Israel's Shamir: quiet but ideologically tough

Despite his long years of service to Israel -- as guerrilla leader, spy, and politician -- Yitzhak Shamir still seems to be an enigma to much of the public. Mr. Shamir, now 71, has served his country his entire adult life: He led the most radical Jewish guerrilla group that operated in pre-state days; he directed European operations for Mossad, Israel's secret service; he abstained from voting for Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt when he was speaker of the Knesset (parliament); he was foreign minister when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982; and he has been prime minister once before.

Barring last minute hitches, Shamir again becomes Israeli prime minister today.

Perhaps Shamir's toughest challenge, analysts here say, will be to emerge from the shadow of the men he has succeeded in office and prove himself a capable prime minister.

Shamir first came to office in 1983, after Menachem Begin's unexpected resignation. As successor to the charismatic Mr. Begin, Shamir was never able to consolidate his position in the Herut Party, which forms the core of the hard-line Likud bloc.

The government collapsed within a year, and Shamir led the Likud in the 1984 elections against the Labor Party. The Likud was burdened with a record that included the occupation of Lebanon, high inflation, and budget deficits. But, after neither party won enough seats to form a government, they agreed to form a coalition with smaller parties. It was agreed that Labor leader Shimon Peres would serve as prime minister for the first half of the four-year term, and then hand the job over to Shamir.

Even leading Likud members acknowledge that Mr. Peres is a tough act to follow. Opinion polls last month gave Peres, who had a flair for public relations, a 77 percent approval rating.

Shamir, in contrast, is a taciturn man who made headlines in July 1985 by not saying a word during a 26-hour Cabinet meeting that hammered out Israel's economic recovery plan. Shamir made news again when bodyguards had to protect him at the 1986 Herut convention, when his rivals' backers made an attempt to oust him as party head.

The early life of the new prime minister reads like a spy novel. In his native Poland, Shamir became a follower of Zeev Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader who advocated conquering all of ``Eretz Yisrael,'' (``greater'' Israel) by force. In 1935, the 20-year-old Shamir migrated to Palestine. In 1937, he joined the Irgun, a Jewish guerrilla organization that fought the British administration ruling Palestine under a UN mandate. He soon left Irgun to join the more radical Lehi, or Stern Gang.

Shamir was captured three times by the British, who considered him a terrorist. The last time, he was sent to a prison camp in Eritrea (northern Ethiopia). The diminutive Shamir, who is barely five feet tall, escaped by hiding in a secret cell in the tanker of a water truck. He spent three days in darkness before reaching Djibouti, where the French gave him political asylum. From there Shamir went to France, returning to Israel only after it declared independence in 1948. Shamir then joined Mossad, staying with the organization until 1965. He entered the Knesset in 1977, becoming speaker in 1979. His clearest ideological belief is in Israel's right to retain all the land it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Shamir's chief characteristics, writes Israeli journalist Zvi Gilat, ``are stubbornness, secretiveness, the ability to suffer, and flexibility.''

``Shamir is being treated unjustly by people,'' says Likud Knesset member, Ehud Olmert. ``They compare him to Begin, or recall his position as prime minister at one of the most difficult times ever. Peres, with all due respect, performed as prime minister for two years with no opposition in the Knesset. That makes a difference.''

Shamir, Mr. Olmert says, ``will be a great prime minister. He will have even more patience than Peres and he is a strong man.''

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