From a book review dealing with Menachem Begin and Likud politics:
The Fighting Family
Review of Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu, by Colin Shindler. 324 pp., Tauris, 1995.
And Summing up: An Autobiography, by Yitzhak Shamir. 276 pp., Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1994.
And Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis between the U.S. and Israel, by Moshe Arens. 320 pp., Simon and Schuster, 1995.
And A Zionist Stand, by Ze’ev B. Begin. 173 pp., Frank Cass, 1993.
And Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism, by by Benjamin Netanyahu. 152 pp., Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995.
London Review of Books, 9 May 1996.
On 17 May 1977 Menachem Begin and his Likud union of nationalist and liberal parties won their first electoral victory. This election represented a major landmark in Israel’s history. It brought to an end three decades of Labour rule and ushered in a new era, which was to last fifteen years, during which the right-wing Likud dominated Israeli politics. When Likud came to power, the literature on it was very sparse; by the time it fell from power, in June 1992, this literature had expanded considerably.
Colin Shindler’s book Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream represents a valuable addition to this literature on a number of counts. First, whereas most of the existing books deal with specific issues such as the peace with Egypt or the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, or the war in Lebanon, Shindler tries to explain the Likud phenomenon as a whole. Second, in order to explain what makes the Likud tick, Shindler explores in some depth its historical and ideological background and particularly the legacy of the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky. Shindler also traces the influence of Pilsudski’s Poland, Mussolini’s Italy and the Irish struggle against Britain in moulding the outlook of Menachem Begin and his successor, Yitzhak Shamir. Third, while the subject matter of this book lends itself all too easily to partisanship and polemics, Shindler remains remarkably balanced and fair-minded throughout. He picks his way carefully through the tangled history of this fiercely ideological and rumbustious movement and manages to avoid the twin pitfalls of hagiography and blind hostility.
The 1977 election signified much more than a change of government. It represented the triumph of Revisionist Zionism after half a century of bitter struggle against mainstream Labour Zionism. The two movements were animated by different aims, different values and different symbols. In his acceptance speech in May 1977, Menachem Begin referred to ‘the titanic struggle of ideas stretching back to 1931’, a reference which must have puzzled most of his listeners.
In 1931, at the 17th Zionist Congress, Ze’ev Jabotinsky launched a frontal attack on Chaim Weizmann and forced him to tender his resignation as president of the World Zionist Organization. Weizmann typified the Zionist establishment’s piecemeal approach of acquiring land, building settlements and working in cooperation with the British mandatory authorities towards the final goal of statehood. For Jabotinsky Zionism’s was primarily a political movement, not an agency for economic development and settlement on the land. He denounced Weizmann’s `Fabian tactics’ and insisted on a forthright statement that the aim of the movement was a Jewish state on both sides of the river Jordan. Weizmann was appalled by the utter lack of realism, by the romantic melodrama, and by the myopic militancy of Jabotinsky and his followers. The battle lines were thus firmly drawn between territorial minimalism and territorial maximalism, between practical Zionism and political Zionism, between a gradualist approach to statehood and militant declarations calling for instantaneous solutions. In 1935 the Revisionists seceded from the World Zionist Organization in protest against its continuing refusal to declare a Jewish state as its immediate aim and formed their own New Zionist Organization which elected Jabotinsky as its president.
Jabotinsky regarded Arab opposition to Zionism as inevitable and he believed that efforts aimed at reconciliation were doomed to failure from the start. It was utterly impossible, he argued, to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting Palestine from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority. Nor would he settle for the partition of Palestine into two states. His version of the Zionism dream demanded a Jewish state over the whole of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Britain had established the Emirate of Transjordan on the eastern part of the Palestine mandate in the early 1920s. Jabotinsky bitterly denounced this original sin and remained uncompromisingly opposed to the partition of the Western part of the Land of Israel. Partition, he observed, was unacceptable not only from the point of view of the Revisionist Zionists but also from the Arab point of view because both sides claimed the whole country for themselves. Only superior military power, he concluded, could eventually compel the Arabs to accept the reality of a Jewish state. And only an ‘iron wall’ of Jewish military power could protect the Jewish state against continuing Arab hostility. Disdain for diplomacy and reliance on military power in dealing with the Palestine Arabs thus characterized Revisionist Zionism from the very beginning.
The Revisionist movement had its own para-military force, the National Military Organization, the Irgun, which was commanded by Jabotinsky until his death in 1940 and by Menachem Begin from 1943 until its dissolution in June 1948. In 1939 the Irgun called off its campaign against the British mandatory authorities for the duration of the Second World War. Some of the more militant members of the Irgun, led by Avraham Stern, broke away to form a small underground movement known as ‘The Fighters for the Freedom of Israel’, better known as the Stern Gang. Stern saw Zionism as a national liberation movement and he advocated an armed struggle as a means of independence. He saw the British as foreign conquerors and he was unwilling to wait until the war against Nazi Germany was over before initiating the military revolt against the British occupation of Palestine. On the contrary, he made approaches to Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in the belief that ‘the enemy of our British enemy must be our friend’. Stern’s successors, a triumvirate consisting of Israel Eldad, Natan Yellin-Mor and Yitzhak Shamir, continued to resort to terrorist attacks and political assassinations in their campaign to drive the British out of Palestine. But after the end of the Second World War they turned to the Soviet Union in the search for allies against Britain.
Immediately following the declaration of independence in May 1948, both of these dissident organizations where dissolved and many of their members joined the ranks of the Israel Defence Forces. Menachem Begin formed the Herut or Freedom party which adopted the Irgun emblem - a hand holding a rifle on a map of Palestine which stretched over both banks of the river Jordan. The veterans of the Irgun continued to call themselves ‘the fighting family’. The Stern Gang also turned itself into a political party, ‘the fighters list’ which won one seat in the Knesset in the elections of 1949.
Menachem Begin remained the undisputed leader of Herut until his sudden withdrawal from political life in 1983, in the aftermath of the ill-fated war in Lebanon. Herut was returned with 14 seats in the first Knesset. The official Revisionist Party was routed, failing to gain even a single seat. A year later, the two parties merged. Begin did not abandon the Revisionist dream of a Jewish state over the whole Land of Israel, including the West Bank of the river Jordan which was captured by King Abdullah of Jordan in 1948 and annexed to his kingdom two years later. But, while preserving his doctrinal purity, Begin proved adept at forming alliances with liberal, nationalist and ultra-nationalist groups as well as break-away groups from the Labour Zionist movement. Thus Herut became Gahal in 1965 as a result of a merger with the Liberal Party, and Gahal became the Likud in 1973 as a result of another merger with three small nationalist splinter groups.
By 1955 Herut had emerged as the second largest party and the principal opposition to the Labour-led government. But until 1967 it remained outside all the coalition governments. The political climate in Israel in the first two decades of independence tended to de-legitimize Herut. David Ben-Gurion pursued a deliberate and effective policy of isolating and ostracising Herut. His famous principle for forming coalition governments was ‘without Herut or Maki’, Maki being the acronym of the Israeli Communist Party. Gahal joined the government for the first time during the crisis of May 1967 and Menachem Begin became minister without portfolio in the government headed by Levi Eshkol. In July 1970 Begin and his colleagues left the National Unity Government headed by Golda Meir in protest against the Rogers peace plan which, they claimed, involved a new partition of the Land of Israel and a betrayal of the historic rights of the Jewish people. But their three years in government had gained them a large measure of political legitimacy and thus helped to prepare the ground for the Likud’s rise to power in 1977.
Menachem Begin was 63 when he became prime minister and he continued to live in the past. No other Israeli prime minister before or since has been so divorced from the political realities of his day. He was an emotional man who was deeply traumatized by the Holocaust and haunted by fears of its recurrence. He understood contemporary events primarily through the filter of his own terrible experiences during the Holocaust. Many of his enemies, including Britain, the Arab states and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, featured in his picture of the world as reincarnated Nazis. Haunted by demons from the past, he was unable to make realistic assessments of the balance of power between Israel and her enemies which were essential to the conduct of a sound foreign policy. Shulamit Hareven dubbed him `the High Priest of Fear’ because of his psychological compulsion to uncover and play on the innermost anxieties of the population. But it was precisely these anxieties that also made Begin such an ardent believer in Jabotinsky’s concept of an ‘iron wall’ of military power to protect the Jewish people from its many adversaries.
Although his behaviour could be erratic, Begin never wavered in his ideological commitment to the Land of Israel and he was nothing if not an ideologue. It was an article of faith which stayed with him all his life that the Jewish people had a historic right to the whole of its Biblical homeland. In a speech to the first Knesset he condemned Ben-Gurion for acquiescing in Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank. Restoration of the Jewish state could not begin, he proclaimed, until ‘our country is completely cleansed of invading armies. That is the prime task of our foreign policy’. In another speech to the Knesset, on 3 May 1950, Begin referred to the ‘vassal-state that exists on our homeland’ and in a Biblical analogy labelled King Abdullah ‘the Amonite slave’.
After Israel’s victory in June 1967, Begin became an outspoken opponent of relinquishing the West Bank. He objected to UN resolution 242 because it meant the redivision of the Land of Israel. The Likud’s manifesto for the 1977 elections was categorical on this point:
The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is eternal, and is an integral part of its right to security and peace. Judea and Samaria shall therefore not be relinquished to foreign rule; between the sea and Jordan river there will be Jewish sovereignty alone.
Begin did not recognize the concept of a Palestinian people because to do so would have implied their right to national sovereignty in the areas where they lived. For him, as for the old guard of Mapai, ‘Palestinians’ meant Palestinian Jews as understood in the pre-state days. He never spoke of a Palestinian nation. His definition of the Palestinians was quintessentially Jabotinskyian in that it focussed on their status as a national minority. They were part of a wider Arab nation that had already realized its right to national self-determination in some twenty countries. Within the Land of Israel they were a minority entitled only to civil and religious rights.
The PLO was perceived by Begin not as a national liberation movement but as a terrorist organization pure and simple. He made no distinction between the policies of its different factions, between radicals and moderates. They were all latter-day Nazis, while the PLO’s covenant was the equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This attitude, too, was unambiguously stated in the Likud’s 1977 election manifesto:
The so-called Palestinian Liberation Organization is not a national liberation movement but a murder organization which serves as a political tool and military arm of the Arab States and as an instrument of Soviet imperialism. The Likud government will take action to exterminate this organization.
When Begin came to power he had the option of giving concrete expression to his life-long convictions by annexing the West Bank. He did not exercise this option because he also wanted to achieve peace with Egypt. Asked by a reporter whether he intended to annex the West Bank, he replied ‘you annex foreign land, not your own country’. Begin was prepared, however reluctantly, to give back the whole of Sinai, and even dismantle Jewish settlements there, in return for peace with Egypt because Sinai was not part of the Biblical Land of Israel. For Begin, however, the withdrawal from Sinai was not a prelude or precedent for further withdrawals but a means of ensuring permanent Israeli control over the West Bank.
Begin passionately believed that the historic right of the Jews to the Land of Israel overrode all other claims. He was unable to distinguish clearly, however, between historic right and a political claim to sovereignty. The ‘Framework for Peace in the Middle East’ which he signed at Camp David used language that was distinctly foreign for the Revisionists and consequently lost him their support. The Framework recognized ‘the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements’. Begin, however, insisted that the Hebrew version referred to ‘the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael’ rather than to ‘the Palestinians’.
Similar sophistry was applied by Begin to the UN resolutions that were said to be the basis of negotiations. UN resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from territories ‘occupied in the recent conflict’ in return for peace. In Begin’s view the Six Day War had been a defensive war during which the West Bank had been purged of ‘foreign aggressors’. Accordingly, while applying to Sinai, resolution 242 did not apply to the West Bank. All that Begin would offer the residents of the West Bank was an autonomy plan which they rejected out of hand as derisory.
In June 1982, taking advantage of Egypt’s disengagement from the conflict, Begin, aided and abetted by defence minister Ariel Sharon, launched Israel on the road to war in Lebanon. Shindler devotes four chapters to the war in Lebanon, brazenly misnamed ‘Operation Peace for the Galilee’, but the real logic behind this war eludes him. This war was about securing the Land of Israel and it was directed primarily against the Palestinians, not against Lebanon or Syria. In its 1977 manifesto the Likud had vowed to ‘exterminate’ the PLO and this was the immediate aim behind the invasion of Lebanon. The PLO was both the symbol and the spearhead of Palestinian nationalism which had been gaining momentum ever since 1967. If the PLO were crushed, Sharon persuaded Begin, the Palestinians on the West Bank would become demoralized and their will to resist the imposition of Israeli rule would effectively come to an end. The war achieved its immediate aim by destroying the PLO’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon and forcing it to move its headquarters to Tunis. But it utterly failed in its broader aim of defeating Palestinian nationalism.
What Shindler does bring out very vividly is the impact of Begin’s Holocaust trauma on his conduct of the war in Lebanon. He gives many examples of Begin’s tendency to compare Arabs with Nazis. Following an attack on women and children in Kiryat Shemona by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Begin told the Knesset that ‘two legged beasts, Arab Nazis perpetrated this abomination’. But the most bizarre manifestation of Begin’s use of analogies from the Nazi period was a telegram he sent to President Ronald Reagan in early August 1982, when the Israeli army was bombarding Beirut:
Now may I tell you, dear Mr President, how I feel these days when I turn to the creator of my soul in deep gratitude. I feel as a Prime Minister empowered to instruct a valiant army facing ‘Berlin’ where amongst innocent civilians, Hitler and his henchmen hide in a bunker deep beneath the surface. My generation, dear Ron, swore on the altar of God that whoever proclaims his intent to destroy the Jewish state or the Jewish people, or both, seals his fate, so that what happened from Berlin - with or without inverted commas - will never happen again.
These comments outraged many Israelis. Despite their sensitivity to the Holocaust, they saw that their leader had lost touch with reality and was merely chasing the ghosts of the past. Chaika Grossmann, a Mapam member of the Knesset who had actually fought in the Warsaw Ghetto, made a direct appeal to Begin: ‘Return to reality. We are not in the Warsaw Ghetto, we are in the State of Israel’. The writer Amos Oz, who saw the invasion of Lebanon as ‘a typical Jabotinskyian fantasy’ appealed to Begin to resist the urge to resurrect Hitler from the dead each day so as to kill him once more:
The urge to revive Hitler, only to kill him again and again is the result of pain that poets can permit themselves to use, but not statesmen... even at great emotional cost personally, you must remind yourself and the public that elected you its leader that Hitler is dead and burned to ashes.
Anchored in delusions and fed by paranoia, Israel’s war in Lebanon went from bad to worse. The horrendous massacre perpetrated by Israel’s Christian Lebanese allies in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in August 1982 dramatically stepped up both domestic and foreign opposition to the war. Begin’s instinctive response was to turn his back on his foreign critics. He appealed to the Cabinet to close ranks in an act of solidarity against a hostile world. ‘Goyim are killing goyim’, he exclaimed, ‘and the whole world is trying to hang Jews for the crime’.
But criticism of the war did not die down. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of the few Jewish American leaders to openly oppose the war, doubted that Begin could remain in office since he had squandered Israel’s fundamental asset - its respect for itself and the respect of the world. A year later, in September 1983, Begin did resign. ‘I cannot go on any longer’ was all he could say by way of explanation. It was an odd remark which said nothing or everything. His Zionist dream shattered, Begin was a broken man and he remained a recluse until his dying day. As Shindler observes, ‘The emotional and often fanatical dedication which coloured his way of life, with all its deep depressions and high emotions, had finally overcome him’.
Yitzhak Shamir was elected by the Likud to succeed Menachem Begin. The contrast of temperament, personality and style could have hardly been greater. One was volatile and mercurial, the other solid and reliable. One was charismatic and domineering, the other dull and dour. One was a spell-binding orator, the other could hardly string two sentences together...
...The Likud, despite its various permutations since the 1920s, has always remained an ideological party. The principal difference between Netanyahu and his predecessors is that they were true believers. They were faithful, not to say fanatical defenders of the Land of Israel regardless of the electoral consequences of this stand whereas he is a pragmatic politician in the American mould who is prepared to dilute his party’s ideology for the sake of attaining power. In his book, Netanyahu denounced the Oslo accord as capitulation by the Labour government to `the PLO’s Phased Plan’ of bringing about a gradual Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. But he never came up with a coherent alternative to the policy limited, gradual, and controlled withdrawal from the occupied territories. And since the majority of Israelis still support the Oslo accord, Netanyahu began to change his tune in the lead up to the 31 May elections. `The Oslo accord endangers Israel’, he said, `but one cannot ignore reality’. This reality spells the beginning of the end of the Revisionist Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty over the whole of the Land of Israel. Jabotinsky and Begin turn in their graves.