WASHINGTON – When Yitzhak Shamir was Israel’s prime minister, he liked to point American visitors to a gift he received upon his retirement after many years serving in the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.
It was a depiction of the famed three monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
“He didn’t say anything,” recalled Dov Zakheim, then a deputy undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration. “He just smiled broadly.”
Shamir, who died Saturday at 96, had the reputation of a man who said the most when he said nothing at all, his American interlocutors recalled. He used that reticence to resist pressure from the George H.W. Bush administration to enter into talks with the Palestinians and other Arab nations.
“He was the most underrated politician of our time,” Zakheim said. “He sat on the fence on issues until the fence hurt.”
Shamir’s willfulness was borne of the conviction that his Likud Party’s skepticism of a permanent peace with the Arabs represented the majority view in Israel, and that the world had to reconcile itself to this outlook, said Steve Rosen, who dealt with Shamir as the foreign policy chief for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“He would argue that the world will never prefer us – the Likud – over Labor, but when the world sees that we are the Israeli majority, they will have to deal with us,” Rosen said. “We will not succeed in being more popular than the others, but we are right.” There was inevitably a personal element to his clashes with the elder President George Bush, said Zakheim.
“He had his difficulties with the United States in part because he came from such a different place than George H.W. Bush,” he said. “One was a product of old-time Jewish Lithuania whose father was shot in the face by the neighbor when he was looking for protection from the Nazis, the other was an aristocrat. Since most relations at that level are personal, that always complicated matters.”
His detractors, while praising Shamir’s patriotism, also fretted that his steadfastness cost Israel during his terms as prime minister.
Douglas Bloomfield, in 1988 the director of AIPAC’s legislative arm, recalled in his weekly column how Shamir, then the prime minister, was blindsided by President Ronald Reagan’s decision in his administration’s closing days to recognize the reviled Palestine Liberation Organization.
“The premier’s chief of staff immediately phoned his contacts on Capitol Hill urging them to ‘start a firestorm of opposition’ to block the move,” Bloomfield wrote. “It was too late. Too many members of Congress shared the Reagan administration’s frustration with what they considered Shamir’s intransigence and did not seriously object when Reagan decided to recognize the PLO on his way out the door as a favor to his successor.”
During his tenure, Shamir clashed with much of American Jewry when he flirted with changing the Law of Return to define Jews according to strictly halachic terms to satisfy potential Orthodox coalition partners, and also because of his insistence on settlement expansion.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Shamir – unlike other contemporaries like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon – had little experience with or understanding of American Jews.
“Shamir was a whole different story, these weren’t issues he cared about at all,” recalled Yoffie, who at the time Shamir was prime minister headed ARZA, the Reform movement’s Zionist wing. “He had no experience with them, he had far less contact with American Jewry, it wasn’t part of his background, he didn’t spend a lot of time here giving speeches.”
Shamir was a politician dedicated to advancing his principal goal, which was maintaining Israeli control of the lands won in the 1967 Six-Day War, Yoffie said; when reaching out to the Orthodox advanced that goal, he did so, and when backing away from changing the Law of Return made more sense in order to preserve the alliance with U.S. Jews, he did that too.
“When he realized there would be this profound breach, he backed away,” Yoffie said. “When you’re a hardheaded realist and Greater Israel is your goal, you need allies.”