Sunday, July 1, 2012

Yitzhak Shamir: A Man of Principle

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir passed away on Saturday at the age of 96. The best thing that can be said about him as a leader is that he stayed true to his principles (with one notable but perhaps unavoidable exception during the first Gulf War); the best thing that can be said about him as a man is that he operated with such loyalty, integrity and purity that even his ideological opponents respected him.

I cannot find proper attribution for a quote once allegedly uttered by Shamir--but even if he did not say that the world is "divided into Jews and Poles" he certainly seemed to live by that credo. Shamir grew up in an early 20th century Poland infested with antisemitism and many members of his family were killed there during the Holocaust, so Shamir had every reason to believe that the world is divided into two categories: Jews and non-Jews who are indifferent--if not downright hostile--toward Jews. The ghetto Jew who survived for centuries in a hostile Europe through accommodation and deference was forever silenced by Adolf Hitler's mobile killing squads and efficient gas chambers; Hitler proved that, in order to survive, the Jews--like every other people--must have a homeland and an army.

Shamir became a leader in the underground organization Lehi ("Fighters for the Freedom of Israel," more commonly known in English as the Stern Group) that simultaneously fought against both British occupation of the Land of Israel and Arab terrorism against Jewish civilians. Let us dispense with the cowardly, inaccurate cliche that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." George Washington fought against British oppression and helped to found a democracy that is still thriving after more than two centuries; Yasser Arafat led a terrorist organization that murdered innocent civilians and aspired to destroy a democratic state in order to replace that state with a dictatorship under his rule. Ideology and methodology provide clear means to distinguish freedom fighting from terrorism; only fools or those who sympathize with tyrants suggest otherwise. By the way, this does not mean that freedom fighters always have clean hands or that terrorist organizations never run soup kitchens--but the critical distinction is that when freedom fighters overstep the bounds of propriety/international law they do not glorify such actions, while terrorists literally bathe their hands in civilian blood and proudly declare that their strategic advantage is "We love death more than you love life!"

Shamir and his freedom fighters overcame British oppression--including the closing of the Land of Israel to Jewish immigration at the height of the Holocaust and the betrayal of a promise to help create a Jewish State--to found the modern State of Israel and Shamir later served longer as Prime Minister than anyone other than Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Shamir believed that it was illegal, immoral and strategically unfeasible to create two separate nations in the western portion of the Palestine Mandate (the eastern portion of that Mandate--consisting of roughly 80% of the total land--is currently known as Jordan and largely populated by Palestinian Arabs); Shamir insisted that the western portion of the Palestine Mandate--the biblical Land of Israel--must be preserved in its entirety as a Jewish homeland. Israel's attempts to accommodate the creation of a second national entity in this area during the past two decades have not led to peace (contrary to the hopes/predictions/delusions of the Left) but rather resulted in the murders of thousands of Jewish civilians (and, it should also be noted, a dramatic decline in the living conditions for the Arabs who went from living under Israeli rule to living under the rule of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority).

When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990-91 and fired Scud missiles at Israel, Prime Minister Shamir vowed to retaliate but ultimately failed to do so because President George H.W. Bush would not authorize U.S. military forces to coordinate with Israeli military forces. This was the first time that Israel stood by while a neighbor attacked her, a precedent that would have dire future consequences and a violation of everything for which Shamir believed and fought. One must assume that in addition to the public pressure President Bush placed on Shamir there was enormous private arm-twisting as well. Moshe Arens, Israel's Defense Minister at that time, recently said that eventually Shamir decided that Israel had to retaliate but before Israel could do so a ceasefire ended the Gulf War. The notions that Americans shed blood to protect Israel and that Israel could be cowed into not fighting are, respectively, false and disturbing: Saddam Hussein was a madman who threatened the safety of the world, not just Israel, and he demonstrated that repeatedly; the belief that Israel could be intimidated by missiles and/or diplomatic pressure has dramatically impacted the way that Arab/Islamic states and terrorist groups have dealt with Israel since the first Gulf War, resulting in kidnappings, terrorist attacks, missile attacks and the disastrous 2006 Lebanon War in which Hezbollah humiliated Israel.

Shamir reluctantly agreed to participate in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference but made it clear that he had no intention of violating his core belief that a second national state cannot and should not be created west of the Jordan River. Shamir succeeded in avoiding giving up any Israeli land but Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yossi Beilin worked behind his back (and illegally) to set up negotiations with Arafat's PLO. Shamir's failure to retaliate during the Gulf War shook his supporters on the Right, while his alleged intransigence during the Madrid Peace Conference reinforced his unpopularity on the Left, so Rabin defeated Shamir and became the Israeli Prime Minister, a fateful turn of events that led directly to the disastrous Oslo Accords. Rabin, Peres and Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize but the Oslo Accords weakened Israel and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jewish civilians slain by Arab terrorists who were emboldened by Israel's concessions and aided by the acquisition of land that could be used as staging grounds for their bloody attacks.

Shamir knew that the "Land for Peace" mirage would lead to the loss of both land and peace. If he had ordered Israeli retaliation of some sort against Iraq in 1991 would that have been enough to galvanize the Right, keep Shamir in power and prevent the Oslo disaster? Or would that retaliation have led to even worse consequences for Israel? All we know for sure is that Shamir--unlike most of his rivals on both the Right and the Left--always acted based on what he thought was right, not what he thought was politically expedient. Ever since Rabin defeated Shamir, Israel has been steadily shrinking geographically, militarily, diplomatically and ethically.

The Jerusalem Post offered this appraisal of Shamir's legacy:

Left-wing critics attacked him for his refusal to budge on the issue of "the whole Israel" and even members of his own Likud Party viewed him as lacking the pragmatic flexibility needed to succeed as a mainstream politician. But even his most bitter detractors admit that Yitzhak Shamir was a man of unshakable integrity, rare modesty and unparalleled courage who was motivated by what he believed to be the cardinal interests of Israel and the Jewish people.

Perhaps due to his selfless focus on doing what is right for his people, Shamir's principled positions have stood the test of time...

Shamir might be perceived as uncompromising. And to a large extent he was. But because his motivations were sincere and selfless they have survived the test of time. May his memory be for a blessing.

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