Monday, October 13, 2008

Book Review of Two New Books

Israel Affairs / Keeping the faith
By Yechiam Weitz

Kisela eitan (As Solid as a Rock), edited by Yossi Achimeir
Yedioth Ahronoth and the Jabotinsky Institute (Hebrew), 272 pages, NIS 148

Ein li koakh lehiyot ayefa (No Strength to be Tired), by Geulah Cohen
Reuven Mass Books (Hebrew), 192 pages, NIS 82

Yitzhak Shamir and Geulah Cohen were both members of the Lehi (Stern Gang) pre-state underground militia who went on to play central roles in Israeli politics. And both are now the subject of new books.

In terms of personality, one could hardly find two people more different. Shamir (who turns 93 this month) is close-mouthed and introverted, whereas Cohen is passionate and outspoken. They do, however, share one major trait that we have begun to miss: They have always been motivated not by ratings or fleeting political considerations, but by their own inner truth. Words like "zigzag" do not exist in their political and intellectual world. What Hebrew writer Amos Oz observed about the founders of the Greater Israel movement, in his 1996 book "Under This Blazing Light," applies to both of them: They were "pure of heart and believed in what they did." They hailed "not from scum but from the aristocracy of the Jewish people."

Shamir's belief in a Greater Israel (one that would include both the sovereign state and the territories conquered in 1967) led him to sabotage the peace process. He blocked the London accord signed by Shimon Peres and King Hussein in 1987, an agreement that might have prevented the first intifada, which erupted later that year. He refused to acknowledge the political aspect of the uprising, something that even the army chief of staff, Dan Shomron understood. In short, Shamir (who served as prime minister 1983-84 and 1986-92) was very much afraid that the political process would lead to withdrawal from "our homeland."

Unlike similar albums, which often end up being hagiographic, this Yitzhak Shamir anthology is interesting. The articles in "As Solid as a Rock" portray Shamir not as a caricature but as a flesh-and-blood human being. Take, for example, the article by Yaakov Perry, whom Shamir appointed head of the Shin Bet in 1988. Perry describes the intolerable tension between Shamir's fierce opposition to territorial concessions and the constraints of diplomatic reality: "He went to the [1991] Madrid Conference unwillingly. It was clear to anyone watching from the sidelines that he accepted the initiative as a kind of default option, bowing to the political reality, and not out of any hope or belief that it would succeed."

Another example is the article by Avi Pazner, who was Shamir's media adviser when he was foreign minister and later prime minister. Their first meeting attests to one of the more admirable facets of Shamir's personality: When he was visiting the United States as foreign minister, Pazner, then a media affairs consultant at the Israeli Embassy, organized a major press conference for him. Shamir walked in, briefly answered a few questions and beat a hasty retreat. Pazner made so bold as to tell him what he thought of his performance: It was lousy. Shamir looked at him in silence and, after a few minutes, which felt like an eternity to Pazner, he invited him to sit down and talk.

In the course of that conversation, Shamir told the stunned Pazner that his criticism was justified. He was not used to the media, he said, and certainly not the American media. "Most of my life I've lived in the shadows - in the underground, and then the Mossad," said Shamir. "I've never mastered the art of talking to journalists or appearing in the media. Your honesty is much appreciated, and I would be happy to work with you."

So began their collaboration, which lasted for 10 years. Over time, Shamir learned to work with the press. He realized what a vital and indispensable tool it was, but always remembered that it was a means and not an end - in contrast to many politicians today, for whom the media is everything. "After many years of hesitation and mutual distrust," writes Pazner, "Yitzhak Shamir made his peace with the media. Hopefully, there were also times when he enjoyed himself."

Meeting adjourned!

One subject that comes up often in the book is the Gulf War of 1991, which took place while Shamir was prime minister. Many contributors see his decision not to respond to the Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli cities as a historic decision. At the time, Shamir stood up to pressure from the defense establishment, headed by defense minister Moshe Arens, and in so doing blocked a reckless move that might have been catastrophic. Ronny Milo, then police minister, describes how Shamir dismissed the idea of reprisal. At the end of a long, tense government debate, he thumped on the table and announced: "At the moment, we have a majority against military action! Meeting adjourned!"

Dan Meridor, then justice minister, writes that Shamir "set an extraordinary example of how to manage a military crisis in a cool, calm and sensible way, in stark contrast to the warmongering label people liked to pin on him." Shabtai Shavit, who headed the Mossad at the time, writes that Shamir "deserves a medal for his leadership in this difficult and complex chapter in Israeli history." What nobody mentions is that there was more than a pinch of irony in his decision, considering that restraint was such a dirty word in the Revisionist lexicon. "Silence is despicable," goes the Betar anthem.

Two people loom large in this book. One is Menachem Begin. Some of the contributors explore the tension between Begin and Shamir, and write about their complicated relationship. Ze'ev Eviansky, who had been a member of the Lehi pre-state underground together with Shamir, cites some intriguing observations by Shamir himself on this charged topic: While "Begin was very much preoccupied with form, pomp and circumstance, and ceremonial gestures," Shamir did not attribute much importance to such things. Neither was he impressed by Begin's speeches. His oratory was "overwrought and dripping with pathos," Shamir wrote mockingly.

In many important respects, Begin far outshone Shamir - in vision, charisma, rhetorical skills and political acumen. But Shamir had attributes that Begin lacked, and that are hard to sneer at. One of them was: Shamir had clear limits. Not so for Begin, for whom red lines did not exist. That is clear from his oratory. One cannot even begin to imagine Shamir delivering a Begin-style speech - for example, the one he gave at Zion Square in Jerusalem on January 7, 1952, the day German reparations came up for debate in the Knesset: "Even if it is my fate to die and never see my children again, I would choose death over ignominy." Or the speeches he delivered at mass rallies in 1981, when he was prime minister: "Assad! Raful [IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan] and Yanush [GOC Northern Command Avigdor Ben-Gal] are waiting for you!"

Shamir, too, would never have dared to link the bombing of the atomic reactor in Iraq to his party's election campaign, as Begin did in the elections for the 10th Knesset, which took place three weeks after the operation. Immediately after the attack, Begin officially announced that Israel had knocked out the reactor, breaking the taboo of silence adopted by all previous governments. For the party, it was a gift worth its weight in gold, but Begin was fiercely criticized for this announcement. Shmuel Segev, a journalist who belonged to the intelligence community for many years, wrote in Maariv at the time: "Menachem Begin's actions violate the policy of all Israeli governments to date. Until now, no one in the government has ever said a word about impressive feats of this kind. With all the awe such deeds may inspire, Israel's national interest has always taken precedence over immediate political profit."

Shamir was totally different in this respect. Ehud Barak, who was chief of staff toward the end of Shamir's tenure as premier, describes how Shamir made decisions about "secret military operations that could have brought him personal glory and political gain if he had gone public. For Shamir, this was not even a consideration. The possibility never even crossed his mind."

The other figure whose presence is very much felt is Ehud Olmert, even if his name is never mentioned. Shamir is depicted by many of the contributors as the antithesis of the current prime minister, both personally and professionally. They portray him as humble, ascetic and straight as an arrow, a man who did all he could to guard the public purse. Shabtai Shavit calls him "a remarkably modest man." Ruby Rivlin writes that he was an "honest politician who performed his duties with utter integrity." The journalist Shlomo Nakdimon describes how Shamir ran the Mossad in Paris: "He traveled all over the city to meet his agents, but was extremely frugal, using only the Metro or buses." Ammunition was treated the same way. One of the agents writes: "He told me to keep a careful list of all the bullets fired in target practice. It was a carryover from his Lehi days: No wasting bullets, no shooting unless you have to. Some people made fun of him for that." How far we have come since his day.

Cohen and Ben-Gurion

Geulah Cohen's book is a whole other kettle of fish. It is, in many ways, an eclectic composition, a collection of anecdotes and episodes from her long and full life. Some are interesting, others less so. I have chosen two topics for discussion here. One is her relationship with the state's founding father, David Ben-Gurion. In 1962, Cohen, who was born in 1925, published her book "The Story of a Fighter," about her work as an announcer for Lehi's clandestine radio station. She sent a copy to Ben-Gurion, who was then in his twilight years in power, and a few days later she received a letter of thanks.

This letter is quite well known and has been published before. It is very long (eight pages), and only a small part of it appears in this book. Cohen has left out all the criticism. She does not mention Ben-Gurion's remarks about Lehi leader Yair Stern's attempt to contact the German Embassy in Ankara in 1940 for the purpose of collaborating with the Nazi regime - a mortifying incident that Lehi members have tried their hardest to ignore until today.

Wrote Ben-Gurion: "I have nothing but censure for [Yair Stern's] international endeavors and political approach to establishing a Jewish state. When Yehoshua [Ben-Gurion's closest friend, Yehoshua Cohen, a former member of Lehi who lived in Sde Boker] told me that Yair had given orders back in 1940 or 1941 to cooperate with Hitler in the war on Britain, I would never have believed it if it had not been Yehoshua who told me... Only those who are struck blind and believe in the dangerous principle of "all or nothing" would fail to rejoice on hearing of Hitler's defeat. A person would need an even worse case of blindness to join up with Hitler against England in World War II."

What Cohen does include is Ben-Gurion's enthusiastic admiration and praise. He did indeed have warm words for the heroism of the Lehi fighters - things he would never have written about (Begin's) Etzel: "As I read your book my heart welled up with emotion, with excitement, with infinite esteem. In some chapters, I felt as if I were there, a partner to the acts and events described - I bowed my head in respect to the two Eliyahus who died heroes' deaths in Cairo, to Moshe Barazani, Meir Feinstein and the others."

Ben-Gurion's letter is evidence of his complex relationship with the Revisionists in those days, as his hostility toward Menachem Begin was reaching a peak (in May 1963, he described Begin as an out-and-out 'Hitler type').

As for Geulah Cohen's attitude toward Begin, his decision to give up all of Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt in 1982 was a source of bitter disappointment for her: "In my darkest dreams, I would not have believed that my battle from then on would be with the head of my own movement, the man I fought for with all my might to make my prime minister." Cohen argues that with this act, Begin was emulating a historic agreement that he had flatly denounced - the Munich accord. She said things in the Knesset debate that must have been very painful for him: "In 1938, after the agreement, Jabotinsky was wrong to believe in the conscience of the world, and Begin was right not to believe in it - a conscience that went up in flames along with six million of our people." And now Begin himself was wrong in agreeing to hand over all of Sinai to Anwar Sadat in exchange for an empty piece of paper.

Indeed, a large part of the Herut leadership disagreed with Begin's move, but Cohen was the only one who did something about it, quitting the Likud to form the new party that became Tehiya: She left the fleshpots of power for the political desert to fight for a "minor" principle - listening to her conscience. Today, of course, it is clear that she was wrong: Begin took a decisive step that radically improved Israel's strategic standing. But even so, she deserves our respect. She followed the dictates of her conscience - a rarity then, and even more so now.

Yechiam Weitz is a professor in the Land of Israel studies department at the University of Haifa. His book "The First Step to Power: The Herut Movement, 1949-1955" was published by Yad Ben-Zvi (Hebrew) last year.
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