Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died on June 30, was one of the last surviving founders of Israel who lived under the dark cloud of the Holocaust and thus felt justified to do whatever was needed to establish and protect the Jewish state. As such, he was less shy than later Israeli leaders in admitting some harsh realities.
I encountered that side of Shamir in 1993 when I took part in an interview with him at his office in Tel Aviv. One question was whether his Likud predecessor, Menachem Begin, had collaborated with Republicans before the 1980 election to block President Jimmy Carter's attempts to negotiate freedom for 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran.
Carter's failure to free the hostages destroyed his hopes for re-election and set the stage for Ronald Reagan's landslide victory. Though some Israeli operatives have acknowledged over the years that Israel served as Reagan's middleman in arms payoffs to Iran's Islamic leaders, the official Israeli reaction has remained one of denial.
But Shamir was not your typical Israeli official, especially in retirement. He could range from witty to truculent, impatient with outsiders who didn't understand the hard choices that he and others had made for Israel's security.
Given his background as a former leader of the violent Zionist underground that fought for Israel's independence -- and advanced that cause through acts of terrorism -- he also surrounded himself with surprising candor about his personal history.
As I waited in his office for the interview, I was approached by one of his young female assistants dressed in a gray and blue smock with a head covering in the traditional Hebrew style. As we chatted, she smiled and said in a lilting voice, "Prime Minister Shamir, he was a terrorist, you know." I responded, "Yes, I'm aware of the prime minister's biography."
Though rarely mentioned in the U.S. press, Shamir -- like Menachem Begin -- was implicated in the terrorist violence that radical Zionists employed in the 1940s to drive Palestinians from the land that would become Israel and to eliminate Western officials who were seen as obstacles to a Jewish state.
One of the most famous of those terrorist attacks was the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where British officials were staying. The attack, which killed 91 people, was carried out by the Irgun, a terrorist group which was run by Begin and to which Shamir had belonged before joining an even more violent offshoot known as the Stern Gang.
In 1948, Shamir was one of the Stern Gang leaders who ordered the assassination of the United Nations representative in the Middle East, Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, even though he had, in 1945, negotiated the release of 31,000 prisoners, including Jews, from German concentration camps. [For details on Shamir's terrorism, see Consortiumnews.com's "Yitzhak Shamir: the Well-Liked Terrorist."]
After Israeli independence, Shamir became an intelligence officer in the Mossad and continued the secret war against perceived enemies of Israel. Later, Shamir joined Begin's Likud Party in seeking expansion of Israel beyond its internationally recognized borders, into Palestinian lands that Israel occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967.
From its founding in 1973, Likud held as a central tenet the goal of changing "the facts on the ground" by placing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to prevent its future use as the land of a Palestinian state.
In the late 1970s, that possibility led to a crack in the normally close U.S.-Israeli relationship. Likud's first Prime Minister Menachem Begin grew angry with incessant pressure from President Carter to trade land conquered in 1967 for peace. First came the Camp David agreement that returned the Sinai to Egypt, but Begin worried more about Carter seeking a Palestinian state on the West Bank in his second term.
In the 1991 book, The Last Option, former Mossad and Foreign Ministry official David Kimche wrote that Begin had gotten wind of "collusion" between Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat "to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Kimche continued, "This plan -- prepared behind Israel's back and without her knowledge -- must rank as a unique attempt in United States's diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation."
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