The Michael Collins of Israel

Yitzhak Shamir. Photo: public domain

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, wrote Gerald Seymour in his 1975 book, Harry’s Game. In Middle Eastern terms, this quotation characterises no one better than Yitzhak Shamir, a former paramilitary fighter and later two-time prime minister of Israel, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 96.

Throughout history, people perceived as vicious terrorists have in their later years become politicians and statesmen, laying down their arms and pursuing their agendas by political means. In an interesting coincidence, it was only last week that the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a long-time IRA operative responsible for hundreds of atrocities in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles. And yet today he’s the Deputy First Minister, receiving a historic handshake from the smiling Queen.

One other interesting coincidence is that Shamir, when leading Lehi (or the Stern Gang, as it was called by the British), a militant Zionist organisation fighting against the British in the Land of Israel, decided to use “Michael” as his nom de guerre, after Michael Collins, terrorist or freedom fighter (depending on your perspective).

However, there was one fundamental difference between the Irishman and the Israeli. While Collins (albeit reluctantly) accepted a treaty with the British throne that he knew would lead to splitting his homeland in two (and fought a bitter war with his own countrymen to uphold the agreement), Shamir never gave up his dream of Greater Israel, a state “from the border of the kingdom of Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea”, as he put it in an interview with Middle East Quarterly in 1999.

Born Icchak Jaziernicki in 1915 in the Russian Empire, his desire for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was so strong that, in his early twenties, he joined Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that the historical consensus justifiably treats as a terrorist organisation. Irgun is most notorious for the bombing of the King David hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. By that time, Shamir was already leading another paramilitary organisation, Lehi, which split from Irgun in 1940, but this does not mean that he did not earn his terrorist tag. During Israel’s War of Independence, he along with his comrades authorised the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations representative in the Middle East. They had feared that Israel would agree to Bernadotte's peace proposals, which they considered dangerous to the young State of Israel, unaware that the Israeli government had already rejected Bernadotte’s proposals the day before the murder took place.

After the war, Shamir worked for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, before laying down arms for good and becoming a politician in 1969. He was elected to the Knesset in 1973 and became prime minister in 1983. His first tenure lasted less than a year, but his second coming in 1986 saw him running the world’s most turbulent state until 1992. As prime minister, he managed to keep Israel out of the Gulf War despite Iraqi provocation, and saved 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from possible death by airlifting them to Israel. As a Zionist, he was dedicated to bringing Jews to Israel from all over the world, saying that Jews should “learn and understand Jewish history, the Bible … and reach the only conclusion: to come on Aliyah to Israel”.

Shamir was a fierce critic of Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, whom he once characterised as a man whose “only motive today is to continue to be elected and to hold on to the seat of prime minister”. For Netanyahu, there are no hard feelings. “Yitzhak Shamir belonged to the generation of giants that established the State of Israel and fought for the freedom of the Jewish people in their land,” he said. “Shamir was a classic example of loyalty to the Land of Israel and to the eternal values of the Jewish people. May his memory be blessed.”