What Netanyahu learned from Shamir (and others didn’t)

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu eulogized the country's seventh prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. At first glance the two strike very contrasting profiles yet in terms of ideology and policies, they are probably the two most kindred spirits to have held the office.  

Last week Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's seventh Prime Minister, passed away. Israel's current premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, will shortly overtake Shamir as the second longest serving PM in the state's history. At first glance Shamir and Netanyahu strike two very contrasting profiles: Shamir was modest and private; Netanyahu is the in-your-face, cigar-smoking friend to billionaires — “King Bibi.”

Yet in terms of ideology and its political application, they are probably the two most kindred spirits to have ever held Israel's highest elected office. A week of remembering, commentary, and eulogies of Shamir are a timely portal into understanding both the current PM's policies and the journey Israeli politics has taken in reaching an era of almost unchallenged dominance for the politics of intolerant, ethnocentric nationalism.

On entering the PM's office Shamir was only the second Likud leader (or Herut, the political party forerunner to Likud) to break the near 30-year stranglehold on power of the state-founding Labor Zionist movement. Labor was first booted out of office in 1977. Since then (now the majority of Israel's time in existence), Yitzhak Rabin has been Israel's only leader who either did not hail from the Likud or who did not end up leaving Labor for a more center-right or Likud-inspired political home.

So, while the recollections of Shamir this week often had a nostalgic, bygone era feel to them, the real story is of just how faithfully the Shamir path is currently being pursued.

As Prime Minister Shamir oversaw much of the Lebanon War and first intifada, rejected the 1987 Peres-Hussein deal, the so-called “London Agreement” for the occupied Palestinian territories to revert to Jordanian control, held Israeli fire in response to Scud missiles during the first Iraq Gulf War, and attended the Madrid Peace Conference that followed. He was also at the helm for the massive initial wave of post-Soviet immigration to Israel and fought to deny their admittance to the U.S. (making Israel their only escape option), fell out with the George H. W. Bush Administration over the use of loan guarantees for settling those immigrants over the green line, and faced growing discontent over corruption in the ruling Likud party and general economic mismanagement. He even abstained in the Knesset vote on approving the peace treaty with Egypt.

As Chemi Shalev, who covered Shamir extensively during his tenure, put it: “Yitzhak Shamir was a true zealot…a fanatic devotee of his vision of the Jewish people and the Greater Land of Israel…He kept his eye on the only ball that mattered to him — the preservation of the Greater Land of Israel — and viewed everything else as subservient diversions.”

And ex-Haaretz editor David Landau reminded his readership: “'For Eretz Yisrael it is permissible to lie,' Shamir coined his own criteria of honesty…He had negotiated endlessly about negotiating, he said, and had intended the peace negotiations to go on endlessly, while he meanwhile went on building the settlements that made peace impossible…Every day of non-progress that passed was a victory for him.”

For Shamir, the Madrid peace process was translated into avenue to buy time, non-involvement in the Iraq war was a way to avoid potential pressure regarding a quid pro quo on the Palestinian territories, and the ingathering of ex-Soviet Jews was both part of the Jewish state mission and a way of securing demographic advantages and of encouraging the populating of Greater Israel by Jews. The Israeli daily Maariv's lead analyst, Ben Caspit, noted that “he believed the goal was clear and simple: for nothing to happen…He believed that time was working in our favor.”

Netanyahu's own eulogies to Shamir, both at the weekly Cabinet meeting and at the funeral ceremony, were revealing. Netanyahu first acknowledged that it was Shamir who gave him a crucial leg-up on the political ladder, appointing Bibi to the post of Ambassador to the U.N. — “one of his many appointments of young people whom he advanced” Netanyahu re-called. His graveside farewell never mentioned the existence of the Palestinians by name (something Netanyahu avoids acknowledging whenever possible, similar to Shamir himself) but he did say this (one assumes approvingly) about Shamir and land: “He was stubborn and suspicious when faced with any idea that meant a reduction in the borders of the homeland.”

Netanyahu's Cabinet meeting comments went further. A memorable Shamir saying was that “the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs” — a rhetorical flourish suggesting that Arab “rejectionism” is insurmountable, but also one laced with racism. In referencing this Shamir quote, Bibi commented that  “it could be that these remarks, which invoked strong criticism, even contempt — today, there are certainly many more people who understand that this man saw and understood fundamental and genuine things and never bent either himself or the truth to fit the fashion of the time.” Netanyahu is in effect embracing a most notorious and controversial “Shamirism”.

Netanyahu's endorsement of the words “two states” at a Bar Ilan University speech in 2009, when set against his policies and actions on the ground, resembles Shamir's acceptance of the “land for peace” formula as part of the Madrid Conference letter of invitation. Meaningless.

Netanyahu learnt the lessons of tactical and minor rhetorical retreat (as long as nothing real was derailed on the ground — the had-no-effect “settlement moratorium” being a case in point), of utilizing distractions but not allowing them to be used to generate pressure regarding the core goal of settling Greater Israel (Iraq for Shamir, Iran for Bibi), and of playing for time in the hope of unanticipated developments (the Soviet immigration wave for Shamir; perhaps opportunities for re-shaping the region created by the “Arab uprisings” is viewed similarly by Netanyahu).

Neither Shamir nor Netanyahu act in a vacuum. Those around Shamir and impacted by his policies responded, whether that was his domestic opposition, the U.S. or the Palestinians themselves. But while Netanyahu seems to have learnt from this history, the same can hardly be said for those other actors.

Israel's then Labor opposition seized on Shamir's foot-dragging in peace talks and in particular his choosing of settlements over Israel's most important strategic relationship with the U.S. to attack Shamir and call for a re-prioritization of resource allocation. A popular slogan in the 1992 election was “money for poor neighborhoods, not settlements.” Rabin's Labor, and their Meretz allies, won that election of course. The situation is different today — the center-left Zionist opposition being a shadow of its former self (with 46 seats on the eve of the ‘92 elections, going up to 56 after the vote, compared with 11 today). But Labor (unlike Meretz) now avoids campaigning on the settlements issue or even Netanyahu's antediluvian foreign policy.

Washington, too, has changed in the intervening two decades. The first Bush administration threw down a challenge to Shamir's settlement policy and backed that up with action, impacting the debate inside Israel in a calculated fashion. Obama also identified the settlements as a fault line, but then caved when Netanyahu said “boo”. Sure, current realities in Jerusalem and Washington (and notably on the Republican side) mean that similar options are not available to the Obama administration. Yet the Obama team has singularly failed to develop any tools for impacting Israel's calculations or even the public debate there.

Finally, the Palestinian leadership. Their response to the current Shamir-redux Israeli policy is the hardest to fathom. Palestinian leaders, both under occupation and in exile, developed strategic challenges to the Shamir approach of the late 80s and early 90s. They launched the largely unarmed civilian uprising of the first intifada, adopted a two-state platform at the Algiers Palestine National Council meeting in 1988, and joined the 1991 Madrid talks as part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. At times, the Israeli government was diplomatically wrong-footed, with the Palestinians accumulating leverage and political support.

Today's initiatives — abortive appeals at the U.N., pursuing recognition of heritage sites at UNESCO, enhanced security cooperation with Israel and prioritizing PA-funding — seem by comparison marginal, irrelevant, or even co-opted. Perhaps, though, Palestinians are also playing the long game, now convinced that from Shamir to Netanyahu, division of the land has been rendered inoperable.

This article first appeared in Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


President, US/Middle East Project

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