JERUSALEM -- If they had never met, the U.S. secretary of state could have learned the essentials about the short, stocky man who is Israel's prime minister by listening to him at the dedication of a new town recently.
Yitzhak Shamir, standing on an outdoor stage lined with Israeli flags, had come to eulogize the person for whom the town was named.
"He was a determined fighter for settlement of Israel," Mr. Shamir began, offering what he would consider the highest possible praise. "He was obsessed by settlement. . . . To lobby for settlement was his life's work and never gave him any rest. . . . The love of Israel was in his bones."
He could have been describing himself.
At age 76, Mr. Shamir remains a determined combatant in a conflict he sees as nowhere near its end. In Mr. Shamir's world, Israel is an embattled fortress state. Its security is safeguarded by a small cushion of territory, and none of it can ever be let go.
He has delivered the same message during two decades in politics, during a career as a spy and in an earlier time as leader of a murderous underground army.
The message is no different now that Secretary of State James A. Baker III is on his eighth visit here to get Israel and its Arab enemies to the bargaining table than it was on the first, no matter how much has transpired in between.
Fundamentally, Mr. Shamir promises that Israel will attend the conference, but only on Israel's terms.
His consistency helps account for his appeal to many Israelis. They know what they will get. He is watchful, cautious and implacable, qualities that comfort his fellow citizens in times of stress. In a grandfatherly way, he promises that everything will work out for the best, if only one waits.
His strategy often works. Time and time again he said he would not even discuss giving up any part of Jerusalem, and he managed to keep Jerusalem off the agenda for peace talks. He insisted he would not agree to talk with anyone publicly associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, forcing the PLO to remain slightly offstage.
Throughout his career, he has dedicated himself wholly to "Eretz Israel" -- the Land of Israel. It is as much an ideology as a physical place. The Land of Israel is what God promised the ancient Israelites and what the current government believes it must keep. Hence the prime minister's support for holding on to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories also .. claimed by Palestinians.
"If you share his perspective that the most important issue is to ensure the territories are never taken from Israel, he is doing fine," said Ayre Naor, a Cabinet secretary to Mr. Shamir's charismatic predecessor, Menachem Begin. "If you think the main issue is to make peace, his record looks different."
Palestinians are less generous. "I think he is Mr. Obstacle-to-Peace," said Saeb Erakat, a West Bank political science professor. "Leadership requires sanity, statesmanship and a genuine desire to make decisions -- and in my opinion he lacks all three."
Mr. Shamir has never lacked for strong nerve. He was born in Poland as Yitzhak Yzernitsky, the son of a tanner. As a young man, he was stirred by calls for creation of a Jewish state, through the use of force if necessary.
In 1935, at age 20, he immigrated to British-controlled Palestine. There he joined the Irgun, a militant Jewish underground army, but then he sided with an even more radical group founded by Abraham Stern. Stern called his faction Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, known by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi. The British, who were Lehi's target, called it the Stern gang.
When Stern was killed by the British in 1942, the young Yzernitsky became one of Lehi's commanders and began to live a life on the run. The British arrested and imprisoned him twice. Twice he escaped. After the first escape, he obtained an identification card with a new name -- Shamir.
Lehi assassinated Britain's colonial secretary and, by the end of World War II, had killed more than 100 British officers and policemen. It carried out its most notorious act after Israel became a state, by assassinating a United Nations mediator, Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte.
Israel's newborn government responded by outlawing Lehi. Mr. Shamir was forced to go into hiding from the Jewish state. When he re-emerged, he tried his hand as a businessman. In 1955, he was hired by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
Over the next decade, Mr. Shamir ran Mossad operations throughout Europe. When he quit, Mr. Begin, one of Irgun's wartime leaders, hired Mr. Shamir to work for the party that later became the Likud.
As a politician, Mr. Shamir seemed more dutiful than ambitious. He became a member of the Knesset, then its chief officer, then Mr. Begin's foreign minister.