Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir died yesterday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 96.
The Polish born Shamir emigrated to British Mandated Palestine in 1935. His family opted to remain in Poland and they would perish in the Holocaust. Shamir became active in the Irgun, the alternative Zionist movement to the Haganah that was seeking a Jewish homeland. Later, Shamir would be involved with the more militant and controversial Stern Gang.
Some years after the Israeli government broke up the Stern Gang, Shamir joined the Mossad where he spent a decade. He was first elected to the Knesset in 1973 as a member of the Likud Party and four years later became its Speaker when Menachem Begin came to power. Begin would appoint Shamir as Minister of Foreign Affairs following the resignation of Moshe Dayan in 1981. Despite his opposition to the Camp David Accords, Shamir would become a key figure in its negotiation and implementation.
Shamir became PM following the death of Begin in 1983. However, Shamir would enter into a National Unity coalition with Labor after the inconclusive 1984 election. Shamir spent the first two years as Foreign Minister while Labor Party leader Shimon Peres was Prime Minister. Peres and Shamir would switch roles in 1986. During this period, Israel entered a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States. It was the second such bilateral free trade agreement the United States entered into after Canada. Shamir was elected as Prime Minister in his own right in 1988 but entered into another National Unity coalition with Peres before collapsing in 1990 in favor of a more conservative alliance.
In 1991, Shamir was reluctantly persuaded by President George H.W. Bush not to respond to Scud missile attacks ordered by Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War in order to keep the U.S. led multinational alliance against Iraq. Following the Gulf War Ceasefire, tensions escalated between Bush and Shamir over the Madrid Conference which attempted to bring about peace between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors (Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) and the PLO. Bush threatened to withhold loan guarantees intended to aid the absorption of Soviet Jews into Israel. Shamir eventually backed down but demanded the UN rescind the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution as a condition of its participation which it did shortly after the conference.
In addition to absorbing large numbers of Soviet Jews, Shamir also embarked upon a massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews as the Marxist government of Menigstu was collapsing in May 1991.
Shamir would lose the June 1992 election to Yitzhak Rabin (who had initially served as his Defense Minister in the National Unity government) ending Likud’s 15-year reign in power. He resigned as Likud Party leader the following year and was succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Here’s an interview Shamir conducted while he was still PM in 1988.
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