By Ian Deitch, Associated Press
JERUSALEM – Yitzhak Shamir was a fighter for the Jews long before Israel’s creation, an underground leader who led militias against the Arabs and British.
He made no apologies and no compromises — not as an underground fighter, an intelligence agent who hunted Nazis, and as one of Israel’s longest-serving prime ministers who refused to bargain for land.
The 96-year-old Shamir, who clung throughout his life to the belief that Israel should hang onto territory and never trust an Arab regime, died Saturday at a nursing home in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. Israeli media said Shamir had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
Shamir was Israel’s seventh prime minister, serving as premier for seven years, from 1983-84 and 1986-92, leading his party to election victories twice, despite lacking much of the outward charisma that characterizes many modern politicians. Barely over 5 feet (1.52 m) tall and built like a block of granite, he projected an image of uncompromising strength during the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza.
His time in office was eventful, marked by the massive airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the Palestinian uprising and the 1991 Gulf war, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.
“Yitzhak Shamir was a brave warrior before and after the founding of the State of Israel,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres, Shamir’s longtime political opponent. “He was loyal to his views, a great patriot and a true lover of Israel who served his country with integrity and unending commitment. May his memory be blessed.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Shamir “led Israel with a deep loyalty to the nation and to the land and to the eternal values of the Jewish people.”
And the White House praised Shamir for helping to forge strong ties with the U.S.
“Yitzhak Shamir dedicated his life to the State of Israel. From his days working for Israel’s independence to his service as Prime Minister, he strengthened Israel’s security and advanced the partnership between the United States and Israel,” the statement said.
Defeated in the 1992 election, Shamir stepped down as head of the Likud party and watched from the sidelines as his successor, Yitzhak Rabin, negotiated interim land-for-peace agreements with the Palestinians.
The agreements, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel, did nothing to ease his suspicion.
In a 1997 interview with the New York-based Jewish Post, he declared: “The Arabs will always dream to destroy us. I do not believe that they will recognize us as part of this region.”
The Labor movement, in power for Israel’s first three decades, agreed to a 1947 U.N.-proposed partition plan to allow the creation of the Jewish state alongside a Palestinian entity. To Shamir, that was tantamount to treason.
Born Yitzhak Jazernicki in what is now Poland in 1915. Shamir moved to pre-state Palestine in 1935. Most of his family — his parents, two sisters and their husbands and children — stayed behind and were killed in the Holocaust during World War II. In the late 1980s, Shamir disclosed publicly that his father had escaped a train headed for a concentration camp, but then was killed by childhood friends he sought shelter with.
Once in Palestine, Shamir joined LEHI, the most hardline of three Jewish movements fighting for independence from the British mandate authorities, taking over the group’s leadership after the British killed its founder.
The group, better known as the Stern Gang after former leader Abraham Stern, was considered responsible for a string of attacks, including the assassination of United Nations mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem and in September 1948. LEHI commanders considered Bernadotte to be a British agent who cooperated with the Nazis.
Shamir often disguised himself as an orthodox rabbi to avoid arrest by the British. Still, he was captured twice, but escaped from two British detention camps and returned to resistance action. The second camp was in Djibouti, in Africa.
After Israel was founded in 1948, Shamir went into business before entering a career in Israel’s Mossad spy agency. During that time, he carried out operations against Nazi scientists who were helping Israel’s Arab neighbors build rockets. Roni Milo, a former member of parliament who served under Shamir mourned his passing to Israeli TV.
“For years he served in the Mossad and oversaw many important operations,” Milo said. “I once asked him about a street name while walking in Tel Aviv and Shamir said `I know the streets of Cairo and Damascus better than the streets of Tel Aviv.'”
In the mid-1960s he emerged to join the right-wing Herut party, which evolved into the present-day Likud.
Shamir succeeded Menahem Begin as prime minister in 1983 in the aftermath of Israel’s disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
His term was marked by the massive airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the Palestinian uprising and the 1991 Gulf war, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.
During the Gulf war, Shamir went along with American demands not to retaliate for the Iraqi missile strikes. After the war, the United States stepped up pressure to start a Middle East process that could lead in only one direction – compromise with the Arabs.
Exasperated by Shamir’s stubborn refusal to go along with their plans for a regional settlement, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker once went on television, recited the switchboard number of the White House and told Shamir to call when he got serious about peace.
In the end, American pressure bent even Shamir. Despite his deep mistrust of Arab intentions, he agreed to attend the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia.
Shamir hotly rejected the deals his successors made with the Palestinians, in which Israel turned over control of some West Bank land to the Palestinians.
His pleasure at the 1996 election victory of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu soured when Netanyahu continued to negotiate with the Palestinians and carry out land-for-security deals.
Before the 1999 election, Shamir resigned from the Likud and joined a new right-wing block called National Union, headed by Begin’s son, Ze’ev Binyamin.
The party, which rejected any turnover of land to the Palestinians, won only four seats in parliament, though it had seven members of the outgoing legislature on its list.
In 2001, Shamir was given his nation’s highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize awarded annually to outstanding citizens in several fields.
“Dad was an amazing man,” Shamir’s daughter, Gilada, told the Israeli news site Ynet. “He was a family man in the fullest sense of the word, a man who dedicated himself to the State of Israel but never forgot his family, not even for a moment.”
Israeli media said a funeral would be held Monday. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said the funeral procession would leave from Israel’s parliament.
Associated Press writer Mark Lavie contributed to this report.