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Yitzhak Shamir’s Do-Nothing Legacy

The late prime minister’s fatal flaw was reluctance to act

Liel Leibovitz
July 02, 2012
Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister in 1991.(Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty Images)
Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister in 1991.(Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty Images)

As is the case with the death of any major dignitary, the passing of Yitzhak Shamir elicited its share of encomia. They’re well-deserved: Humble and strong-willed, Shamir embodied the sort of leadership—anchored in ideals, uninterested in spoils—that is rarely in evidence in contemporary Israel, or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. No matter what you thought of his history with the Stern Gang or his hard-line politics, it was hard to consider Shamir and not be moved by his sense of stony dedication to his cause, the building and strengthening of the state of Israel.

But while we praise Shamir’s many good qualities, we should also pay special attention to one of his key flaws, a flaw that he’s passed along, like DNA, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That flaw is the belief that Israel’s best bet is to do absolutely nothing.

The New York Times obituary of Shamir neatly captured this belief when it quoted the late prime minister as saying that his plan for his second term in office was to “keep things as they are.” For Shamir, such caution wasn’t merely a political strategy; it was an existential philosophy. “With our long, bitter experience,” goes the rest of the quote cited in the Times, “we have to think twice before we do something.”

This inherent belief in inaction set Shamir apart from previous occupants of Israel’s top office, whether they were in the tradition of the Labor-left or shared Shamir’s own right-wing, Revisionist, Likudnik outlook. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir were proactive state-builders and assertive in their foreign relations policies. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin risked much to promote their peace initiatives, and Ariel Sharon, Shamir’s rival for Likud supremacy in the 1980s, orchestrated Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Shamir, on the other hand, was the Bartleby of the Knesset, replying to any proposal that came his way that he would simply prefer not to.

Until he could demur no more: In the spring of 1991, with President George H.W. Bush determined to convene a peace conference in Madrid, Shamir bet everything on his obduracy—and lost. Bush, popular in the wake of the Gulf War and just as strong-willed as his Israeli counterpart, forced Shamir to the negotiating table. Before too long, the Israeli electorate followed Bush’s lead and voted in a leader, Rabin, who knew how to seize opportunities and give peace a chance.

In his late years, Shamir was highly critical of Netanyahu for what he believed to be the latter’s excessive leniency toward the Palestinians. But the young Netanyahu had studied his elder well: More than any other Israeli prime minister since Shamir, he’d mastered the art of saying no. As opposition leader, he rejected the Saudi-led peace initiative. As prime minister, he rejected Hillary Clinton’s warning that the settlements were “unhelpful” to the peace process; stymied George Mitchell’s mediating efforts by insisting that the Palestinians not only recognize Israel’s right to exist, but also recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state (on the ridiculousness of this rhetorical device, see here); and butted heads with President Obama every chance he got. He has made no real efforts to promote negotiations with the Palestinians, no discernible large-scale moves to strengthen the settlement movement (with the exception of a few hilltops here and there), no big plays to radically alter anything. He did, as Sharon’s finance minister, speed up the ruinous Thatcherization of Israel’s economy, adhering to an aggressive neo-liberal agenda that left the lower and middle classes with less economic security than ever; but even that, Netanyahu’s most memorable policy as a leader, was nothing more than a faithful implementation of Likud’s traditional core economic policies.

Luckily for Netanyahu, doing nothing seems, in the short term, to serve Israel’s policies well. For now, the Israeli economy is strong (even if it is not just), and the Palestinian leadership is weak. But Netanyahu would do well to note Yitzhak Shamir’s true legacy: Without a sustainable vision for the future, without the courage to take risks, without working closely with the international community, there was only so far both he and the country he loved could go.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.