Confessions of a Stone-waller

Avi Shlaim

The Woodstock Road Editorial (Michaelmas 1992)

Having spent the early part of his career in the underground, as a member of the Irgun, leader of the Stern Gang and worker in the Mossad, Yitzhak Shamir has been in the limelight over the last decade as leader of the Likud, foreign minister and prime minister.  Yet despite his prominence in public life, Mr Shamir remains something of an enigma.  During the Gulf War, he performed with consummate skill the task of keeping Israel out of the conflict and keeping a low profile.  For this policy of saying nothing and doing nothing, Shamir earned numerous commendations and American gratitude.  After the war, however, when America started pressing Israel to engage in a dialogue with the Palestinians, Shamir's record was rather more ambiguous.

Although Shamir accepted the American invitation to the Madrid peace conference in October 1991, his speech at Madrid and his government's position in the five successive rounds of bilateral talks with the Palestinians gave no hint of any willingness to trade land for peace.  On the contrary, before, during and after the mother of all peace conferences at Madrid, the Israeli leader seemed to be stone-walling.  Two rather different explanations were advanced to explain Shamir's behaviour.  One view, popular among American Jews, saw Shamir as a very tough bargainer, a Jewish Asad.  According to this view, Shamir's speech in Madrid represented only his opening gambit in what was bound to be a protracted process of bargaining but he was genuinely interested in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians and he was saving his concessions for a later stage.  The other view held that Shamir was totally committed to keeping the West Bank and Gaza in Israeli hands and that he had no intention of engaging in any territorial compromise.  According to this view, Shamir's rejection of the formula of trading land for peace at Madrid represented his basic, fixed and unalterable position.  The American-sponsored peace process, according to this view, was simply used by Shamir as a smokescreen for consolidating Israel's grip on the West Bank and Gaza.

It is rare for debates of this kind to be settled decisively but in this particular instance there can be little doubt that the second view concerning Shamir and the peace talks is the correct one.  Moreover, it was Shamir himself who settled the debate in favour of the second view.  Only a few days after his defeat at the polls in June 1992, Shamir confessed to the charges of stone-walling in an interview of blinding candour that he gave to the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv.

In this interview Shamir stressed that in his view the Likud must be guided by ideology because no political movement can survive unless it is driven by an ideology.  The centre-piece of his party's ideology, he said, is the Land of Israel and on this there could be no compromise.  `Moderation,' he explained, `should relate to the tactics but not to the goal.  That is how I acted as prime minister.  In my political activity I know how to display the tactics of moderation, but without conceding anything on the goal - the integrity of the Land of Israel.  In my eyes, anyone who is not in accord with this, does not belong to the national movement.'

Shamir disclosed his secret agenda for the peace talks when asked what he regretted most following his fall from power.  `It pains me greatly,' he replied, `that in the coming four years I would not be able to expand the settlement in Judea and Samaria and to complete the demographic revolution in the Land of Israel.  I know that others will now try to work against this.  Without this demographic revolution, there is no value to the talk about autonomy because there is a danger that it will be turned into a Palestinian state.  What is this talk about "political settlements"?  I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria.'  When reminded that, judging by the results of the recent election, there is no majority for a Greater Land of Israel, Shamir retorted bluntly: `I didn't believe there was a majority in favour of a greater Land of Israel.  But it can be attained over time.  This must be the historic direction.  If we drop this basis, there would be nothing to prevent the development of a Palestinian state.'

Shamir's interview was widely reported in the international media and caused outrage among Americans, Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis alike.  The comments angered some of Shamir's ministerial colleagues, who felt they had been tainted by his confession.  Moshe Arens, who decided to leave politics in the wake of his party's humiliating defeat, described Shamir's remarks as `a mistake.'  Arens added in a parting shot: `A part of the public does not see the slogan `Greater Land of Israel' as an adequate response in grappling with the complexity of problems associated with the Palestinians and the territories.'  It was an inelegantly expressed but a frank admission of the Likud's ideological bankruptcy.[2]

Privately, peace negotiators expressed dismay at Shamir's statement.  Some of them felt deceived by Shamir and said they would not have participated in the talks if they had known that he was not serious.  Eliakim Rubinstein who headed the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Palestinians declared publicly that he had received no such guidelines from Shamir and that he conducted the negotiations with a sincere intention of reaching an agreement with the other side.[3]

Labour party leaders joined in the universal condemnation of Shamir.  Former Justice Minister Chaim Zadok said that Shamir's statement violated international law and asserted that it proved that the Likud's election propaganda on the peace issue was `nothing but an act of deceit.'  Relations between Jerusalem and Washington were strained not only because of legitimate differences of opinion but also because `President Bush believed Shamir had no intention of serious negotiation,' wrote Zadok.  Shamir's remarks, he added, had proved that Bush was correct.'[4]  In Washington eyebrows were raised, particularly in the State Department where long-standing suspicions that their ally was wasting their time appeared to be confirmed.

Under pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which had been inundated with protests, Shamir's office expressed surprise at the interpretation of his remarks and denied any lack of commitment to the idea of autonomy on his part.  Shamir's remarks, it was claimed, referred only to the negotiations on the final settlement and not to the negotiations on autonomy during the transitional period.[5]  But this lame explanation could not erase the impression that Shamir's real aim had been to obstruct and delay the peace process rather than to advance it.  Israel's neighbours, who had little enough reason to trust him, now had it on the highest authority that, from the very start, and despite all the peace rhetoric emanating from Jerusalem, her prime minister had secretly hoped to ensure that the peace talks would go nowhere slowly it was remarkable confession by Israel's stone-faced stone-waller.

[1]  Interview with Josef Harif, Ma'ariv, 26 June 1992
[2] Guardian, 27 June 1992.
[3] Ha'aretz, 10 July 1992.
[4] Yediot Aharonot, 30 June 1992.
[5] Ha'aretz, 10 July 1992.