Prime Minister of Israel 1983-1984 and 1986-1992
Foreign Minister of Israel 1980-1986
Yitzhak Shamir – underground leader, spymaster, parliamentarian and the seventh Prime Minister of the State of Israel – was born Yizhak Yzernitzky in Ruzinoy, Poland in 1915. He attended Bialystok Hebrew secondary school and at age 14 joined the Betar youth movement. In 1935 he left Warsaw, where he was studying law, moved to Palestine and enrolled at the Hebrew University.
In 1937, opposing the mainstream Zionist policy of restraint vis-à-vis the British Mandatory administration, Shamir joined the Irgun Tzeva’i Le’umi (Etzel) – the Revisionist underground organization – and in 1940 became a member of the small, but more militant, faction led by Avraham Stern, the Lehi (Lohamei Herut Israel – Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), that broke away from the larger body. There, as part of the leadership troika, he coordinated organizational and operational activities.
Twice arrested by the British – during and after World War II – Shamir escaped both times, the second time in 1947 from the British prison camp in Eritrea to neighboring French Djibouti. Granted political asylum in France, he returned to Palestine in 1948 and resumed command of the Lehi until it was disbanded following the establishment of the State of Israel.
After several years during which he managed commercial enterprises, Shamir joined Israel’s security services in the mid-1950s and held senior positions in the Mossad. He returned to private commercial activity in the mid-1960s and became involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. In 1970 he joined Menachem Begin’s opposition Herut party and became a member of its Executive. In 1973 he was elected a Member of Knesset for the Likud party – a position he held for the next 23 years. During his first decade as a parliamentarian, Shamir was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and, in 1977, became Speaker of the Knesset. In this capacity he presided over the historic appearance of Egyptian President Sadat in the Knesset and the debate over ratifying the Camp David Accords two years later. He abstained in the vote on the Accords, primarily because of the requirement to dismantle settlements.
Yitzhak Shamir served as Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1980 and 1983. Among his achievements were closer ties with Washington – reflected in the Memorandum of Understanding on strategic cooperation with the United States and the agreement in principle on free trade between the two nations. Shamir also initiated diplomatic contacts with many African countries which had severed diplomatic ties during the 1973 oil crisis. After the 1982 "Operation Peace for Galilee," Yitzhak Shamir directed negotiations with Lebanon which led to the 1983 peace agreement (which was, however, never ratified by the Lebanese government).
Following the resignation of Menachem Begin in October 1983, Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister until the general elections in the fall of 1984. During this year, Shamir concentrated on economic matters – the economy was suffering from hyper-inflation – while also nurturing closer strategic ties with the United States.
Indecisive results in the 1984 general elections led to the formation of a National Unity Government based on a rotation agreement between Shamir and Labor leader Shimon Peres. Shamir served as Vice-Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs for two years, while Shimon Peres was Prime Minister. Subsequently, Shamir served for six years as Prime Minister – from 1986 to 1992 – first heading a National Unity Government, and then as head of a narrow coalition government.
Yitzhak Shamir’s second term as Prime Minister was marked by two major events: the 1991 Gulf War, in which Shamir – despite Iraqi missile attacks on Israel’s civilian population – chose a policy of restraint; and the October 1991 Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid that inaugurated direct talks between Israel and the neighboring Arab states as well as multilateral regional talks. Two momentous events overshadowed other issues on the public agenda. The first, beginning in 1989, was the victory in the long struggle for Jewish emigration from the USSR, which brought 450,000 immigrants to Israel in the next two years; the second was "Operation Solomon," in May 1991, in which 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued and brought to Israel in a massive airlift.
After his party lost the 1992 elections, Shamir stepped down from the party leadership and in 1996 also retired from the Knesset.