NEW YORK — Yitzhak Shamir, 96, who emerged from the militant wing of Israel’s prestate militia and served as prime minister longer than anyone except David Ben-Gurion, promoting a muscular Zionism and expansive settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, died Saturday.
Born in Poland, a survivor of a family wiped out in the Holocaust, he was part of a group of right-wing Israeli politicians led by Menachem Begin who rose to power in the 1970s as the more left-wing Labor Party declined, viewed as corrupt and disdainful of the public.
Since the late 1990s, as Israelis became more convinced of the need to reduce their hold on lands conquered in the 1967 war, Mr. Shamir’s uncompromising attitude toward the territories and the Palestinians there, once the ruling ideology, has fallen into relative disfavor.
Stubborn and laconic, Mr. Shamir was by his own assessment an unlikely political leader whose personality seemed the perfect representation of his government’s policy of patient, unyielding opposition to territorial concessions.
Many of his friends and colleagues ascribed his basic character to his years in the underground in the 1940s, when he sent Jewish fighters out to kill British officers he saw as occupiers and showed himself in public only at night, disguised as a Hasidic rabbi. He was a wanted man then; to the British rulers of Palestine he was a terrorist, an assassin. But Shamir said he considered those ‘‘the best years of my life.’’
His wife, Shulamit, once said that in the underground she and her husband learned not to talk about their work for fear of being overheard. It was a habit he apparently never lost.
Mr. Shamir was a short, stocky man. He was not blessed with a sharp wit, a soothing public manner, or an engaging oratorical style. Most often he answered questions with a shrug and an air of weary wisdom, as if to say: ‘‘This is so clear. Why do you even ask?’’
In 1988, attending a meeting of Herut, the name of his political party at the time, he sat slumped on a sofa, gazing at the floor as party stalwarts heaped praises on him. Shortly thereafter, he said: ‘‘I like all those people, they’re nice people. But this is not my style, not my language. This kind of meeting is the modern picture, but I don’t belong to it.’’
But Mr. Shamir seemed ever able simply to outlast his political opponents,. To Mr. Shamir, victory came not from compromise, but from strength, patience, and cunning.
‘‘He’s patient, very strong-willed,’’ Avi Pazner, his media adviser, once said. ‘‘If he wants something, it may take a long time, but he’ll never let go.’’
Begin appointed Mr. Shamir as foreign minister in 1980. When Begin suddenly retired in 1983, Mr. Shamir became a compromise candidate for prime minister, alternating in the post with Shimon Peres for one four-year term, and then won his own term in 1988. He entered the political opposition when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992. Mr. Shamir retired from politics a few years later, at 81.
As prime minister he promoted continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and while he was in office the Jewish population in the occupied territories increased by nearly 30 percent.
Yitzhak Shamir was born in eastern Poland. He immigrated to Palestine at 20 and selected Shamir as his Hebrew surname. The word means thorn, thistle or sharp point.
Members of his family who remained in Poland died in the Holocaust; his father was killed by Poles the family had regarded as friends. Memories of the Holocaust colored his opinions for the rest of his life.
He joined Begin’s Herut Party in 1970 and was elected to Parliament in December 1973. When the Likud, or unity bloc, which absorbed Herut, won power in 1977, Shamir was elected speaker.
In 1979, Moshe Dayan resigned as foreign minister, and Begin proposed appointing Mr. Shamir to replace him.