I’m not sure which is sadder, the fact that Yitzchak Shamir has died or that people didn’t really know that he was still alive. For Shamir certainly was Israel’s least appreciated Prime Minister, despite presiding over some of the state’s greatest achievements.
And what was that principal achievement? He kept the people safe. Few died under his watch. He resisted international pressure for Israel to make concessions that would have led directly to buses blowing up.
As a Yeshiva student in Jerusalem for two years of Shamir’s premiership, I remember how safe the streets were. This was a time before security guards were posted at the door of most restaurants and department stores, which largely continues till today. Why? Because Shamir was adamant. He would make no territorial compromises that would endanger Israel’s security. He would sign no Oslo agreements where the Jewish state would agree to arm some of its most lethal enemies. He would not even speak to Yasser Arafat let along countenance bringing him back to the West Bank with a small army, disguised as a police force, to set up a terror regime with Israel’s assistance.
Shamir was not perfect. In particular, when it came to the economy he was weak. I remember the hyper-inflation in Jerusalem that saw nearly everyone trading American dollars on the black market (the official white market exchange rate paid pennies on the dollar) because of Israel’s falling currency. But economics was not his strong suit. Protecting Jewish life was.
I came to know Mr. Shamir quite well when I hosted him at the University of Oxford in the mid-90’s. He seemed all but forgotten even then and told me that his dramatic drop in popularity in Israel had been due to the euphoria over the premiership of Yitzchak Rabin and his dramatic overtures for peace. He told me this with a touch of resignation. It seemed he did feel underappreciated. More importantly, he seemed to divine the coming catastrophe. It would take the murder of some 1500 Israeli civilians (proportionally equivalent to about 70,000 Americans) and the rise of countless suicide bombings for the Israeli people to realize that Shamir’s ironclad commitment to hold on to vital security territories and not allow the PLO and Hamas to set up shop in Gaza and Ramallah was what kept terrorists out.
I spent about four days with Shamir, taking him – with a heavy police escort – to tourist destinations all around Oxfordshire. He wanted to stand at the grave of Winston Churchill and we travelled to Blenheim Palace in Woodstock nearby. Apparently, the great statesmen had tried to have Shamir arrested when he was head of Lehi. Now, Shamir, diminutive in appearance but a giant in stature, loomed over the great Prime Minister’s grave paying him homage and telling me that Churchill was an inspired man of rare greatness.
Shamir impressed all he met with his humility, warmth, and commitment to Judaism despite not being religious. I walked in on him and his wife as they were having lunch at the hotel where we put them up. Startled, he told me was embarrassed because the food was not kosher. I assured him I took no offense and was grateful for the many days he gave me and my students and the outstanding lecture he had given at the Oxford Union. Still, he said, he was raised to respect Rabbis and Judaism.
Many Arab students came to the large lecture he delivered and he responded respectfully to their questions. He said he had no animosity toward Arabs whatsoever and did not see them as Israel’s natural enemies. On the contrary, he felt that Israel’s success as a democracy gave hope to the Arab residents surrounding Israel that they too could one day live in free societies with real elections.
After our time together in Oxford I became a regular visitor to his office in Tel Aviv in Beit Amot Hamishpat, where the Israeli government provides offices for former premiers. Shamir’s office could not have been more sparse. I would walk in and by and large he would be listening to the radio. Remarkably, it was one of those rigged, junk contraptions with a hanger serving as antenna. He would always emerge from behind his desk, broad smile on his face, and greet me and my children warmly. We would spend about an hour together and he never once suggested that he did not have time to greet me or discuss whatever was on my mind.