at Oslo is gone without achievement, the Eyptians have just elected a president who will make it a priority to seek the release of the sheik who masterminded the first bombing of the World Trade Center, the Syrians are engulfed in a civil war, the Lebanese are victims of Iranian-backed terror and tyranny, and the Europeans are more hostile to Israel than ever. So the world will miss this practical idealist who knew where he stood and wouldn’t budge.