TEL AVIV, Israel -- Yitzhak Shamir shook his head slowly, his smile turning hard at the thought of the agreement Israel was about to sign yesterday in Washington with the Palestinians.
"This is a terrible experience for me. A terrible experience," said the former prime minister.
For Mr. Shamir, one of the chief architects of a "Greater Israel," it was a bleak day. Even before the White House ceremony, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was saying that the newest accord ended Israel's ambitions for "Eretz Israel" -- a "Land of Israel" that would stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
Mr. Rabin even called it "the delusion of Greater Israel." But for more than half a century, that "delusion" has been Mr. Shamir's dream.
He fought in the 1930s and '40s for the creation of Israel as a member of underground guerrilla groups, using the same tactics he later called terrorism when used by Arabs. When he became prime minister, first in 1983 and then from 1986 to 1992, he pushed hard to expand Jewish settlements into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Now, he sees that Jewish hold in what he calls by the biblical names, Judea and Samaria, being loosened by Mr. Rabin. Although no settlers have yet been forced to move, the West Bank gradually will come under Palestinian control, as much of the Gaza Strip already has.
Mr. Shamir seems perplexed by what the government is doing.
"I don't see any arguments for taking such a step. I don't understand [Rabin]." Mr. Shamir's head, which has always seemed large for his frame, moved back and forth in wonderment. His hands drew tiny maps on a blank blotter on his desk.
"Why is he interested in a small piece of a country?" he continued, fixed on the puzzle of Mr. Rabin. "Why? Is this a dream for a people?"
Mr. Shamir said his vision was for an Israel that stretches to the Jordan River -- big enough to accommodate all the Jews of the world.
"Our dream was to come here and concentrate all the Jewish people. Now we have 13 million Jewish people" throughout the world -- fewer than 5 million of them in Israel.
"Where will we put them here? We have such a small country. If you give part of it to the Arabs , " he said, trailing off with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Without the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he says, Israel is a "Lilliput country."
Mr. Rabin and his Labor Party argue that Israel cannot force out the 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza but also cannot absorb them without losing Israel's identity as a Jewish state. Instead, Mr. Rabin and his supporters favor giving back the land in exchange for peace.
Mr. Shamir questions whether it is necessary to compromise over the land. If enough Jews emigrated to Israel, he said, Arabs would become a small minority in the state, and the absorption problem would disappear.
Mr. Shamir, under pressure from the United States, took Israel to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. That conference was a seed for the negotiations that led to the latest agreement. But the former prime minister said that, if left to him, Madrid would have led to nothing very fast.
"In Madrid, there was never an idea of giving up to the Palestinians a great part of the country," he said. "We would never do such a thing. We never dreamed of giving up Judea and Samaria or Hebron.
"We never wanted to expel them," he said of the Palestinian residents. "We said, 'You will live here. You will have the rights of all citizens. But the country will be a Jewish country.'
"We wanted to have much more Jewish people -- at least 10 million," he said. "It's not normal that a people who have a country of their own are not living there."
As prime minister, Mr. Shamir was single-minded in the pursuit of that goal. With Mr. Shamir's blessing, then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon planted thousands of mobile homes and slapdash houses throughout the West Bank, oblivious to budgets set by the parliament or promises of restraint made to Washington.
Mr. Shamir opened Israel's doors to Jews from the former Soviet Union to try to fill those homes and lured Israelis to the "territories" with tempting home-purchase deals. Aides complained privately that Mr. Shamir had little interest in domestic Israeli affairs, except where they concerned Judea and Samaria.
The election of Mr. Rabin's Labor coalition in 1992 was not a rejection of the goal of a Greater Israel, Mr. Shamir argues. He said the loss was due to infighting among his right-wing Likud party and its partners.
"They did not understand that they have to keep their unity," he said of his colleagues. "If we won the election, we could work for carrying out the dream."
After the election, Mr. Shamir took his seat in the Knesset, from where he usually listens quietly to the debates. He will be 80 next month, and will not run again in the 1996 elections. "It's enough," he says.
He has a small office in a skyscraper near the headquarters of Israel's military in Tel Aviv. It is an office with few adornments. Only two pictures suggest his public life: one of his predecessor, Menachem Began, and one of him shaking hands with President Reagan.
Does he see his dream of Greater Israel vanishing?
"I will always keep my dream. Otherwise life has no value," he replied.
He said he believes a Likud-led government will return to power next year. It will stop the agreements set in motion by Mr. Rabin, even if land already has been given to the Palestinians, he said.
"Nothing is irreversible. Maybe it's difficult to change something. But I don't know any government existing in the world arena that conducts a policy that is against its [people's] conscience and views," he said.
"Maybe it will take time." But the changes made by Mr. Rabin are "not a fact that has to stay for 100 years."
Would he advocate trying to retake land from Palestinians by force?
"We don't want to fight with them. But I think they will fight with us," he said.
"When they fight with us, I am sure we will win."