Who was Yitzhak Shamir?

Classifying political leaders as either “hawks” or “doves” obscures an uncomfortable truth: that the real debate between political rivals is rarely whether to go to war but rather with whom.

Case in point: a man interred in Israel on Monday, former Prime Minister and terrorist/resistance fighter Yitzhak Shamir.

Writing in the Sheldon Adelson-owned free daily Israel Today, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe (“Boogie”) Yaalon praised Shamir for his unswerving commitment to the “iron wall” concept of Israeli security, first laid out by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky: “He acted on his principles, not according to polls or trends.” That resoluteness is viewed from a very different angle in the Financial Times: “The kind of unflinching resolution behind Shamir’s campaign of bombings and assassinations, first as leader of the Stern Gang and later as a Mossad agent, often appeared to have defined his core character.”

One of the code names Shamir chose in the Stern Gang  (a militant group also known as Lehi)  was “Michael,” in tribute to Michael Collins of the Irish Republican Army, who Shamir esteemed as a role model in resisting British occupation. Shamir had no qualms about being labeled a terrorist. On the contrary.  “First and foremost, terror is for us a part of the political war appropriate for the circumstances of today, and its task is a major one,” Shamir wrote in an article titled “Terror” in the Lehi journal Hazit in August 1943. “It demonstrates in the clearest language, heard throughout the world including by our unfortunate brethren outside the gates of this country, our war against the occupier.”

Shamir’s career as Foreign Minister (1979-1983) and his first term at helm of the Israeli government in (1983-84)  encompassed the unfolding of the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the US Embassy hostage crisis and  the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 as a response to the Israeli invasion and occupation.  The revelation of Israeli weapon sales to Iran that were exposed during the Iran-Contra hearings and the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 occurred during his second term as Prime Minister (1986-92). Yet neither the accolades nor the accusations published in the days since his death mention any of these events.

Nonetheless, Iran was very much at the forefront and part of the backstory of Israeli foreign policy at the time. U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz  cautioned President Reagan’s National Security adviser Robert McFarlane that “Israel’s agenda regarding Iran ‘is not the same as ours’ and that relying on Israeli intelligence concerning Iran ‘could seriously skew our own perception.'”

Elected to Israel’s parliament on the right-wing Herut party ticket in 1973, Shamir became Speaker of the Knesset in 1977 when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister, after elections  toppled the governing Labor-led coalition that had ruled the country since 1948.  Shamir was designated Israel’s Foreign Minister in 1979 when Moshe Dayan resigned from the post, eight months after the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran.

According to investigative journalist Robert Parry, whose coverage for the Associated Press of what became the Iran-Contra scandal won him a George Polk Award in 1984, Shamir confirmed in a 1993 interview that there was indeed an “October Surprise”–as detailed by Gary Sick in a New York Times op ed and  in his book by that title–that delayed the release of the 54 American hostages held at the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days (Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 21, 1981)  because of a deal struck by the Iranian government with the Reagan presidential campaign. Furthermore, Shamir candidly hinted–before retreating–that the Israeli government  had approached Republican operatives and offered to help engineer President Jimmy Carter’s defeat:

To prevent a Palestinian state and buy time for Israel to further “change the facts on the ground” by moving more Jewish settlers onto the West Bank, Begin felt Carter’s reelection had to be prevented. The Likud also believed that Reagan would give Israel a freer hand to deal with problems on its northern border with Lebanon. The Likud-Republican collaboration reportedly led to Israel becoming a go-between for the Reagan campaign’s secret contacts with Iran, helping to prevent Carter from resolving the U.S.-Iranian hostage crisis and dooming his reelection hopes.

nb: Parry’s use of the party name Likud is anachronistic here, since Begin and Shamir’s Herut party did not become part of the Likud bloc until 1988. mbc

Like the Revisionists’ mentor Jabotinsky, Shamir did not believe that Arab states would ever willingly accept a Jewish state in their midst. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 may have changed Iran’s ruling regime, but it did not alter Israel’s needed non-Arab allies in the region–especially Iran–according to Israel’s long held “doctrine of the periphery.” Foremost among the Arab leaders worrying Israel was Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who invaded Iran in Sept. 1980, launching a war that would last for eight years.

Notwithstanding Ayatollah Khomeini’s vitriol against “the Zionist entity,” Shamir never wavered in his conviction that it was Iraq, not Iran, that endangered Israel. As Trita Parsi points out in his book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.:

From Tel Aviv’s perspective, Iraq was the single greatest threat to Israel’s security, while Iran–in spite of its ideology, its harsh rhetoric, and its vocal support of the Palestinian issue–was seen as a nonthreat. For all practical purposes, Iran continued to be a partner in balancing the Iraqi threat.

“Operation Opera,” Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility on June 7, 1981, took place while Shamir was Foreign Minister. Shamir wrote a three page letter to world leaders justifying Israel’s preemptive strike before nuclear fuel had been loaded into it. Ari Ben Menashe, who claims to have spent two years as Shamir’s “roving troubleshooter” with the title of “special intelligence consultant,” told Parsi that representatives of the Khomeini regime met with Israeli officials about a month before the Osirak strike. The Iranians gave the Israelis details of an unsuccessful Iranian attack on the site on Sept. 30, 1980, according to Ben Menashe, as well as permission for Israeli planes to land at an Iranian airfield in Tabriz in an emergency.

Shamir was also Foreign Minister during the Israeli invasion that launched the “First Lebanon War” According to several sources, Shamir was neither particularly surprised nor troubled by the Phalangist massacre that took place in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps outside Beirut.  Author and journalist Ze’ev Schiff, co-author of Israel’s Lebanon War, attributed the catastrophic consequences of the Lebanon war not so much to the incursion itself but rather to Israel’s decision to remain in Lebanon as its occupier, recalling that in southern Lebanon at the outset of the war: “I was talking to an old man, a Shiite, who was very happy about what Israel had done. He grabbed my arm and said, ‘Don’t forget to leave.’ But we did. There is just no such thing as an enlightened occupation.”

The creation of Hezbollah as a Shiite paramilitary group to resist the Israeli occupation was one of the consequences of the Israeli decision not to leave. “Hezbollah’s original cadres were organized and trained by a 1,500-member contingent of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who arrived in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in the summer of 1982, with the permission of the Syrian government,” according to Adam Shatz . “For Iran, whose efforts to spread the Islamic revolution to the Arab world had been stymied by its war with Iraq, Hezbollah provided a means of gaining a foothold in Middle East politics.”

Shamir believed that Israel ought to prepare for the possibility that more moderate elements in the Iranian regime might gain control of the Islamic Republic once the aging and ailing Khomeini was gone from the scene. The late David Kimche, a retired founder deputy head of the Mossad who Shamir appointed as Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 1979,  told Parsi in an interview:

There were the ultraextremists and there were, let’s say, the moderate extremists…They were all fanatics, but there were the ones who were absolutely dangerous, and there was another group…who would be willing to come to terms with the West…They were still against Israel, but there were much less extremist than that first group.

Kimche would emerge as a key figure in the Iran-Contra affair which exposed Israel’s sale of US weapons to Iran during the Iraq-Iran war (albeit with weapons that Israel would claim were outdated, defective and overpriced).  The weapons sales, about which  Shamir denied having any knowledge (he alternated serving as Prime Minister with now-President Shimon Peres in a power-sharing arrangement during the mid-late 1980s) were motivated in part by Israel’s hope that if Iraq and Iran were fighting one another, neither would attack Israel. But it was also based on the expectation that Khomeini would eventually be replaced by more pragmatic Iranian leadership.

Shamir was a tough-minded pragmatist who did not let the label “terrorist” inhibit him. He knew from personal experience that the line between a terrorist and a resistance fighter against occupation and terrorist was very much in the eye of the beholder. In August 1987, when Iranian Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani suggested in an NBC news interview that Western hostages held by extremist groups in Lebanon might be freed in a trade involving Shia Muslim prisoners held in Israel and Kuwait, the U.S. State Department immediately rejected the Iranian suggestion. “No deals,” State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley responded. “The United States will not make concessions to terrorists nor will we ask others to do so. Making concessions only encourages additional acts of terrorism.” Shamir, however,  was willing to consider the proposal. “I must study the statement of Mr. Rafsanjani,” Shamir said. “I don’t know what was his intention and about which Shia prisoners he is talking. So after we will see what is the issue, we’ll decide what could be, and if will be, any reaction from us.”

In 1992,  Shamir was replaced as Prime Minister by the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Rabin. Despite his apotheosis after his assassination by a Jewish extremist and Israeli peace movement, Rabin was no dove. After the defeat of Saddam’s Iraq during the First Gulf War (during which Israel was attacked with Scud missiles), Rabin agreed to pursue the Oslo peace accords because he believed that resolution of the Palestinian issue would free him to take on Iran.

Since then, to be a “pro-peace leftist” in Israel has come to mean being pro-Palestinian and anti-Iran. As a self-described member of the “pro-Israel left” wrote recently:

Twenty years ago, Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who concluded peace agreements with an Arab country and the Palestinian people, linked countering the Iranian threat with resolving the Palestinian issue. Today, some of his ideological heirs and admirers outside of Israel fail to see the persisting connection between dovishness on Palestine with hawkishness on Iran. For Rabin, defending against threat from Iran meant diminishing the threat from Palestine. Today, advancing toward peace with the Palestinians means preparing for the potential of a horrific war of necessity with Iran.

To be a rightist is to be anti-Palestinian and anti-Iran. Praising Shamir at his funeral, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approvingly cited Shamir’s telling the U.S. during the Gulf War that if Washington did not act against Saddam Hussein, who was pointing Scud missiles at Israel, Israel would take matters into its own hands. Barak Ravid of Haaretz hints that Netanyahu ought to use Shamir’s June 9, 1981 letter to world leaders justifying Israel’s preemptive strike on Osirak–with “some minor changes”–to justify an attack on Iran. Ironically, Yitzhak Shamir was the last of Israel’s political leaders–right or left–who was not obsessed with “the Iranian threat.” He was indeed the last of a political generation.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Another interesting thing about Shamir – sort of airbrushed out of his history – is that he flirted with communism after the Lehi disbanded, probably due to the influence of his friend and fellow commander Nathan Yalin-Mor, a fellow Pole who was a hardline leftist and headed the short-lived political party that grew out of the Lehi.

  2. Shamir was also one of the men behind the murder of Sir Bernadotte.

  3. Shamir was also one of the men behind the murder of Folke Bernadotte.

  4. Jim, such thoroughly researched and copiously hyper-linked articles like this one are very rare indeed. Even in peer reviewed journals. I do not normally leave thanks, as I expect good blogs to be just such. Yours i feel comes into the blue chip benchmark category.

    The reason for these words is that I am just about to start a blog myself – “The Friendly Dissident”. “Friendly” as I am a Quaker. And your example is inspiring. Period!

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