Yitzhak Shamir : Israel’s Fervent Warrior Caught in the Maelstrom of Peace

<i> Dan Fisher is the editor of the World Report section of The Times. Nathan P. Gardels is the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly. They interviewed Yitzhak Shamir during the Prime Minister's visit to Los Angeles last week</i>

The Hebrew surname that Yitzhak Shamir adopted on his arrival from his native Poland in what was then British-ruled Palestine, in 1935, is taken from a type of Biblical stone noted for being so hard it would cut other stones.

It’s a name that seems particularly fitting for the stocky, square-shouldered, Israeli Prime Minister who has spent nearly all his 75 years in pursuit of what he sees as the supreme interests of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

“Peace is very important, but not more important than the security of our people,” he said in a 1986 interview. “I’m not a follower of peace at any price.” When he saw the interests of his people blocked by the British in Palestine, he fought them so tenaciously as a leader of the extreme “Stern Gang,” the Jewish underground, that he was labeled by a British high commissioner as one of the “most fanatical terrorist leaders.”

In the early days of the Israeli state, Shamir fought to secure its interests as a senior operative for the Mossad intelligence service. He became a member of the Israeli Parliament in 1973, and, for the past 11 years, has been either foreign minister, prime minister or deputy prime minister. But perhaps because of all those years in the shadows, Shamir seems stiff and uncomfortable in public--though he is often amiable and even charming in private.


More than his mentor, Menachem Begin, Shamir has a reputation for taking a hard line in Israel’s continuing conflict with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors. He abstained during the parliamentary votes that approved Begin’s Camp David agreements with Egypt. He makes clear his commitment to retain Israeli sovereignty over the other territories captured during the 1967 War--the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

To him, there is no parallel in the Palestinian quest for statehood and Israel’s history. The big difference between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the pre-state Jewish underground, he has said, is, “They fought to destroy our country, not to create their own. Theirs was a negative purpose; ours was a positive purpose.”

Yet it was Shamir who decided to personally lead the Israeli delegation into unprecedented peace talks that began in Madrid late last month.

During a stopover in Los Angeles last week, the Israeli premier made clear he intends to continue taking personal charge as the talks move into their subsequent stages. “We will not have a more important problem,” he explained over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel. “It has to do with our existence, with our future, and we have to take the . . . full responsibility on it.”


Question: If you were in (Syrian President) Hafez Assad’s seat right now, what would be your objective?

Answer: Well, I can’t pretend to give advice to Hafez Assad. I think he has enough advisers. If the goal is to be peace, then it is quite clear. There is only one way to make peace with Israel. And I think that it is in the best interest of Assad and Syria to find a way to make this peace. I will not go into details, but the goal, the direction, the intention has to be to get peace with Israel.

Q: Coming to the peace talks did not convince you that was his intention?

A: Not exactly. He never said peace with Israel. He never said it, and he is not very enthusiastic about the term “peace.” He speaks rather about “settlement.” He is not in love with the vision of peace.

Q: Practically your entire life has been given to establishing the Jewish state in the Middle East and then achieving security and recognition. Under those circumstances, could you discuss your views and emotions when you first sat down publicly with representatives of your Arab neighbors in the Royal Palace of Madrid? Did you have any sense of history?

A: For me it was the beginning of the new era. . . . We can never ignore the fact that, in this region, Jews and Arabs were left to live together, and if this is the verdict of history then they have to live peacefully with each other.

And our task is to find a political formula for this living together, this coexistence. And I am sure we will find it, one day or another, in this framework of the peace process that started in Madrid, or in another framework. But we have to work for it. . . .

Q: This would appear to be a time for what we call confidence-building measures. What unilateral measures from the Arab side would most convince Israel that the Arabs want peace?


A: They have to say that they want peace with us. Not just general peace, theoretical peace, abstract peace. They have to say that they want peace with Israel, with the people of Israel, with the state of Israel. And say it in a way that we will be convinced in the sincerity of the people who say it.

You know, I remember the way the late President Sadat expressed this same wish of him on behalf of Egypt. And everybody in Israel trusted him. We have not accepted all his conditions of peace, but we have been impressed by this will for peace with Israel. And we are still waiting for it. Such a cold, such a waste from the Arab world.

Q: From the Arab side, when they talk about measures Israel might take to help build confidence, their talk usually turns first to settlements.

A: Well, it is a matter of negotiations. You can’t bring and propose everything on the agenda of the negotiations. I have said several times that settlements are a part of the territorial program, and the territorial program is an important part of our conflict. It is a fact. Nobody could ignore it. We have a conflict--there is a conflict between Israel and the Arabs and the Arab world. And one important part of the conflict is the territorial issue. It is not only one issue. And we have to discuss it, and the existence of settlements . . . is an integral part of this territorial issue. And let us negotiate about this.

Q: Apart from those issues where negotiations are necessary, are there unilateral actions that would be proper for Israel to take to demonstrate its good faith?

A: First of all, I don’t think we have to commence, that we have to start, with unilateral steps. I think we have to come to an understanding about binding commitments of both sides. And then, as a result of these understandings, to decide and to agree about appropriate steps. I wouldn’t propose to make it on another way, a contradictory way.

I would say let us first of all understand, get an understanding about our positions, and then, after we will cut the understanding, we will have to conclude which steps we will have to take together in accordance with the understandings we have reached.

Q: Can you give any tangible example of an understanding? For example, would you halt settlements at any point?


A: It is a matter not of settlements, it is a matter of the borders of the frontiers. And the moment we will have agreed on the borders, nobody will speak about settlements because, if you recognize the right of one party to its territory, it is clear that he has the right to do anything he wishes on this territory. It is not a matter of settlements.

Q: Which is to say, to be clear, in the so-called occupied territories, settlements are not an issue you are concerned with?

A: We don’t recognize and we don’t accept the term “occupied territories.” We have never “occupied” territories. We have never occupied territories of a foreign country. There was never, in the Middle East, a Palestinian country. Therefore, we have never occupied territories that do not belong to us. The matter is, to whom belongs this and this land. The moment you come to an understanding about it, there will not be any talking about settlements.

Q: What is there to talk to the Palestinians about, then? If there are no borders, they cannot agree on borders with Israel.

A: They have some claims. Let them express their claims. But we have to not forget that, in the first stage of our negotiations with them, we were left to discuss the problem of autonomy, of self-government, for this Palestinian population living under our control, our rule. And you are right. There will not be any matter of borders.

Q: Is there any reason why land-use would not be acceptable to you as something the Palestinians could do under self-rule?

A: Well, I don’t think that I have to commence now the negotiations with you. And you know, a great part of it, of all these matters, have been discussed in the Camp David agreement, in the negotiations 12 years ago. Or less, in 1982. Even in 1981. Even the Palestinian Arabs will accept all of what their predecessors, the Egyptians, have accepted. If they accepted, we can accept it too.

Q: The Palestinians in Madrid did adopt a relatively moderate tone toward the negotiations and then we saw images of young Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza heaping olive branches on Israeli army Jeeps instead of throwing stones. What do you think of this apparent Palestinian moderation in terms of peace prospects?

A: Well, I don’t know if it is moderation or not. Anyhow, anything that is not violence is better than violence. And the Palestinians will get a lot of credit if they stop all kinds of violence. But it is up to them.

Q: Would that influence Israeli public opinion or the position of the government in negotiations?

A: Maybe. But we are not asking them for it now, in the framework of these negotiations. We are asking for it, as a government, to people who live under its control. It is in their interest not to use any violence, because all these violent matters are useless. From their point of view, they do not bring any positive results with them. And, I think that they have already--they had already--enough time to conclude that Israel will not be impressed by any violent act against it. Therefore I think that it would be positive and constructive if they decide to cease it.

Q: As many as 86% of Americans supported President Bush’s delay in considering the $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel seeks to house Soviet Jewish immigrants. If anything, concern about domestic U.S. problems is increasing and the President’s poll ratings are plummeting--in part, apparently, as he is perceived to be neglecting domestic problems and concentrating on foreign-policy issues. Is Israel concerned?

A: We cannot be involved with American problems. It is not for us, and it was always our policy to distance ourselves from any American internal problems. We are not involved in it. We have our proposals, our aspirations. And the President of the U.S. and the Congress, they know that we need the help of the absorption of our immigrants coming from the Soviet Union. And we think that these proposals are justified. And we think it is a good idea, because on one end they will be a great help in solving a great humanitarian issue and, on the other hand, they will not be a burden for the American budget.

Q: The latest figures show that, meanwhile, Soviet immigration is down somewhat this year from last. Is this going to make the case harder for the $10 billion?

A: No. It is not a question of numbers exactly, it is more a question of principle. But, while the immigration is still considerable--10,000 a month, and that means more than 120,000-150,000 a year for a small country like ours--it is a very big immigration. And maybe it will increase as a result of the conditions developing in the Soviet Union. Therefore, I think that we need this help of the loan guarantees for the absorption of the immigrants, because it is relative and everybody understands it, a small country like ours to find in itself the economic forces, the necessary forces, to absorb all the people to provide them with housing, with employment, with schooling, etc. etc.

We will do it. But, of course, we will never close our gates to any Jewish immigrant to come from any corner of the globe. But we have asked the U.S. to help us in it, and we are sure that we will repay the guarantees and the U.S. will not have to pay anything for these guarantees. This is our belief.

Q: What will be your response if conditions are put on the loan guarantees, that they cannot be used in funds for housing in the West Bank?

A: We have stated our position, and our position is that such a humanitarian issue has not to be linked with political conditions. In our experience with the U.S., . . . we have never had conditioned aid, conditioned support to us. And we appreciated it very much. And we still appreciate it, and we hope that we will get it. And, of course, it is an American decision.

Q: A new book, “The Samson Option,” makes charges with regard to the Israeli military nuclear program--about secretiveness dividing U.S.-Israeli relations. Do you have any comment on these charges?

A: . . . . I’ve not read these books. . . . But I will advise anybody, any student of the Middle East, not to spend a minute for these books and the contents of these books. . . . It’s simple lies.