Josef Olmert

On leadership and resilience – In memory of Yitzhak Shamir

A year passed since the death of one of the least-appreciated, least-understood and yet best
Prime Ministers of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir.I should state from the outset, that i did not belong to his
close circle, nor was his confidant , not even in agreement with some of his opinions. In fact, i found myself in the past, as well as now
in many disagreements with him, but that aside, i am an admirer of the man.

My background is that of a family of Irgun members, not that of Lehi, Shamir’s organization.I disagreed with the doctrine
of Malkhut Israel as espoused by the leader and founder of Lehi, Yair Stern.I believe that the assassinations by Lehi members
of Lord Moyne and Count Bernadotte, both unpleasant, Jew- haters , were nevertheless politically wrong. The Left-wing , pro-
Soviet deviation of the Lehi faction led by Nathan Yelin-Mor was a critical political mistake, but even all these years when
I could reflect on pre-state history, without knowing personally some of the leading figures behind the heroic struggle
of the Yishuv for national liberation, i was intrigued by the most anonymous of them all, Yitzhak Shamir.
For him, the struggle for independence never ended, so he continued to serve the nation in secrecy for many
years to , until he finally came to the open and joined Herut and Gahal.
After the Likud historic election victory in 1977, he was elected Speaker of the Knesset. There was a joke related to the
late Menachem Begin, saying to his trusted aide, Yechiel Kadishay, that ”’we made the head of Lehi the Speaker”, no doubt reflecting the
sense, that the misguded though well-meaning Lehi members finally rejoined the big Revisionist family…

Jokes notwithstanding, Shamir was a very serious person, not a light weight at all.
He chose, as he told me, the nom- de- guerre Michael, after the famous Irish freedom fighter Michael Collins. I asked him”
why did you choose the name of the Irish leader who agreed to make peace with England without the attainment of the unification
of Ireland” and Shamir responded that he admired his guerilla tactics, not his relative political moderation…

Asking Shamir questions and talking to him became possible for me as of November 1989, when he appointed me Director of the Government
Press Office, a unit in the P.M Office.
I was surprised when the offer came, and much more , when it became clear to me that the P.M was ready to enable me
to fulfill my job in a way that not always pleased some of his other and much closer aides.
I had the privilege of having regular one-on-one meetings with the P.M , and in these meetings i discovered
highly knowledgeable person, a man of principles and deep convictions, a leader who in his sixties learnt a new language
English, and used it in very sensitive diplomatic negotiations, such as with Secretary of State James Baker.
These were the days after Desert Storm operation, when the US and Israel were on a collision course
regarding the possibility of convening a Middle East peace conference, a scenario not so liked by the P.M who
feared that the US would expect Israeli concessions as part of an American effort to win favors with the Arab world. And that even though Israel
was a loyal partner of the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein, and after Israel was in the receiving
end of Iraqi aggression in the form of 42 Scud missiles fired at Israeli population centers.
During the war itself, the P.M had to show his leadership skills in face of strong pressure being put by his
loyal Defense Minister and presumed successor, Moshe[Misha] Arens. The latter claimed, that Israel was losing its deterrent power
if remaining passive in face of the aggression, Shamir said no and Shamir was right. With iron nerves he navigated Israeli
policy during the war, and he did what he felt necessary, not because of any misplaced trust in the Bush-Baker administration.
As a matter of fact, he did not trust them, and that was an attitude ingrained in a man who did not exercise the Holocaust
himself, but was so cognizant of its legacy and implications. Yet, the die-hard nationalist was a man of the world, he had a realistic sense
of the world situation, and he was a great believer that resilience in face of hostility and what is seen as built-in anti-Jewish
world bias was of the essence.
So, no wonder that he viewed the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the subsequent wave of Jewish immigration to Israel
as a complete vindication of his steadfast strategy.”Time”, he told me ”is on our side, on the side of those who make the
best use of it.”
It was this attitude which led him to go to the Madrid peace conference , even though he harbored no illusions about the outcome.
When asked about it, he made it clear, that he did not want to fight the Americas over something that wasn’t worth it. Struggles with the country which he also
believed was friendly, though problematic, were to be conducted over issues of substance, not so much those of tactics.

Few months after we were in Madrid, I dared suggesting to him to try and do something about Syria, as i contended, that the great hope
of Madrid was fading, the public opinion polls ahead of the 23 JUNE 1992 were bad, and an election defeat for Likud was looming large.
”So what”, the leader retorted,” I do not believe that the Golan Heights belong to Syria. They belong to us, and I rather
lose elections, than lose my conscience!”
These were the words of a leader from another generation, and of another calibre.
Today, as we watch the mayhem in Syria, I leave to the readers to decide if he was not right back then in 1992.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina