But the community rallied around Shamir in December 1991 when President George H.W. Bush sought to tie a $10 billion U.S. loan guarantee to help resettle Jews flooding into Israel from the former Soviet Union to money Israel spent on settlements. Bush cast himself as “one lonely guy” facing “some powerful political forces” – a framing many Jews saw as borderline anti-Semitic.
Shamir’s successful absorption of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the collapsing Soviet Union, and his secret transport of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon also restored respect and affection for him among American Jews.
Shamir was not incapable of pragmatism. He defied Israeli public opinion – and young bucks in his own party, including then-deputy foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and acceded to Bush’s request to keep out of the first Iraq War, even if Saddam Hussein provoked Israel, which Hussein did with a barrage of Scud missiles.
Marshall Breger, a former Reagan administration official who at the time still functioned as an unofficial liaison between Bush and the Jewish community, said Shamir earned kudos with that decision. “From the U.S. perspective, that was very important and got a lot of good will because we could not have gotten the coalition that we got if Israel had acted in a proactive or reactive way,” he said.
Zakheim also recalled Shamir intervening when AIPAC tried to stop the sale of combat aircraft to Kuwait.
“He was extremely pragmatic and somebody who when the chips were down tended to make good decisions,” Zakheim said.
Shamir, notably, earned affectionate references in the memoirs of U.S. figures who were among his most frustrated interlocutors when they faced each other as leaders, among them the elder Bush, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, who under Bush was the chief of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Shamir was not a comfortable campaigner. In the 1992 elections he lost to Yitzhak Rabin, advisers told him to exude more warmth. Appearing at a late-in-the-game rally in Maaleh Adumim – a West Bank settlement and city, and what should have been a natural constituency – he stood at the podium, his diminutive figure nearly swallowed by the stage, threw open his arms and shouted “I love you!” The crowd murmured nervously.
Yet one on one, he exuded warmth and determination. Shamir would take walks around the prime minister’s residence, followed by a single security guard, and stop to chat with everyone, giving extra time to recent immigrants and congratulating them on their decision to move to Israel.
His mantra was land. After Oslo, still serving as a backbencher after Netanyahu had succeeded him as party leader, Shamir decried in a Knesset speech the ceding of the Gaza Strip, citing biblical injunctions about preserving the land of Israel. A Labor backbencher shouted that Gaza is not part of biblical Israel. Shamir shrugged. “We were taught that territory is sacrosanct,” he said.
Breger said Shamir understood what the other side wanted – but stuck to what he wanted.
“I had occasions to talk to him when he was rubbing up against Bush…and urged him to pay attention to how serious Bush was about building in the territories, which culminated in Bush’s effort to reduce the loan guarantees dollar by dollar for what was being spent in the territories,” Breger said. “You had the feeling that he didn’t reject what I said, but he had made up his mind and would go forward.”
That posture set a standard for Shamir’s successors, said Rosen. “He stood for a set of core principles that are still the bedrock of the right wing but I would argue have influenced the center, too,” he said. “Skepticism of the seriousness of the Arabs on permanent peace, a reliance on self-defense and not on agreements that rely on the will of others, skepticism of great power guarantees.”
Shamir the “hard-liner” paved the way for “hard bargainers,” Rosen said.