Before becoming a statesman, however, Shamir spent time living alone in orange groves, and moving stealthily through Jerusalem crowds dressed as a Hasidic rabbi. He was on the run from British troops who controlled present-day Israel in the years between World War I and 1948. As a leader of the Lehi militia, also known as the Stern Gang, Shamir plotted assassinations, including the Cairo shooting of Lord Moyne, the top British official in the Middle East. Born Icchak Jazernicki, he took the Hebrew name “Shamir” after emigrating. It translates as “thorn.”
“A man who goes forth to take the life of another whom he does not know must believe one thing only — that by his act he will change the course of history,” Shamir once said. Captured twice, he also escaped twice, the second time from a prison in Eritrea in 1948. The government of the new state he found on his return had no place for him, at least at first. But he got work by 1955 in Mossad, the Israeli state clandestine service that operates overseas, sometimes ruthlessly. When Shamir shifted to politics, it was in the party run by Menachem Begin, whose own pre-independence militia, the Irgun, also operated on the rightward fringe ( though not at the extremes of Lehi).
Shamir succeeded Begin as premier in 1983, at age 68, and brought a spymaster’s habits to the job. “He often met separately with each aide,” the Post’s Glenn Frankel noted, “compartmentalizing tasks and duties. There were huge gaps in his official diary, when aides said Mr. Shamir spent his time alone poring over diplomatic cables and intelligence reports. He preferred raw data from field agents.”
Stolid and diminutive at barely five feet tall, Shamir nonetheless loomed so large — and served so long — that the official announcement of his death could not avoid the question of stature: Shamir “belonged to the generation of giants who founded the State of Israel,” said the statement issued by the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who, in elections expected next year, is positioned to surpass Shamir’s tenure in office. He might not have enjoyed living to see it, according to Chemi Shalev, who covered Shamir for Haaretz. Shamir “disliked ‘professional politicians’ and was no great fan of Shimon Peres… nor… Netanyahu, the Likud superstar who would eventually take Shamir’s place after his 1992 electoral loss to Yitzhak Rabin,” Shalev wrote. “Netanyahu’s slick, American-style politicking was alien to Shamir, and his willingness to grudgingly adopt the Oslo Accords in order to win over centrist voters in the 1996 elections was viewed by Shamir both as betrayal and as a vindication of his earlier mistrust.”
But it’s also possible he would not have minded. The single-mindedness that drove him as a young man remained with Shamir into his late 80s, according to Olmert, who recounted a Saturday night phone call from his old mentor in November 2003.
“Did you see the news?” Shamir asked, “agitated and excited” watching coverage of car bomb attacks on Istanbul synagogues. There was still blood on the streets. “The reporter asked a Jew, wrapped in a prayer shawl, if he was afraid,” Olmert wrote. “ The Jew replied: “No, I am not scared.” The reporter asked him “How are you not afraid?” and he replied “Because the State of Israel exists.”