JERUSALEM — Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, a gunman in the smallest and most violent militia fighting for a Jewish state who rose to become leader of the nation during the pivotal years when Israel emerged as a modern, middle-class country, died Saturday. He was 96.
Israeli media said Mr. Shamir had suffered from Alzheimer's in recent years.
Mr. Shamir prided himself on his hard-line views, his relentless determination to hang onto every square inch of what he considered the Land of Israel, and his championing of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, defying the demands of Israel's important ally, the United States.
Mr. Shamir was Israel's second-longest serving prime minister after founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Mr. Shamir was Israel's seventh prime minister, serving as premier for seven years, from 1983-84 and 1986-92, leading his party to election victories twice, despite lacking much of the outward charisma that characterizes many modern politicians.
His time in office was eventful, marked by the massive airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the Palestinian uprising, and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.
"Yitzhak Shamir was a brave warrior before and after the founding of the State of Israel," said Israeli President Shimon Peres, Mr. Shamir's longtime political opponent. "He was loyal to his views, a great patriot and a true lover of Israel who served his country with integrity and unending commitment. May his memory be blessed."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mr. Shamir "led Israel with a deep loyalty to the nation and to the land and to the eternal values of the Jewish people."
The White House praised Mr. Shamir for helping to forge ties with the United States.
"Yitzhak Shamir dedicated his life to the State of Israel. 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," the statement said.
Defeated in the 1992 election, Mr. Shamir stepped down as head of the Likud party and watched from the sidelines as his successor, Yitzhak Rabin, negotiated interim land-for-peace agreements with the Palestinians.
The agreements, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's recognition of Israel, did nothing to ease his suspicion.
In a 1997 interview with the New York-based Jewish Post, he declared: "The Arabs will always dream to destroy us. I do not believe that they will recognize us as part of this region."
The Labor movement, in power for Israel's first three decades, agreed to a 1947 U.N.-proposed partition plan to allow the creation of the Jewish state alongside a Palestinian entity. To Mr. Shamir, that was tantamount to treason.
Born Yitzhak Jazernicki in what is now Poland in 1915, Mr. Shamir moved to pre-state Palestine in 1935.
Most of his family — his parents, two sisters, and their husbands and children — stayed behind and were killed in the Holocaust during World War II.
Once in Palestine, Mr. Shamir joined LEHI, the most hardline of three Jewish movements fighting for independence from the British mandate authorities, taking over the group's leadership after the British killed its founder.
After Israel was founded in 1948, Mr. Shamir went into business before entering a career in Israel's Mossad spy agency. During that time, he carried out operations against Nazi scientists who were helping Israel's Arab neighbors build rockets.
In the mid-1960s he emerged to join the right-wing Herut party, which evolved into the present-day Likud.
Mr. Shamir succeeded Menahem Begin as prime minister in 1983 in the aftermath of Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
During the gulf war, Mr. Shamir went along with American demands not to retaliate for the Iraqi missile strikes.
After the war, the United States stepped up pressure to start a Middle East process that could lead in only one direction — compromise with the Arabs.
Exasperated by Mr. Shamir's stubborn refusal to go along with their plans for a regional settlement, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker once went on television, recited the switchboard number of the White House, and told Mr. Shamir to call when he got serious about peace.
Despite his deep mistrust of Arab intentions, Mr. Shamir agreed to attend the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia.
Mr. Shamir hotly rejected the deals his successors made with the Palestinians, in which Israel turned over control of some West Bank land to the Palestinians. Israeli media said a funeral would be held Monday.