Shamir ordered Bernadotte assassination to save Jerusalem for Jews. But will his obits tell you that?

Israel/Palestine
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Yitzhak Shamir
The late Yitzhak Shamir, from AP

Israeli president Shimon Peres is calling the late Yitzhak Shamir, dead at 96, a “brave warrior.” What does that mean? It means he used terrorism with very important political consequences. As head of the Stern Gang, Shamir authorized the assassinations of Lord Moyne, the British minister in Palestine, in 1944, and Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. envoy (and Swedish count) in 1948.

The Bernadotte murder is particularly important: Bernadotte wanted to internationalize Jerusalem and limit the borders of the new Jewish state. His murder helped shift partition from 55 percent of Palestine to the Jewish state to 78 percent.

But will the obits tell you that? CNN whitewash:

Born in Poland, Shamir moved to Palestine and fought for Israeli independence…. Shamir was a leader of the Jewish Zionist underground group that fought the mandate in the 1940s.

It wasn’t just the mandate, he fought the U.N.

There is a shameful statement by Hillary Clinton at the end of that piece.

“From his days working for Israel’s independence to his service as prime minister, he strengthened Israel’s security and advanced the partnership between the United States and Israel,” she said in a statement.

I know she’s a diplomat, but could she have kept her mouth shut on some of this? Shamir was the Israeli prime minister, after all, who helped force Hillary’s husband Bill to run to George Bush’s right on settlements in 1992, a position that helped him to defeat the incumbent Bush, who had opposed settlements.

The British are clear about this. Here is the lead of the Financial Times obit for Shamir.

Yitzhak Shamir, who has died at the age of 96, is most likely to be remembered as a terrorist against British rule in Palestine during the 1940s and as a man whose aggressive Jewish settlement policy on Arab lands may have stymied Middle East peace for a generation.

Compare that to the New York Times’ wishywashy Israel-o-philic lead, by Joel Brinkley:

Yitzhak Shamir, who emerged from the militant wing of a Jewish militia and served as Israel’s prime minister longer than anyone but David Ben-Gurion, promoting a muscular Zionism and expansive settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, died Saturday at a nursing home in Tel Aviv. He was 96.

What’s a militia? The Stern Gang. Why did they call it a gang?

Haaretz is more honest, though it never mentions Bernadotte:

When he was 20, he immigrated to Palestine and joined the Irgun two years later. By day he worked in an accountant’s office and at night took part in anti-British activities.

Shamir said “we didn’t take any action blindly or automatically or just for the sake of violence. Our aim was to intimidate rather than to punish … reprisals were never a cause for celebration. They were simply an existential need.” In 1940, Shamir left the Irgun, following Avraham Stern, and became a leader of the Lehi − which the British called the Stern Gang.

In December 1941 he was arrested and spent time in the Mizra prison near Acre. After escaping in September 1942, he was put in charge of operations. In this role he was responsible for the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in the Middle East.

As Shamir put it, Moyne “was a senior official in enforcing British policy in Palestine and didn’t for a moment hide his strong opposition to Zionism and his negative feelings toward the Jews.”

The New York Times does not mention Bernadotte, and it gives Shamir a pass on Moyne. Because surgical assassination is a good thing, you see: 

Years later, however, Mr. Shamir contended that it had been more humane to assassinate specific military or political figures than to attack military installations and possibly kill innocent people, as the other underground groups did. Besides, he once said, “a man who goes forth to take the life of another whom he does not know must believe only one thing: that by his act he will change the course of history.”

Several histories of the period have asserted that he masterminded a failed attempt to kill the British high commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, and the killing in Cairo of Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East, Lord Moyne. When Mr. Shamir was asked about these episodes in later years, his denials held a certain evasive tone.

That’s evasive. The Financial Times uses the same “change the course of history” quote to bring up Bernadotte murder.

As a leader of Lehi he approved the assassinations of Lord Moyne, Winston Churchill’s representative in Cairo, and Count Bernadotte, the Swedish UN Palestine mediator who during the war had saved many Jews from the Nazis. Years later Shamir reflected: “A man who goes forth to take the life of another, whom he does not know, must believe only one thing that by his act he will change the course of history.”

Yes and the murder of Bernadotte changed the Partition line, divided Jerusalem as it had not been divided under the original UN Special Committee line of 1947. 

The New York Times has been more forthcoming about this in the past. Here is Clyde Haberman on Kati Marton’s biography of Folke Bernadotte, in the Times, 1995:

[Shamir] she says, signed [Bernadotte’s] death warrant. He was part of a troika that led Lehi after its guiding force, Avraham Stern, was killed by the British in 1942. His name was Yitzhak Yezernitsky, a short bulldog of an immigrant from the Russian-Polish border. Four decades later, he became Israel’s Prime Minister under the name Yitzhak Shamir.

Ever suspicious and tight-lipped, Mr. Shamir, nearly 80, still speaks elliptically about the Bernadotte assassination. In a recently published memoir, “Summing Up,” he acknowledges that Lehi wanted the mediator “removed from the arena.” But the group “took no responsibility for the deed,” he says. “The idea was conceived in Jerusalem by Lehi members operating there more or less independently.”

Ms. Marton strips away this deliberate ambiguity. There is no doubt, she says, that Shamir and his co-leaders imposed a death sentence on Bernadotte and selected a four-man squad whose trigger man was one Yehoshua Cohen.

Yes and now the Times restores that ambiguity.

In her book, A Death in Jerusalem, Marton quotes a Haaretz report:

“the decision to assassinate Bernadotte… was taken at a meeting of the Lehi [Stern Gang] Central Committee in which Yitzhak Shamir, former Lehi commander, participated. Who pulled the trigger is less important, [Shamir] said in another place, what is important is that it was the Lehi Central Committee which decided on the assassination.”

She goes on to say that Shamir was the one man with no “milk in his veins”:

[T]hose Israelis who have studied both the case and the man in the context of their country’s history insist Shamir was the key player. “It takes a strong man to give such an order,” says Shabtai Teveth [Ben-Gurion biographer]. … Shamir is such a man.”

Not only has Yitzhak Shamir… never disavowed his role in the murder of the mediator; he has frequently stated that his time as Lehi commaner was the best time of his life.

The Stern Gang was afraid that Ben-Gurion would accede to the U.N. and Bernadotte to give up Jerusalem. Marton says Shamir’s co-conspirator Israel Eldad “regards the murder of Bernadotte as one of Lehi’s [Stern gang’s] great achievements. In his view, it saved Jerusalem from the Arabs.”From Marton’s book, in the weeks before Bernadotte was killed:

In his new plan, Jerusalem would belong neither to Israel nor to the Arabs, but would be internationalized along the original UN proposal. All of the fertile Galilee would go to Israel, while Ben-Gurion’s beloved Negev, would, in return, go to Transjordan.

Here is a related entry from the late NYT foreign affairs columnist C.L. Sulzberger’s diary, A Long Row of Candles:

August 24, 1948

On July 22 Bernadotte told a few people confidentially in Rhodes that he foresaw the following ultimate solution for Palestine:

There will be a Jewish state, no matter what else happens. Its boundaries will have to be radically altered to proved a more compact and workable state. Its Arab neighbors must be given an ironclad UN guarantee against any move to expand.

Bernadotte was murdered a month later. So much for a compact state and limits on expansion. Israel got the Negev and much of Jerusalem.

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