When Yitzhak Shamir was Israel's prime minister, he liked to point American visitors to a gift he received when he retired as director of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service.
It was a depiction of the famed three monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
"He didn't say anything," recalled Dov Zakheim, then a deputy undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "He just smiled broadly."
Shamir, who died Saturday at 96, had the reputation of a man who said the most when he said nothing at all, some of his American interlocutors recalled. He used that reticence to resist pressure from the George H.W. Bush administration to enter into talks with the Palestinians and other Arab nations.
"He was the most underrated politician of our time," Zakheim said. "He sat on the fence on issues until the fence hurt."
Shamir's willfulness was borne of the conviction that his Likud Party's skepticism of a permanent peace with the Arabs represented the majority view in Israel, and that the world had to reconcile itself to this outlook, said Steve Rosen, who dealt with Shamir as the foreign policy chief for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"He would argue that the world will never prefer us — the Likud — over Labor, but when the world sees that we are the Israeli majority, they will have to deal with us," Rosen said. "We will not succeed in being more popular than the others, but we are right."
His detractors, while praising Shamir's patriotism, also fretted that his steadfastness cost Israel during his terms as prime minister from 1986 to 1992.
Douglas Bloomfield, in 1988 the director of AIPAC's legislative arm, recalled in a column this week how Shamir was blindsided by President Ronald Reagan's decision in his administration's closing days to recognize the reviled Palestine Liberation Organization.
"The premier's chief of staff immediately phoned his contacts on Capitol Hill urging them to 'start a firestorm of opposition' to block the move," Bloomfield wrote. "It was too late. Too many members of Congress shared the Reagan administration's frustration with what they considered Shamir's intransigence and did not seriously object when Reagan decided to recognize the PLO on his way out the door as a favor to his successor."
During his tenure, Shamir clashed with much of American Jewry when he flirted with changing the Law of Return to define Jews according to strictly halachic terms to satisfy potential Orthodox coalition partners, and also because of his insistence on settlement expansion.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Shamir — unlike other contemporaries like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon — had little experience with or understanding of American Jews.
"Shamir was a whole different story, these weren't issues he cared about at all," recalled Yoffie, who at the time Shamir was prime minister headed ARZA, the Reform movement's Zionist wing. "He had no experience with them, he had far less contact with American Jewry, it wasn't part of his background, he didn't spend a lot of time here giving speeches."
But the American Jewish community rallied around Shamir in December 1991 when Bush sought to tie a $10 billion U.S. loan guarantee to help resettle Jews in Israel from the former Soviet Union to money Israel spent on settlements. As Jewish activists descended on Capitol Hill to lobby against the linkage, Bush cast himself as "one lonely guy" facing "some powerful political forces" — a framing many Jews saw as borderline anti-Semitic.
Shamir's successful absorption of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the collapsing Soviet Union, and his surprise secret transport of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon also restored respect and affection for him among American Jews.
Shamir's most lasting legacy might be his scuttling in 1987 of the London agreement after he assumed the prime ministership from Shimon Peres in a power-sharing agreement following deadlocked 1984 elections. The London agreement, which Peres worked out — mostly in secrecy — with Jordan's King Hussein would have restored a degree of Jordanian authority to the West Bank and may have spared Israel the first intifada that broke out soon after. The intifada led to the failed Oslo peace process, which led to the much bloodier second intifada.
"His shooting down of Shimon Peres' 'London Agreement' with King Hussein of Jordan was arguably the most disastrous decision an Israeli leader ever took," David Landau wrote in a piece about Shamir in Ha'aretz on Monday.
Yet Shamir was at times a pragmatist. He defied Israeli public opinion — and young bucks in his own party, including then-deputy foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and acceded to Bush's request to keep out of the first Gulf War, even if Saddam Hussein provoked Israel, which Hussein did with a barrage of Scud missiles.
Marshall Breger, a former Reagan administration official who at the time still functioned as an unofficial liaison between Bush and the Jewish community, said Shamir earned kudos with that decision.
"From the U.S. perspective that was very important and got a lot of good will because we could not have gotten the coalition that we got if Israel had acted in a proactive or reactive way," he said.
After the Oslo Accords, still serving as a backbencher after Netanyahu had succeeded him as party leader, Shamir decried in a Knesset speech the ceding of the Gaza Strip, citing biblical injunctions about preserving the land. A Laborite shouted that Gaza is not part of biblical Israel. Shamir shrugged. "We were taught that territory is sacrosanct," he said.
Shamir reiterated this point, and blasted the Oslo Accords, in 1993 when he spoke at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia.
"We won every battle with the Arabs, but lost the war," he said. "We acted like a defeated nation whose spirit has been crushed."
At that event, the ex-premier met Morton Klein, who would soon become the national president of the Zionist Organization of America. The two shared political views and a distrust of the Palestinians. They conversed in Yiddish, their mutual native tongue. On several occasions, Klein visited Shamir at his modest Tel Aviv apartment. "He would tell me that we have to get American Jewry to understand that Oslo is a disaster and is very dangerous for Israel," recalled Klein, who lives in Lower Merion. "He was vindicated."
Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter first met Shamir while the Israeli was still a Cabinet member. "People call him tough. I would call him strong," said Specter, who added that in one-one-discussions, Shamir did not reject out of hand suggestions that progress could be made with Syria and the Palestinians.
"I think history will mark him down as a great leader," Specter said, adding that he may be remembered as much for the controversial role he played leading up to the formation of the state in the 1940s as for his stints as prime minister.
"I think it was a lot tougher to be an Israeli leader in the '40s and '50s," said Specter. "I think that when all of that is written," that he and Menachem Begin "will go down as giants." u
Jewish Exponent staff writer Bryan Schwartzman contributed to this report.