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Shamir's years as prime minister were characterized by expansion of U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, including the designation of Israel as a major non-NATO ally of the U.S.
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Yitzhak Shamir viewed aliyah as a top priority and worked with then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to allow the mass immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir Passes Away

Yitzhak Shamir, who served as Israel’s prime minister longer than anyone but David Ben-Gurion, died June 30 at the age of 96. A native of Poland whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust and who immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1935, Shamir was among the last of a generation of men and women who were the founding fathers and mothers of Israel.

Early Activism

Yitzhak Shamir was born in 1915 in the Polish village of Ruzhany, then part of the Russian Empire and now in Belarus. Later a law student at Warsaw University, he became involved with Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, and cut his studies short in 1935 to immigrate to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.

Shamir continued his activism under the Mandate, first joining the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a Zionist paramilitary group that opposed British control of Palestine. He later became a top commander in Lehi, or the Stern Gang, a group that engaged in revolutionary war tactics against British officials in the country. Shamir’s involvement with Lehi made him a target for the UK government, leading to his imprisonment by the British authorities in 1941 and deportation to Africa in 1946.

Returning to Israel following the Jewish state’s declaration of independence, Shamir joined the Mossad, where he worked until 1965. In 1970 he became a member of the Herut party headed by Menachem Begin, and in 1973 won a seat in the Knesset representing Likud, which had absorbed Herut. When Likud won power in 1977, Shamir was made speaker of the Knesset. In 1980 he was named foreign minister by Begin, whom he succeeded as Israel’s seventh prime minister in 1983. Shamir held this position until 1984 and again between 1986 and 1988, as part of a rotation arrangement with Shimon Peres. In 1988 he won his own term and remained prime minister until 1992.

Aliyah as a Top Priority

Shamir will be remembered for acceding to a U.S. request to refrain from attacking Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991, even as Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv. As foreign minister, he presided over negotiations with Egypt on the post-peace treaty normalization process, and later led Israel to the historic 1991 Madrid Conference – Israel’s first summit meeting with the Arab states – which heralded the beginning of the peace process.

A particular cause that Shamir held dear throughout his life and was a top priority for him as prime minister was Jewish immigration to Israel. Already in the 1960s he began efforts to bring Soviet Jews to Israel, and he saw these efforts come to fruition as prime minister, with the waves of aliyah of the early 1990s that eventually brought a million Jews to Israel.

During the same time period, Shamir became increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia. Though most had been evacuated to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984 or immigrated in small groups in subsequent years, a few thousand remained behind. They faced growing danger in the early 1990s, as Ethiopia descended into civil war and successful rebel advances against the Ethiopian army threatened the already unstable regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Aware of the worsening political situation in Ethiopia, Israeli and American officials took action. The U.S. administration arranged for Mengistu to flee the country and convinced the acting president of Ethiopia to allow the Jews to leave, in return for $35 million to be raised by the American Jewish community.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, planned a complex mass rescue, and in May 1991 Shamir ordered the airlifting of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in what came to be known as Operation Solomon. Thirty-four Israeli planes transported the Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel in less than a day and a half, accomplishing one of the most dramatic evacuation operations in recent history.

“They are the remnants of a Jewish community that lasted for thousands of years, who are now coming back to their country,” Shamir declared, greeting the first plane to land at Ben-Gurion Airport. “They have come back to their homeland.”

A Tough Leader

Whether as a member of the pre-state underground or as prime minister, Shamir always acted out of a deep sense of responsibility for Israel and the Jewish people. And he stuck to a set of firmly held views on the integrity of the Land of Israel, which he believed reflected this responsibility. “If he wants something, it may take a long time, but he’ll never let go,” Avi Pazner, his media adviser, once said.

Thus, even those with whom Shamir differed frequently came to understand his views and respect the man behind them. Following a 1990 meeting between Shamir, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Republican Leader Bob Dole, the latter told Shamir: “The Majority Leader and I respect you—although we disagree with your policies—because you are tough!”