The Covert Mossad Man Who Became Prime Minister: Yitzhak Shamir has Died

From Covert Mossad Man to Prime Minister — Yitzhak Shamir has Died

by Yossi Melman

An Israeli leader whose life story took surprising turns — from boyhood in Poland, to a radical Zionist underground in British-ruled Palestine, to secret service in the Mossad espionage agency, and then prime minister of his country — has just died.
Yitzhak Shamir passed away in a Tel Aviv nursing home, at age 96.  His wife Shulamit died last year, at 88.  In Israeli politics, they were known as a private and quiet couple.  With Prime Minister Shamir in the 1980s, you never knew for sure, but it seemed that he preferred spending time at home with his wife, rather than the glitz and glamor that most successful politicians seem to enjoy.
In the 1940s, Shamir and other members of the so-called Stern Gang were notorious, from a British point of view, for their violent tactics in trying to hasten Britain’s departure from Palestine — and making sure that most of the land be held by Jews and not by Arabs.  The Stern Gang is known to Israelis as Lehi.
Shamir — similar to his predecessor as prime minister, Menachem Begin — was considered an outcast, when the State of Israel was established in May of 1948.  The mainstream Labor movement, wedded to socialist beliefs, led by David Ben-Gurion, dominated the newborn nation and almost all of its important institutions.
In 1955, Shamir and other Stern Gang members were invited to join the Mossad.  As we write in Chapter 6 of our soon-to-be-published Spies Against Armageddon, when we mention longtime Mossad chief Isser Harel:

Harel had persuaded Ben-Gurion to recruit the most talented members of the former Lehi underground – despite a history of enmity between the right-wingers and the prime minister.

It was a clever move.  The former Stern Gangsters needed no basic training.  They knew how to set bombs and how to kill.  It was no coincidence, however, that they were employed by the Mossad – and not Shin Bet.  Despite his newfound openness, Harel still did not trust them fully; he preferred to see them stationed abroad, shadowing or killing the state’s enemies far away without wielding weapons and power within Israel.

One exception was Yehoshua Cohen, who in 1948 had been involved in the Stern Gang’s murder of a Swedish mediator for the United Nations, Folke Bernadotte.  Cohen was assigned to be Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard, apparently in the belief that an assassin would know how to outwit assassins – and VIP protection was a Shin Bet function. 

German scientists toiling for Egypt’s Nasser were often targeted in Europe, where it was generally easier to get to them.  This campaign in the early 1960s would set a strong precedent, and not only for spilling blood to affect the behavior of enemies and third parties.  These attacks also cemented the Mossad’s image as a daring, ruthless, and vindictive spy agency with no parallel.

Shamir is reliably reported to have had a leadership role in a small Mossad operations unit that pursued and harassed German scientists — to keep them away from Egypt’s missile program.
That is reminiscent of Mossad efforts — in the modern era — to dissuade Iranian and foreign scientists from being involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
In 1991, as prime minister, Shamir had a pivotal role in U.S.-Israel relations.  He and his government in Jerusalem had acted with unprecedented restraint: struck by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles from Iraq during the first Gulf War, yet — at America’s urging — not retaliating against Iraq.  Then when Shamir asked the United States for loan guarantees to finance the absorption of Jewish immigrants from the disintegrated Soviet Union, President George H.W. Bush refused — saying, in exchange, Israel would have to freeze all Jewish housing construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The argument over settlements was a bitter one, with the first President Bush openly defying the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.  The highly nationalistic Shamir, who was a hard-liner about holding the territories captured in 1967, stood his ground.
When I met and interviewed Shamir, I must say that he definitely had the traits of a calm espionage operative.  He was never the kind of man to reveal more than was absolutely necessary.  He certainly was committed to the defense and strength of Israel.
June 30, 2012

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