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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1996, p. 87

Middle East History—It Happened In October

Ex-Terrorist Shamir Becomes the Likud’s New Leader of Israel

By Donald Neff

It was 13 years ago, on Oct. 10, 1983, that former pre-state terrorist Yitzhak Shamir became Israel’s new prime minister, making him the second leader from the nationalist Likud party to rule the Jewish state.1 At the time Shamir was 67, a dedicated member of the Likud who in his inaugural speech vowed to continue the “holy work” of establishing settlements on Palestinian land in the territories occupied by Israeli forces since 1967.2 He was as good as his word, as had been the Likud party’s first prime minister, Menachen Begin, and as its third and latest prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is likely to be.

The right of settlement is a core belief of the revisionist Zionist Likud, and both Begin and Shamir were passionate in their efforts to establish and expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

When Begin came to power in 1977, there were about 50,000 Jews living in Arab East Jerusalem and about 7,000 in 45 settlements in the West Bank and in an additional 45 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.3 When Begin left office six years later, there were close to 200 settlements in all the occupied territories, with about 22,000 Jewish settlers in the territories and 100,000 in Arab East Jerusalem. Under Begin, the pattern of settlements essentially established the central points for Jewish settlement throughout the territories.

Shamir’s contribution over the next decade was to substantially thicken and expand the carefully laid out settlements.4 When Shamir finally left office in mid-1992, there were some 245,000 Jews in some 250 settlements, including Arab East Jerusalem.5

The ambitious settlement programs of Begin and Shamir stemmed from the belief that Jews have a God-given right to Eretz Yisrael, all of the Land of Israel ruled by ancient Israelites. That claim is central to the Likud manifesto, which unequivocally states: “The right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael is eternal and indisputable, and linked to our right to security and peace. The State of Israel has a right and a claim to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. In time, Israel will invoke this claim and strive to realize it. Any plan involving the hand-over of parts of western Eretz Yisrael to foreign rule, as proposed by the Labor Alignment, denies our right to this country.”6

The reference to “western Eretz Yisrael” is to Palestine. Begin and Shamir were both firm believers that the rest of Eretz Yisrael lay to the east—modern-day Jordan. Like all Likudniks, Netanyahu most likely also believes that, although he has been diplomatically silent on the subject.

While Begin was no slouch in invoking the right of settlement, Shamir brought a new level of arrogance to it in his public declarations asserting the Jews’ birthright to Eretz Yisrael. He became notorious for his repeated declaration that “for the sake of the Land of Israel it’s all right to lie.” His critics say he followed his own advice with a vengeance.7

Shamir’s passion about the settlement issue became particularly intense in the first half of 1992 when he faced June elections and, at the same time, a concerted effort by President George Bush to link the granting of $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to a halt to Israel’s establishment of new settlements [see “Middle East History,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 1995]. In defiance of Bush, Shamir on Jan. 20, 1992, launched his re-election campaign in the settlement of Betar Illit on the occupied West Bank. He told the Jewish settlers: “No force in the world will stop this construction. We say to ourselves, and to the Gentiles of the world and to the next generations, here will be our homeland, here will be our home, forever and ever.”8

It was reported President Bush “went ballistic” when he heard of Shamir’s remarks. No public comment was made by the White House, but clearly the battle had been joined by Shamir and Bush.9 The bitterness of the fight over the next six months was eventually to contribute to Shamir’s loss of the election.

On Jan. 26, Shamir returned to the settlement theme in a speech to Jewish journalists in Jerusalem. Though he had been speaking in Hebrew, he switched to English when he said: “To avoid any misunderstandings, Israel and all those people who represent Israel are not talking or not speaking about any freeze of settlements. Please forget about it.”10 On Feb. 13, Shamir said: “Even an implicit understanding that there be no housing starts is out of the question. Anything that can be perceived as a freeze is something that this government cannot live with.”11

When the State Department announced on May 12 that the United States continued to support United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, which called for the return or compensation for the nearly three-quarters of a million Palestinians driven from their homes in the 1948 war, Shamir responded in public, defiantly declaring: “It will never happen in any way, shape or form. There is only a Jewish right of return to the land of Israel.”12 A week later Shamir earmarked $470 million for new development, including $40 million for industrial development in the territories and $430 million for new housing, with 10,000 of the 17,000 new units in the territories.

During the election campaign Shamir openly spelled out the underlying reason why settlements were necessary. It was, he explained, aimed at preventing a territorial compromise with the Palestinians. This was to be accomplished by having so many settlers live in the territories that “the dream of territorial compromise will disappear, like a dream,” Shamir said.13

It was this strategy that explains Shamir’s and Likud’s intense insistence that Jews have a right and a duty to settle the occupied territories. Shamir and his Likud colleagues hope that at some point the number of Jewish settlers will become so great that no government would be strong enough to dislodge them. That in turn explains why Likud governments have traditionally been so careful to stretch out any talks about peace. As Shamir himself admitted after his defeat by Yitzhak Rabin on June 23, 1992: “I would have conducted [peace] negotiations for 10 years, and in the meantime we would have reached half a million souls in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]....Without such a basis there would be nothing to stop the establishment of a Palestinian state.”14

Thus when the new Likud prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, insists that peace talks “have to advance very slowly” and at the same time insists that Jews have a right to settle anywhere in the occupied territories,15 he is doing more than merely repeating old Likud campaign slogans. He probably is saying that he, like his Likud predecessors, wants enough time to move so many Jews onto Palestinian land that there will be no future possibility for the Palestinians to establish their own state.


Bell, J. Bowyer, Terror Out of Zion, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1977.

Bethell, Nicholas, The Palestine Triangle: The Struggle for the Holy Land, 1935-48. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.

Brenner, Lenni, The Iron Wall: Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir, London, Zed Books Ltd., 1984.

Frank, Gerald, The Deed, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1963.

Marton, Kati, A Death in Jerusalem, New York, Pantheon Books, 1994.

Quigley, John, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice, Durham, Duke University Press, 1990.

Sprinzak, Ehud, The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.


1 An interesting probe into the beliefs of the Stern Gang, of which Shamir was a leader, and of Shamir’s character is in Israel Shahak’s “Yitzhak Shamir, Then and Now, Middle East Policy, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992. Shahak recalls the assassination of Lehi commander Eliyahu Giladi on Shamir’s orders, and concludes that Shamir should be “perceived as an individual ready to murder his closest friends without any residual misgivings,” p. 38. Shamir’s direct involvement in the 1948 assassination of Count Bernadotte and his early career are detailed in Marton, A Death in Jerusalem. For a profile of Shamir’s governing style, see Glenn Frankel, Washington Post, 10/16/88. A good study of Shamir’s beliefs is in Avishai Margalit, “The Violent Life of Yitzhak Shamir,” The New York Review of Books, 5/14/92. A general profile of Shamir can be found in Sol Stern & Louis Rappoport, “Israel’s Man of the Shadows,” The Village Voice, 7/3/84, while his early career is detailed in Gerald Frank’s The Deed. A sympathetic profile by one of his aides is given in a story by Sarah Honig, Jerusalem Post International Edition, 1/6/90. Also see Mark Tessler, “The Political Right in Israel:Its Origins, Growth, and Prospects,”Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 1986, pp. 12-55.

2 Quigley, Palestine and Israel , p. 176.

3 Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Special Report, July 1991 (Washington, DC); Aronson, “Creating Facts.”

4 Author interview with Geoffrey Aronson, 1/24/94.

5 Associated Press, Washington Times, 5/9/92.

6 Elfi Pallis, “The Likud Party:APrimer,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 1992, pp. 42-43.

7 Avishai Margalit, “The Violent Life of Yitzhak Shamir, The New York Review of Books, 5/14/92.

8 Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 1/21/92.

9 Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Washington Post, 1/24/92.

10 New York Times, 1/27/92.

11 Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 2/14/92.

12 Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 5/15/92.

13 Jackson Diehl, Washington Post, 5/28/92.

14 Clyde Haberman, New York Times , 6/27/92; David Hoffman, Washington Post, 6/27/92.

15 Edward Cody, Washington Post, 6/26/96.