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Profiles : Dr. No & Mr. Maybe : Shamir and Rabin have faced off many times before. Now their well-worn stands appear vital to the future.

June 16, 1992|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — The election race for prime minister of Israel is not exactly a battle of new faces.

Yitzhak Shamir, 76, has reigned as prime minister longer than any Israeli leader since founding father David Ben-Gurion. Shamir's slow cadence and shrugged shoulders are as familiar to Israelis as the stone walls around old Jerusalem. His stands on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip (that they belong to Israel) and on Israel's formidable economic and immigration problems (form a committee) are anything but new.

Then there's Yitzhak Rabin, 70, who occupied the prime minister's office 15 years ago and had been prominent long before because of his wartime heroics. His gravelly voice, hardened by chain smoking, and his deadpan demeanor are known to three generations of Israelis. His positions on the disputed territory (give some of it up) and on Israel's domestic ills (get money from Washington) have been consistent over time.

Shamir, whom pundits have dubbed Dr. No, meets Rabin, Mr. Maybe.

A new world power landscape and pressing domestic needs have lent an aura of drama to this head-on confrontation and made well-worn stands appear critical to Israel's future. Will the Middle East conflict long outlast the end of the Cold War, not to mention the Gulf War? Or will Israel and Arab neighbors, under the umbrella of U.S. leadership, make peace?

Whatever the outcome, the election will be the first step in a generational change in Israel. Shamir, standard-bearer of the right-wing Likud Party, is the last potential leader of Israel whose formative years date to before and during World War II. His world view is colored by the Holocaust and by mistrust of outsiders. Rabin, of the left-of-center Labor Party, represents the generation of the 1948 founding of Israel. His defeat would be the last shot at power for his group of state builders.

"These are the last candidates from revolutionary Israel," remarked historian Benny Morris. "The next crop come from established, institutional Israel."

Shamir's long stay in power is a surprise to almost everyone in politics. When Likud selected him to replace Menachem Begin in 1983, he was regarded as a caretaker. As colorless as Shamir is in public, he has been nimble within Likud, mastering the back-room deals that keep political rivals at bay.

Such savvy is perhaps unusual in a man whose previous career was confined to the dark recesses of undercover warfare and intelligence work. In pre-independence days, he operated with the Stern Gang, which carried out a terror war against the British and Arabs during the three-sided conflict for control of Palestine.

As one of the top leaders, he approved the executions of Count Folke Bernadotte--a U.N. representative--as well as a renegade member of his own organization, according to various accounts.

After Israel's statehood, he entered business for a while, but he eventually joined the Mossad, Israel's overseas intelligence agency. He entered public life in the service of Begin, who in 1977 rousted the Labor Party from power for the first time. Shamir's uncompromising stands emerged early. In the Knesset, or Parliament, he opposed the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Egypt. In fact, he still suggests that some outlines for Palestinian self-rule in the treaty do not apply.

Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the aftermath drove Begin from power in 1983, and Shamir took over. He maneuvered within and at the head of uneasy coalitions with Labor, undermining moves to start talks with Arab neighbors. When he was able to cobble together a right-wing coalition 2 1/2 years ago, Shamir could accelerate his fondest project: settling the West Bank and Gaza with Israelis.

In the short period since then, he has increased the Jewish population of the Israeli-held territories by 30%, to nearly 120,000, and has built housing for many more expected to come.

He boasted during the current election campaign that if he wins, settlement will put so many Israelis on the land that "no one will be able to talk about territorial compromise" with the Palestinians, who claim the land as their own and have been battling the Israeli occupation since 1987.

Shamir occasionally warms up at rallies, where he whips supporters into a frenzy of delight with references to Palestinians as "brutal, savage invaders" and to all the occupied land as the "property of one people, the Jewish people."

The emergence of the United States as the sole Middle East steward and the Bush Administration's willingness to put life into dormant American policy seem to have caught Shamir off guard. He once referred to President Bush's opposition to Israeli settlement of the West Bank and Gaza as a "bad dream." The White House says the settlements hinder peace efforts.

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