They also raise a universal question: which is preferable - an honest fanatic or a corrupt pragmatist?
YITZHAK SHAMIR died two weeks ago and was buried in the cemetery of the "Great of the Nation" in Jerusalem. He was 97 years old and had been vegetating for years in a state of dementia. Most Israelis did not know that he was still alive.
When I described him on TV as "the most successful terrorist of the 20th century," the interviewer raised his eyebrows. But it was an accurate description.
Shamir was not a great thinker. In his teens he joined the right-wing Zionist youth organization of Vladimir Jabotinsky in Poland, and since then he did not change his world-view one iota. In this respect he was absolutely immovable. He wanted a Jewish state in all of the historical country. Period. No nonsense about Arabs and such.
We both joined the Irgun underground at the same time. I was too young to take part in actual terrorist actions; he, eight years my senior, carried them out. At the time, the Irgun killed scores of Arab men, women and children in attacks on Arab markets, in retaliation for Arab attacks on Jewish civilians. We defied the policy of "self-restraint" ordered by the Zionist leadership.
In the summer of 1940 the Irgun split. One of the commanders, Avraham Stern, founded the organization known to the British as the "Stern Gang." (Eventually it was called LEHI, acronym for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel.)
Stern was a logical person. The aim was to set up a Jewish state in all of Palestine. The enemy was the British Empire. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Therefore we must cooperate with the Nazis. He sent several emissaries to contact the Germans. Some were intercepted by the British, the others were ignored by the Nazis.
I could not accept this atrocious logic and did not join, though the temptation was there. Shamir did.
He was caught and imprisoned (unlike Stern himself, who was caught and shot on the spot). Within a short time, virtually all the members of the organization were killed or arrested. The group ceased to exist -- until Shamir and a colleague, Eliahu Giladi, broke out. The two acted together and brought LEHI to life again. One day Shamir had Giladi tried and shot.
Giladi was not accused of treason, but, on the contrary - of excessive zeal. He made plans for revolutionary actions, such as killing David Ben-Gurion and the entire Zionist leadership. Shamir decided that his adventurous nature endangered the organization and that he must be removed. Afterwards Shamir named his daughter Gilada.
Many years later I asked him which historical personality he admired most. He answered without hesitation: Lenin. I understood that he admired him because Lenin ruthlessly followed the maxim "the end justifies the means".
Shamir was one of LEHI's three leaders. He was responsible for operations and organization, meticulously building a deliberately small group of selected individuals, executing incredibly daring actions. He himself planned every single operation in the greatest detail. The most famous was the assassination of Lord Moyne, the senior British functionary in the Middle East, in Cairo.)
He was arrested again when the British shut down Tel Aviv and conducted a house-to-house search. Shamir was well disguised but could not hide his most obvious characteristic: he was very small, almost a dwarf, with a big, strong head. The soldiers were instructed to arrest every man below a certain height. This time he was sent to a detention camp in Africa, from which he duly escaped. He reached French Djibouti, was brought by a French warship to Paris where he stayed until Israel came into being. LEHI never amounted to more than a few hundred members. But it played a major role in driving the British out of this country.
IN ISRAEL, Shamir disappeared from view. For years he worked for the
Mossad. It was rumored that his speciality was sending letter bombs.
When he resurfaced, he joined the party of his erstwhile competitor,
Menachem Begin. He was appointed Knesset chairman.
Once I decided to stage a small demonstration in the Knesset. I wore
under my jacket a t-shirt saying "Peace is better than a Greater
Israel." During the plenary session I took the jacket off. After some
minutes of shock, an usher asked me politely to see the chairman in his
office. Shamir received me with a big smile and said: "Uri, where would
we be if every member did something like that? Now that you have made
your point, would you please put your jacket on again?" Which I did, of
When Begin made peace with Egypt and even I voted for him, Shamir abstained. After Lebanon War I, when Begin resigned saying "I can't go on any more," Shamir took his place. As prime minister, his most outstanding achievement was to do nothing, except building settlements -- quietly and unobtrusively. Under American pressure, he attended the Madrid peace conference, determined not to budge an inch. As he remarked later, he was quite ready to negotiate with the Arabs for any length of time. He did not dream of making peace, which would have drawn frontiers and barred the way to Greater Israel.