Childhood & Early Life
Yitzhak Shamir was born on October 22, 1915, in Ruzinoy, Poland which is now in Belarus. His parents were Shlomo and Perla Penina Yezernitsky and his given name was Yitzhak Yezernitsky.
Shamir attended the Hebrew Secondary School in Bialystok. He joined Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s ‘Betar’ Zionist youth movement when he was 14.
For his higher studies he chose to study law at Warsaw University. He was a hardcore Revisionist Zionist and in 1935, at the age of 20, he cut his studies short and moved to Palestine which was then under British mandate.
He enrolled in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and adopted the Hebrew surname of Shamir which means "thorn’’ or a sharp point. He never completed his graduation.
Yitzhak Shamir’s family which had stayed back in Poland was wiped out during the Holocaust. His mother and one of his sisters died in concentration camps, another sister was shot dead. His father managed to escape from the train carrying him to a camp but was killed while seeking shelter in his village.
In 1937, he became a member of the ‘Irgun Zvai Leumi’ underground group. The group was opposed to the liberal ideologies of the Labour Zionists and wanted to establish a Jewish state on both the banks of Jordan. It also aimed to defend the Jews from an anticipated Arabs backlash.
In 1940, following Avraham Stern, he joined the ‘Lohamei Herut Israel’ (Lehi) or the ‘Stern Gang’ which was more militant in its approach. Yitzhak Shamir was arrested by the British in 1941. Stern was killed in 1942.
In 1942, Shamir escaped from British detention and undertook the reorganization of Lehi and soon became one of the leaders of the ‘Lehi’.
In 1944 Yitzhak Shamir was involved in a plot to kill the British Minister for Middle East Affairs (5), Lord Moyne in Cairo. He was also accused of bombing the King David hotel which was the British headquarters in Jerusalem in 1946.
As the British police carried out the investigations into the bombing they traced the bombers to Tel Aviv. Shamir disguised himself as a rabbi but he was recognised by his bushy eyebrows and arrested. He was interned in the British ruled Eritrea.
In January 1947, Yitzhak Shamir and four others escaped through a 200 feet long tunnel they had dug. They managed to reach French Djibouti. Shamir later received asylum in France.
In 1948, after Israel became independent, ‘Lehi’ sent him a false passport with which he returned to Israel.
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During the 1950s, Shamir became involved in various commercial ventures. From 1955 to 1965, he worked as a secret-service operative for Mossad. He handled agents placing them in hostile countries. He quit Mossad as a mark of protest against the treatment of the Director-General who had been forced to resign.
In the mid-1960s, he resumed his commercial activities and also became involved in the freedom movement of the Soviet Jewry. In 1969, he joined the ‘Herut’ party led by Menachem Begin.
His political rise was steady after he won a seat in the national legislature of Israel, the Knesset, in 1973. He gained entry into influential circles and the ‘Herut’ party elected him as chairman of its executive committee in 1975.
The ‘Herut’ party later merged with other smaller parties to form the ‘Likud’. When the ‘Likud’ came to power in 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin made Shamir the speaker of the Knesset.
In 1980, Yitzhak Shamir became the foreign minister. During his tenure, Israel reestablished relationships with various African and Latin American states and initiated a dialogue with the Soviet Union.
Shamir came under a lot of international criticism for his handling of the massacre of the Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Lebanon War. He was questioned about his responsibility and the lack of action by the Kahan Committee of Inquiry.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Begin in 1983, the mantle fell on Yitzhak Shamir. However, in the elections held the following year Shamir could not win a complete majority and his party formed a coalition government with Shimon Peres’s Labour party.
From 1984 to 1986, Yitzhak Shamir was the foreign minister under Shimon Peres. In 1986, under the power-sharing agreement he became the Prime Minister of Israel. The two parties had diverging ideologies which were evident when Shamir countermanded Peres’s ‘London Agreement’ signed secretly with the King of Jordan.
In 1987, the Palestinians rose against the Jewish occupation in the revolt known as intifada. Shamir had thousands of troops deployed to stop the revolt. The conflict lasted for years and bore no result.
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The 1988 elections resulted in another coalition government. The USA had been trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine but the coalition with their different ideological stands could not agree to the peace proposals put forward by the USA and finally broke up in 1990.
Shimon Peres was unsuccessful in forming a Labour government and Shamir took this opportunity to form a coalition with the help of religious parties and assumed power.
Once out of the coalition, Shamir’s government promoted Jewish settlements in occupied territories and named them Judea and Samaria.
Shamir chose to remain out of the anti-Saddam coalition during the Gulf War of 1991. His restraint in spite of Iraq’s Scud missile attack on Israel was appreciated by the USA.
He was the first Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians openly. Though he was a reluctant participant in the peace talks held in Madrid among Israel, Palestine and the neighboring Arab countries, the talks laid the foundation of the process which ended in the recognition of Palestine’s right to autonomy.
Yitzhak Shamir is also remembered for ‘Operation Solomon’ in which 35 aircrafts flew non-stop to airlift 14,325 Ethiopian Jews and transport them safely to Israel in 36 hours during May 24 and 25, 1991.
Shamir’s loss in the 1992 elections was triggered by his inability to nurture the oriental Jewish electorate. Along with this, the Labour party’s stand on Palestine worked better with the voters.
Yitzhak Shamir lost the elections with a large margin. He resigned as party president and Benjamin Netanyahu took over. He resigned from the Knesset in 1996.
Family & Personal Life
Yitzhak Shamir met Shulamit Levy during his underground years. Shulamit had migrated to Palestine from Bulgaria in a boat. As she had entered the territory illegally she was sent to a detention camp which is where Shamir met her.
Shulamit worked as a courier for Shamir and soon became his confidante. They got married in 1944 secretly at a location in Jerusalem. For witnesses, they gathered people from the streets. After the ceremony, they both left for different cities.
Shamir and Shulamit had a daughter Gilada Diamant and a son Yair, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Shulamit passed away in 2011.
During the last years of his life, Shamir suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. His health deteriorated rapidly from 2004. On June 30, 2012, he died in a Tel-Aviv nursing home, at the age of 96. He was given a state funeral and buried among Israel’s other Prime Ministers at ‘Har Herzl’ in Jerusalem.