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Op-Ed: Yitzhak Shamir: Warrior & Statesman (1915-2012)

A tribute to the late former Prime Minister, a true Zionist and heroic leader - a founding father - who passed away a week ago.
Published: Friday, July 06, 2012 10:34 PM


With the passing of Yitzhak Shamir, we are witness to the near end of an era. How many individuals, those who could truly be considered among the founders of the State of Israel, are left. Only a handful.

Besides Shimon Peres and Moshe Arens, there are not many members of the Jewish State’s founding generation whose names are easily recognizable to the international community.

Shamir’s involvement in leadership roles in the Zionist movement spanned nearly his entire adult life: underground fighter, intelligence officer, Soviet Jewry activist, politician, statesman and Prime Minister. Shamir was all of these and much more.

Shamir dedicated his life to the realization of the Zionist dreams of Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Almost no other figure in Israeli history had a career that made such an impact on so many different crucial episodes in Israel’s development.

Did the public ever really get to know the real Yitzhak Shamir? He did not seek publicity and did not like to talk about himself.

Shamir was born Icchak Jaziernicky; 1915 in Ruzhany in Belarus. When he was still a student he threw himself heavily into the militant activities of the Betar Zionist youth movement. It was there that he was first exposed to the philosophy that would form the ideals that would serve him as his focus for the rest of his life.

Betar was founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a writer and Zionist leader, in 1923. Betar taught its young members military strategy and military discipline. Betar demanded a spirit of dedication to the development of a Jewish Homeland in the Land of Israel. Betar members were educated to believe that sacrifice for the establishment of a Jewish State was an honor and a duty.

Through his involvement in Betar, Shamir decided to immigrate to the British controlled Palestine Mandate in 1935. There Shamir joined other Betar activists he knew from Polandand who introduced him to the Jewish underground and he soon became active in the Irgun.

When Avraham “Yair” Stern led a group of his followers out of the Irgun and formed the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, also known by its acronym LEHI, Shamir left with him.

To get a sense of how Shamir viewed Stern, see The Poet Who Wrote First With Pen, Then With Sword at http://www.saveisrael.com/others/shamir/yitzchakshamir.htm.

The goal of the LEHI was to force the British to quit the Mandate and thus allow a Jewish State to be formed. Shamir was arrested and imprisoned by the British for his Underground activities. Shamir escaped from the British and in doing so helped to make the "Stern Gang" even more legendary.

After the February 1942 assassination of Stern by British CID (Central Investigation Department) officers, Shamir became one of the three-man Central Committee that would lead the LEHI for the next six years. The other leaders of the LEHI were Dr. Israe lEldad and Nathan Yelin-Mor. Shamir was operations chief and planned and organized LEHI’s military operations and training.

While in the underground, Shamir married Shulamit Shamir who passed away 13 months before her husband.

In November 1944, two LEHI soldiers assassinated Lord Moyne, the British Resident Minister in the Middle East. Shamir was believed to have trained the two gunmen and planned the assassination. Shamir was captured by the British again in 1946 and in 1947 he escaped -- this time from a detention camp in Eritrea in Africa.

In 1945, while in the underground, Mrs. Shamir gave birth to a son and the couple named him Yair in honor of Stern.

When Mrs.Shamir was arrested by the British in 1947, her son Yair was taken away from her. At once she began a hunger strike. The twelve day hunger strike brought her near to death and made headlines throughout the world. Rabbi Arieh Levine, known as the father of the imprisoned LEHI fighters, finally persuaded her to eat.

Shamir returned to Israel,in 1948 just days after the establishment of the Jewish State he had struggled for so many years to create.

When the British submitted the issue of the Mandate to the United Nations and the U.N. approved a Partition Plan that called for the establishment of a Jewish State and an Arab State, the LEHI had accomplished part of its goal. A Jewish State would soon be a reality. The rest of LEHI's goals --the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the bringing of the Jewish masses to Israel were still unfulfilled.

In response to the U.N.'s attempt to broker a cessation of armed conflict that would keep Jerusalem out of Jewish hands,LEHI's leaders, including Shamir, agreed that Count Folke Bernadotte, the chief mediator for the U.N., should be assassinated. Bernadotte was killed in Jerusalem in September1948. A never before heard from group, the Homeland Front, claimed responsibilityand was widely believed to be a faction of the LEHI.

Around the time of the 40th anniversary of the assassination, the key LEHI men responsible publicly acknowledged their involvement and indicated Shamir played a role in planning and approving the action. Shamir denied it.

After Count Bernadotte's assassination, LEHI leaders were rounded up and arrested by Ben-Gurion's newly formed government. LEHI leaders formed a political party, the Fighter's Party, in order to bring about the release of Nathan Yellin-Mor. The Fighter's Party received less than 1% of the vote and officially disbanded shortly before the next elections were held. The LEHI leaders chose various paths and never worked together again.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Shamir tried and failed at various businesses. In 1955 he joined the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, and held a senior position in Europe.

After his retirement from the Mossad in the mid-1960s, Shamir returned to Israel and became active in the struggle for Soviet Jewry In 1970 he joined Menachem Begin's Herut Party.

Shamir became a member of Knesset in 1974. In 1975, he was elected Chairman of the Herut Executive Committee and in 1977 was elected Speaker of the Knesset.

In 1980, Begin named Shamir Foreign Minister, and in that position Shamir implemented the retreat from Sinai that Begin negotiated with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David.

When Begin resigned from office in October of 1983, Shamir became Prime Minister. Americans had no idea who he was. In the 1984 election, Shamir was unable to maintain power and he entered into a National Unity government with Shimon Peres, where a rotation of posts occurred. Shamir served as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from 1984-1986 and Prime Minister from 1986-1988.

Shamir formed a coalition government in 1988 with various mid-size religious parties and small right-wing parties and became Prime Minister.

In 1992, Israel again held Knesset elections and this time Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party won more seats and Rabin formed the next government.

Shamir,,defeated, all but retired from public life. He rarely made public appearances or public statements. Shamir did, however, publicly express his opposition to Rabin's decision to sign agreements with Yasser Arafat and the PLO.

Shamir's autobiography, Summing Up, was published in 1994. He continued to involve himself rarely in current events, although, he entered the debate over the status of Hebron, he otherwise enjoyed a quiet retirement.

In one of his last public acts, he joined with an eclectic group of politicians from across the Israeli political spectrum and voiced his opposition to the direct election of Israel’s prime minister. The direct election scheme was eventually abandoned.

For decades, Israel’s left-leaning academic establishment, as well as Jewish educators in the U.S., tried to minimize the impact the LEHI had on London's decision to end the British Mandate. The LEHI's story began to be told when Shamir became Israel’s leader. With Shamir’s death, perhaps LEHI will finally have its story told and receive the fair treatment it was denied for far too long.

Shamir is survived by his son Yair, his daughter Gilada, born in 1949, and five grandchildren - Shai, Michael, Dror, Tali and Elad, as well as six great-grandchildren.

His funeral was Monday July 1 in Jerusalem.That his final resting place would be in Jerusalem is certainly most fitting: the LEHI’s slogan was a quote from Psalm 136:  “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.”