Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister of Israel during most of the time between 1983 and 1992. Born in Poland in 1915, he reached Palestine in 1935. He joined the Irgun in 1937 and Lohamei Herut Israel (LEHI) in 1940, leading the latter group after 1942. Arrested by the British mandatory power for the second time in 1946 and deported to Eritrea, he escaped detention and won political asylum in France, then returned to Palestine in May 1948. He spent the next seven years in private life, joining the Mossad in 1955 and remaining there for a decade. After another interlude in private life, he entered party politics in 1970 and won a seat in the Israeli parliament in 1974. He became speaker in 1977 and foreign minister in 1980. His memoir, Summing Up: An Autobiography, came out in 1994. Daniel Pipes interviewed him in New York on October 27, 1998.
Middle East Quarterly: You refused to vote in favor of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty in 1979, seeing it as too high a price for uncertain benefits. Do you stand by that decision?
Yitzhak Shamir: I abstained because, while I did not object to the treaty, I did object for two reasons to the surrender to Egypt of the settlements of the Rafiah area: these seaside settlements that were under our jurisdiction had been developing tremendously; and giving back these settlements was a dangerous precedent for the future and would lead to further obstacles for our settlements in the West Bank.
MEQ: You were quoted as you were about to leave office in 1992 saying, "I would have carried out autonomy talks for ten years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria."1 In retrospect, does this look like the right strategy?
Shamir: This is an inaccurate quote. I said I was willing to continue lengthy negotiations for as long as it may take, in order to reach a comprehensive agreement. The amount of time necessary for negotiation is unimportant; the appropriateness and accuracy of the resulting agreement is what counts. For example, the negotiations concerning the Panama Canal between Panama and the United States were carried on for a very long period with no harm done.
MEQ: "The Oslo [accords] were a terrible blunder and we need to get out of them."2 Why were they a blunder? How does Israel get out of them?
Shamir: The Oslo accords were a great mistake because they resulted in a large loss of national land and territory. We could have recovered from this mistake if we had nullified the accords when the Likud returned to power.
MEQ: Likud coming to power in 1996 seems to have made only minor differences in terms of the Oslo process; it continues on. How do you explain this? Binyamin Netanyahu? U.S. pressure? The will of the Israel public?
Shamir: Netanyahu has played a game of Russian roulette. He thought that if only he supported the continuation of the process, he would be elected to the position of prime minister. He believed that if he wanted to become prime minister, he had to give in to U.S. pressure and to the demands of the public.
MEQ: You are saying that the Israeli public wants the negotiations to continue?
Shamir: I believe that the will of the people is resolved by a strong leadership. Even in a democratic society, events depend on a strong leadership with a strong power of persuasion, and not on the opinion of the masses.
MEQ: How do you balance the irrevocable act of handing over land with the revocable act of declaring peaceful intentions?
Shamir: Neither act would have been effective. The only effective act would have been to stand firmly and committed to our beliefs.
MEQ: How should Israel respond if Yasir Arafat declares a state in May?
Shamir: The only possible response: with an Israeli decision to annex all their land.
MEQ: Do you see an existential threat by the Arabs to Israel today?
Shamir: There is no such threat. If Israel has strong leadership, it can be confident, willing, and committed to overcome any obstacle.
MEQ: What does Yasir Arafat aspire to?
Shamir: To the destruction of Israel.
MEQ: What will it take to make the Arabs ready to live in peace with Israel?
Shamir: A firm commitment on Israel's part to stand strong on their beliefs would convince the Arabs.
MEQ: How long do you expect this will take?
Shamir: It wouldn't take long.
MEQ: Do you worry about the Israeli Arab lack of loyalty to Israel?
Shamir: I am certain that the Arabs feel no loyalty to the Jews.
MEQ: Any thoughts on solving this problem?
Shamir: Our only possible step is to convince them to prove to us that they are attempting to be loyal.
MEQ: You have said of Israel's current prime minister, "I do not trust Netanyahu. He is all talk, an unprincipled man. He speaks well, but he does not know how to act. So he promises to put an end to the Oslo agreements. But in fact he does nothing to really get rid of them."3
Shamir: I helped Netanyahu to advance politically because when I first met him, I trusted in his beliefs and I relied on his moral commitment.
MEQ: What are his motives?
Shamir: His only motive today is to continue to be elected and to hold on to the seat of prime minister.
MEQ: "The Arabs could not possibly have any complaints about Netanyahu. From the Arab standpoint he is better than Peres and Rabin."4 Does this imply you prefer Labor to have won the elections in May 1996?
Shamir: At that time, I would not have preferred that, because we still believed that Netanyahu would be better for us.
MEQ: "All of the land of Israel is ours,"5 you say. What are its boundaries?
Shamir: From the border of the kingdom of Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
MEQ: You are spending much of your time these days drumming up immigration to Israel and campaigning against the direct elections of the prime minister. Why these two causes specifically?
Shamir: The immigration of the Jewish people to Israel from all over the world is our most important goal today. Annulment of direct election of the prime minister will bring an annulment of Netanyahu's election.
MEQ: What are the greatest dangers facing Israel?
Shamir: The establishment of a Palestinian state in Israel.
MEQ: How do you see a resolution of the Palestinian Arab problem?
Shamir: First, the Palestinians give up seeking to establish their own solutions. Second, they agree to accept the autonomy plan as designed by Menachem Begin.
MEQ: Did you know Vladimir Jabotinsky?
Shamir: I did not know Jabotinsky personally, but I do know a lot about him. He was a brilliant man, very talented. He was an inspiring speaker and an excellent writer and journalist. He was very influential and effective with people. His weakness lay in lack of organization and miscalculation of certain possibilities.
MEQ: Menachem Begin's sudden retirement in September 1983 remains an enigma. Can you explain it?
Shamir: I have no explanation.
MEQ: How can the Likud Party recover from what you consider its current misguided policies?
Shamir: By changing the party leadership.
MEQ: Who would you like to see at the head of the Party?
Shamir: Binyamin Begin or Uzi Landau.
MEQ: How should Israel respond to such threats as in March 1998, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright threatened to issue an ultimatum that Israel withdraw from more of the West Bank than it was planning to?
Shamir: Israel does not need to be concerned about these threats.
MEQ: What lessons do you draw from your disputes with Washington over loan guarantees and settlements?
Shamir: We must continue to demand guarantees for financing immigration and establishing settlements without retreating from our position.
MEQ: How do you respond to those who say that Israel's relationship with the United States is so important that Jerusalem must sometimes bend even when it would rather not.
Shamir: We must never bend too much.
MEQ: "[We] almost fell off our chairs" is how you described your own and your cabinet's reaction on hearing that President Bush decided to end the Kuwait war before overthrowing Saddam Husayn. "This was a big surprise. We were certain that the defeat of Iraq will bring an end to the rule of this crazy man, Saddam Husayn."6 Please sketch out where we would now be had the U.S. forces entered Baghdad.
Shamir: We assumed that in that case we would have been freed from the troubles of Saddam Husayn.
MEQ: How do you reply to those who accuse you, on account of your role in LEHI, of being a terrorist?
Shamir: My reply is that had I not acted as I did, it is doubtful that we would have been able to create an independent Jewish State of our own.
MEQ: Reviewing your long career in the political arena, please name an outstanding highlight and a worst moment.
Shamir: A highlight for me was the mass immigration of Russian Jewry to Israel. It was a bad moment when the LEHI faced complete collapse and was almost destroyed in 1942.
MEQ: What is your proudest achievement?
Shamir: When, thanks to our efforts, we were able to fully unite all the underground groups fighting for the liberation of Israel.
MEQ: How does Israel compare today to the Jewish stateyou dreamed of in the 1930s?
Shamir: Even in my imagination, Israel is very different from our dreams of the 1930s.
1 Ma'ariv, June 26, 1992.
2 Associated Press, Apr. 20, 1998.
3 Corriere della Sera, Sept. 8, 1997.
4 The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 23, 1997.
5 Associated Press, Dec. 11, 1997.
6 Associated Press, Jan. 15, 1995.
June 30, 2012 update: Yitzhak Shamir died today.