BOOK REVIEW / A freedom fighter (no irony intended): SUMMING UP: An Autobiography; Yitzhak Shamir, Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 19.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MANY thought that Yitzhak Shamir would retire after he lost the Israeli election in 1992. Most days, however, when the Israeli parliament is in session, his squat, tufty figure is still to be seen, chatting with his old cohorts in the Knesset canteen. Perhaps he is recounting his exploits of long ago, when he assassinated the leaders of the imperialist enemy or flogged British soldiers. Or maybe he is remembering how he fooled the world into thinking he was serious about peace.

What an endearing old character Shamir now seems, constantly grinning under his bushy eyebrows. And how the Israeli right still loves him. Yet what a cool, ruthless mind is laid bare on every page of his autobiography. The book has been slammed as boring, uninspired and unrevealing, but no one should have expected otherwise. Shamir has said many times that he is not interested in a place in history. He is devoted to one principle: fighting for the whole land of Israel for the Jews. Arabs appear in the book only occasionally - rather like an irritating crowd of extras. And outrageous acts - such as the assassination of Lord Moyne, Britain's resident minister in Cairo, in 1944 - are described with devastating banality. The result is a boring work: but also a deeply chilling one.

As a member, first of the Irgun Jewish underground, and later the Lehi faction or 'Stern gang', headed by the notorious Avraham Stern, Shamir carried out acts against Arabs that were little different from those carried out by Arab factions against Jews today - placing bombs on buses and in Arab market places. But he describes his 'freedom fighting' in the same breath as Arab 'terrorism' without a note of irony. In his world view, the national interest meant no moral consideration ever applied to his acts.

Shamir's number one enemies, however, were the British who held the mandate over Palestine. He believed, unlike other 'obsequious' Zionist leaders, in using strong pressure to force the British to fulfil their promise to establish a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan River. The first name he chose in the underground was 'Michael' - after the Irish fighter Michael Collins.

Just as there are few surprises in Shamir's account of his earlier years, so his description of his years in the highest echelons of Israeli politics (becoming a book- keeper and cinema manager on the way) are predictable. He talks much about his involvement in the numerous peace efforts over the years. However, as is now clear, he was only playing for time to build more and more settlements. There he is, chatting with Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Mrs Thatcher. But he was never going to bargain with these people to make a historic deal, and he didn't care what they thought of him either.

When explaining his motivation for attending the Madrid peace conference, which he describes, with perhaps a slip of tongue, as the first historic 'confrontation' between Israel and its neighbours, Shamir says he only went along because, with 2,000 media representatives there, Madrid provided 'an unparalleled background for the retelling of our story worldwide.'

At no time in these chapters does Shamir show any comprehension of the changing mood around him - either among Palestinians or Israelis. It comes as no surprise to discover that he was astonished when, despite all his 'glittering prizes', his people voted against him in 1992. The man who beat him, Yitzhak Rabin, does want to bargain, and dearly hopes to go down in history.