Israel’s former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir has died at the age of 96. He led a full, action-packed life and was one of the founding fathers of the State of Israel.
Shamir fought in radical pre-state undergrounds to oust the British from Palestine, served in the Mossad, was a Knesset member and Knesset Speaker, held several ministerial positions and ultimately served as prime minister.
He oversaw a major immigration of Jews from Ethiopia, reluctantly attended the Madrid peace conference, and memorably kept Israel out of the first Gulf War even after it was attacked by more than three dozen Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised him as “one of the founders of the state” and a man of profound loyalty “to his people and to the land.”
Shamir was born Icchak Jeziernicky in Belarus in 1915. A member of the Betar Revisionist Zionist youth movement, he moved to pre-state Palestine in 1935, and was active in the militant Irgun Zvai Leumi and Stern Gang pre-state undergrounds, causing him to be singled out and hunted by the British.
Captured and jailed by the British authorities in 1941, he escaped the following year and became a leader of the Lehi — the renamed Stern Gang.
During the War of Independence, Shamir was one of those who approved the assassination of the United Nations representative in the Middle East, Count Bernadotte — one of the actions that led the mainstream nascent Israeli leadership to enforce the dismantling of the Lehi and the establishment of a single Israeli military force.
Shamir was recruited into the Mossad intelligence service in the mid-1950s, where he oversaw the killings of several former Nazi scientists who were working on an Egyptian rocket program.
He entered politics late in the 1960s, joining Herut, the precursor to the Likud, under Menachem Begin. Winning election to the Knesset in 1973, he became Speaker four years later — in which capacity he hosted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on his first visit to Israel. He was later foreign minister, and then succeeded Begin, who resigned as prime minister in 1983, in the wake of Israel’s controversial invasion of Lebanon the previous year.
his failure to quickly draw Israel out of Lebanon was a factor in his failure to win the 1984 elections outright. Instead he entered a “rotation” agreement with Labor’s Shimon Peres under which Peres and he held the prime ministership for two years each.
He formed another coalition with Peres in 1988, but after Peres tried and failed to unseat him and then left the government, Shamir headed a right-wing coalition from 1990.
It was during this period that he kept Israel out of the Gulf War, to the relief of the Americans leading the coalition to oust Saddam.
In May 1991, he approved a weekend airlift of 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, rescuing them from a country in the midst of civil war.
Under heavy American pressure, he attended that October’s Madrid peace conference, but said later he did not intend to move toward statehood for the Palestinians.
Although Shamir’s politics were often controversial, he was widely praised across the political spectrum for his loyalty and devotion to the State of Israel:
“Yitzhak Shamir was a brave warrior for Israel, before and after its inception. He was a great patriot and his enormous contribution will be forever etched in our chronicles,” President Shimon Peres said in a statement.
“He was loyal to his beliefs and he served his country with the utmost dedication for decades. May he rest in peace.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the former leader, saying that “He was a paragon of loyalty to the Land of Israel and the eternal values of the Jewish people.”
“Yitzhak Shamir belongs to a generation of giants, who founded the State of Israel and fought for the freedom of the Jewish people in its land,” Netanyahu said. “He led Israel with deep loyalty to both the people and the land.”
Opposition Leader Shelly Yachimovich offered her condolences over Shamir’s death: “He was a determined prime minister who dedicated his life to the state. He followed his ideological path honestly and humbly, as a leader should,” she said.
“The citizens of Israel will always remember the wisdom he demonstrated during the First Gulf War. He showed restraint and saved Israel from undue entanglement in the Iraq War. This decision proved to be a brave and wise act of leadership.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Shamir “Contributed greatly to the foundation of the state, which he served his entire life with loyalty and unwavering dedication.
“He set an example in each position that he held,” the foreign minister added. “I had the privilege to be personally acquainted with Shamir, and I will always remember him and his great contribution to the state.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak added: “His whole life, Shamir was as stable as granite and maintained focus without compromises. He always strived to ensure Israel’s freedom.
“His devotion knew no bounds,” Barak said, adding that the former leader “always sought what’s right for the people of Israel and for the country’s security.”
Gilada Diamant, Shamir’s daughter, said that her father “belonged to a different generation of leaders, people with values and beliefs. I hope that we have more people like him in the future. His political doing has undoubtedly left its mark on the State of Israel.
“Dad was an amazing man, a family man in the fullest sense of the word, a man who dedicated himself to the State of Israel but never forgot his family, not even for a moment. He was a special man,” she added.
Baruch Dayan Emet.
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