Israel‘s giants keep falling. With the death of Yitzhak Shamir, at age 96, in the nursing home where he was treated for Alzheimer’s Disease, the scale of the public lives that long drove Israel’s politics becomes, at least for the time it takes to read an obituary, alive again in an imagination not much fired any more by the biographies of public servants. But Shamir’s was an epic story and it is impossible to trim his life to a sentence, leaving out the prison breaks, assassinations and Holocaust. He went from robbing banks to support a terrorist organization committed to establishing a Jewish state, to serving longer as its prime minister than all but one other person.
The record-holder remains David Ben-Gurion, the erudite, socialist, and atheist founding father of Israel, who regarded Shamir as a criminal and a thug. Ben-Gurion’s longtime aide, Shimon Peres, who now stands as the last of Israel’s founding generation, would in due course share the prime ministry with the one-time outcast. At 89, Peres himself is finally immensely popular in Israel, the largely ceremonial office of the presidency fitting him like a fine suit. In person only his hands look old, an almost eerie youthfulness on display with Peres’ prodigious, elastic intellect. Each year he hosts an international conference, which always seems to include several panels on brain studies, not by coincidence his pet subject.
Who else fires the imagination? Ariel Sharon remains in his coma, kept alive by feeding tubes the six years since suffering a series of strokes while in office. A junior officer when the giants bestrode the young state, Sharon straddles the founders’ generation much as he does the line between life and death, but is crowded into their vicinity by sheer force of reputation. His great girth seemed of a piece with his rapaciousness as a warrior. Field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, when he was still just Egypt’s defense minister, once asked one of Sharon’s aides if it was true that the great man ate an entire lamb for breakfast every morning. Told the story was apocryphal, Tantawi appeared to regard the denial as dissembling and preferred to go on believing the myth.
Shamir inspired no such legends. “They will not write or say in the eulogies of Yitzhak Shamir that he was a fierce, charismatic leader who knew how to inspire his people,” one of his successors and protégés, Ehud Olmert, wrote in Yedioth Ahronot on Sunday. The headline in Haaretz: “A modest man, an uninspiring leader – and a genuine zealot.” Yet the sweep of his life describes the arc of modern Israel — from its birth in the ashes of the Holocaust, which claimed every member of the family Shamir left in Poland when he emigrated to what was then Palestine – to the new mainstream he thrived amid as inheritor of the Likud, the party that evolved from another Jewish militia regarded as outlaws by the Labor Party mainstream Ben-Gurion led.
Shamir believed in a physically expansive Israel, one that must include the West Bank and Gaza, at the minimum. He encouraged the settlements (as did Perez) and disdained talk of a exchanging land for peace with Arabs who also claimed the territory. “There is the sense that no one had the impact that he had,” the philosopher and journalist Avishai Margalit told the Washington Post. “He was the ultimate true believer in the idea of Greater Israel.” (From TIME’s archives: an interview with Yitzhak Shamir)