Former Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir Dies at 96: A Personal Memory

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has just died at the age of 96. Rather than discuss his broader career, I’d like to tell you about my most memorable meeting with him.

It was January 13, 1991. Everyone in the world knew that in 48 hours, a U.S.-led coalition was scheduled to attack Iraq in order to force Saddam Hussein’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Saddam had announced  that if the coalition attacked he would strike at Israel with long-range missiles, possibly with biological or chemical warheads.

I was asked by a visiting American delegation to accompany it to a meeting with the prime minister. We arrived at the prime minister’s office and went to his quite modest meeting room. Along with Shamir was Elyakim Rubinstein, then the cabinet secretary but today a Supreme Court justice. I won’t tell you his name but the group’s leader, let’s call him Mr. Bird, later held high diplomatic positions in the U.S. government.

Shamir sought to break the ice with a friendly question. “So,” he said to the delegation’s leader, “how long are you planning to be here? A week?”

I don’t know if he was joking about the impending deadline but a look of pure fear and panic leaped onto Mr. Bird’s face. “Are you kidding!” His voice shook with dismay. “We’re getting out of here tomorrow!” (Those were his precise words.)

Almost immediately, however, he realized that he was making himself look like a fool. He tried to calm down and recover. So he added, albeit with equal ham-handedness, “But I guess you have to stay here.” (Honest, that’s what he said.)

Rubinstein answered with a big smile on his face: “Oh, no. We don’t have to stay here. We just happen to like it here.” I will never forget the even bigger smile on Shamir’s face. Mr. Bird and all the little birds who fancied themselves great statesmen and Middle East experts had no idea what had just happened.

The rest of the meeting was mere anti-climax. Shamir did what he had to do during the war that followed. More than three dozen missiles hit Israel but Shamir kept to his promise to the U.S. government, that Israel would remain passive and let the Americans go after the launchers in western Iraq. Some American anti-missile crews came to Israel. The defensive missiles didn’t do much good and the U.S. government didn’t keep its promise to reward Israel after the war, though U.S. aid for Israeli missile systems continues to this day.

Shamir was not a charismatic man. He didn’t appear enough during the war to reassure Israelis and to provide public leadership. Still, he did what he needed to do. Whatever my policy disagreements with him, Shamir, like Yitzhak Rabin, was an honest man of Spartan habits who genuinely sought to serve his people.

Compared to the arrogant foreign politicians who always thought they knew better what Israel should do and the know-it-alls who would have quickly run away if faced by similar problems, Shamir was modest, rock steady, and more concerned with doing what he thought to be right than what he expected to look good in the mass media.

He helped build a country that is—as any Israeli will tell you in the first sixty seconds—far from perfect but also one where people in the shadow of a threatened war of extinction could remain cool-headed, do what is necessary, and say, “We just happen to like it here.”

May his memory be blessed.

Note: A friend says of the New York Times obituary of Shamir that it reads as if it came from a Hamas newspaper. I'll leave the punchline to you.