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.

Avi Shlaim

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.

Shamir’s greyness of character and lack of charisma may have actually helped him to get elected.  Some Likud members saw him as a sort of Israeli Clement Attlee, as a safe pair of hands, and a welcome antidote to the drama and passions of Begin’s Churchillian style of leadership.

Yet, in terms of outlook and ideology, the difference between Begin and Shamir was not all that great.  Both were disciples of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.  Both were dedicated to the Land of Israel.  Both subscribed to the lachrymose version of Jewish history, seeing it as a long series of trials and tribulations culminating in the Holocaust.  Both were suspicious of outside powers, sharing the same bunker mentality and both were strong advocates of Israeli self-reliance.

In some ways Shamir was more intransigent that Begin.  For Shamir there could be no comprise on the borders of the Land of Israel.  He was strongly opposed, for example to the Camp David accords, and he was generally unreceptive to the idea of bargaining and compromise, his natural instinct being to  stand firm in the face of external pressure. Towards the PLO,  Shamir’s attitude  was unremittingly hostile.  In November 1988 the PLO moderated its political programme, it accepting UN resolution 242 and opting for a two-state solution.  Shamir, however, dismissed any comparison between Sadat’s peace initiative and the PLO’s turning over of a new leaf.  He went even further and threatened to imprison Yasser Arafat if he flew to Israel to talk peace.  ‘Hitler and Arafat belong to the same family of demagogues’, asserted Shamir, ‘enemies of the Jewish people who think nothing of killing millions in order to achieve their objective’.  Nor did Shamir yield to the pressure for convening an international conference to deal with the Arab-Israeli dispute.  The Palestinians characterized this situation as Shamir’s three ‘nos’: no to a Palestinian state; no to talks with the PLO; no to an international conference.  In his memoirs Shamir wrote that, regardless of all other assessments, he remained as convinced as he had ever been that the only peace the PLO could  offer Israel was the peace of the cemetery.

In Israel’s internal history, Shamir was responsible for one innovation: a rotating prime ministership.  The July 1984 elections resulted in a draw between Likud and Labour.  The two parties consequently joined in a National Unity Government for a period of fifty months.  During the first twenty five months the Labour Party leader, Shimon Peres, served as prime minister and Shamir as foreign minister and in October 1986 they swapped places.  Peres and Shamir were described, unkindly, but not inaccurately, as the Odd Couple.  Mutual distrust pervaded the relationship between them from the beginning.  But the broad coalition and the odd arrangement of rotation was in itself a recipe for political paralysis for it gave each party a veto power over the policies of its partner.  The Labour Party was wedded to the Jordanian option, to territorial compromise over the West Bank with King Hussein of Jordan.  To overcome the King’s reticence to engage in direct negotiations with Israel, Labour agreed to an international conference under the auspices of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.  Likud, on the other hand, was totally opposed either to territorial compromise with Jordan or to the convening of an international conference.  Shamir believed that an international conference would imperil Israel’s very existence.

After Shamir rotated into the top job, he was as indefatigable in scuppering peace initiatives as Peres was in promoting them.  Matters came to a head over the London Agreement of April 1987 signed at a secret meeting between Shimon Peres and King Hussein at the home of Lord Mishcon in London.  The London Agreement envisaged an international conference with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and negotiations on the basis of UN resolutions 242 and 338.  Peres read the agreement to Shamir but refused to give him a copy although by now he was the prime minister.  Such was the mistrust between them.  Although the London Agreement did not commit Israel to anything of substance in advance, Shamir feared that it might open the door to territorial compromise.  He therefore sent a private message to  Secretary of State George Schultz in a bid to scupper the agreement.

George Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, were much less tolerant of Shamir’s stonewalling than Reagan and Schultz had been.  The eight year honeymoon in American-Israeli relations was over.  Bush and Baker steadily intensified the pressure on the Israeli government to stop building new settlements in the occupied territories and to start negotiating.  In May 1989 the impossible happened: Yitzhak Shamir came up with his own peace plan.  The plan specified that the peace process would be based on UN resolutions 242 and 338 and on the Camp David accords (which Shamir had opposed in 1978) and that there would be no participation by the PLO and no Palestinian state.  The most important part of the plan was the staging of elections in the occupied territories to select Palestinian representatives for the negotiations with Israel.

Interestingly, the Shamir Peace Plan was not Shamir’s idea.  It was suggested to him by Moshe Arens, the hard-line member of the Likud who became foreign minister following the elections of November 1988, relegating Shimon Peres to the finance ministry in the new National Unity Government.  In Broken Covenant Arens gives a highly revealing account of the rise and fall of the Shamir Peace Plan and of the deepening crisis in US-Israel relations.  Arens found Shamir cool and unenthusiastic about the peace process and wondered how to get this ‘reluctant dragon’ to lead Israel’s peace initiative.  Shamir seemed to have difficulty with the idea of Palestinian elections but his cabinet endorsed the plan and the Americans welcomed it.  The only opposition came from three of Shamir’s ministers and party colleagues - Ariel Sharon, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i - who began a rebellion against Shamir, accusing him of leading Israel to destruction.  Shamir did not put up a fight for his plan.  On the contrary, he allowed this coalition of ambition to constrain him and he started to backpedal.  This in turn provoked a crisis in the cabinet which culminated in the Labour ministers walking out on Shamir in March 1990.  Shamir then formed a narrow government which he led, or rather failed to lead, until his defeat at the hands of Yitzhak Rabin in the elections of 23 June 1992.

Moshe Arens was probably as close to Shamir as any other Likud leader but he became increasingly frustrated by Shamir’s inability to agree to anything that seemed like a deviation from the party’s ideology.  Arens himself was less of an ideologue and more of a hard-line pragmatist whose central concern was security.  Arens was also a believer in Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall but he concluded that Israel had reached the point where she could speak to her Palestinian  and the Arab opponents from a position of military strength.  Arens sometimes felt that he was talking to a wall.  At one point Shamir spoke of mobilizing American Jewry to face ‘a threat to Jewish people’s very existence.  Baker is against us; a new hangman for the Jewish people has arisen’.  With the departure of the Labour ministers from his cabinet,  Shamir regained some of his freedom of action or rather freedom of inaction.  In a heart-to-heart talk with Arens,  he confessed that he was not even sure that a dialogue with the Palestinians was really necessary.  Arens did not understand then, and does not understand to this day, how his leader envisaged a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict without meaningful contact with the Palestinians.  Not surprisingly, Arens concluded that Shamir had become the prisoner of his own ideology.  One idea that Arens did put to Shamir on a number of occasions was that Israel should abandon the Gaza Strip because it had become a liability but he was rebuffed by him every time. ‘Gaza is part of the  Land of Israel’, said Shamir.

By his own account, Shamir regarded peace plans as a threat rather than an opportunity.  ‘The presenting and rejecting of peace plans’, he writes in his autobiography, ‘went on throughout the duration of my Prime Ministership; not a year passed without some official proposal being made by the United States or Israel, or even Mubarak, each one bringing in its wake new internal crises, expectations and disappointments - though I had become more or less immune to the latter’.  These plans rarely contained new elements, Shamir complains; what they amounted to was ‘peace in exchange for territory; recognition in exchange for territory; never “just” peace’.  Poor Shamir: not once in his seven years as prime minister was he offered peace on a silver platter; there was always a price to pay.

Evidently, war was much more in tune with Shamir’s outlook on the world and inner feeling than peace.   Two days before his electoral defeat, he addressed a memorial meeting of  ‘The Fighters for the Freedom of Israel’ at Kiryat Ata.  His theme was that nothing had changed since the War of Independence:
We still need this truth today, the truth of the power of war, or at least we need to accept that war is inescapable, because without this the life of the individual has no purpose and the nation has no chance of survival.

The most charitable construction one can put on this statement is that the 77- year-old Revisionist had in mind not war for its own sake but war as a means of defending the Land of Israel.  The Land of Israel was always at the centre of Shamir’s life.  His autobiography does not shed much new light on his violent life or sterile political career but the last sentence is highly revealing.  ‘If history remembers me at all, in any way’, he writes, ‘I hope it will be as a man who loved the Land of Israel and watched over it in any way he could, all his life’.

In the contest to succeed Shamir as party leader, the main contenders were David Levy and two of the Likud ‘princes’, Benjamin Natanyahu and Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin.  The other Likud ‘princes’ were deterred from throwing their hats into the ring by Netanyahu’s popularity rating.  In the primaries, the serious and dignified Benny Begin called Netanyahu ‘a man of tricks and gimmicks’, a person who lacked political gravitas.  Other members of the Likud also regarded Netanyahu as an intellectual lightweight, as shallow and superficial, as little more than the purveyor of sound-bites for American television.  Nevertheless, Netanyahu won the contest on the strength of his popular appeal and proven skills at public relations.

A geologist by profession, Benny Begin was elected to the Knesset in 1988 and joined its influential Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence.  A Zionist Stand is a collection of his articles and lectures that reflect the mainstream political thought of the Likud Party.  In an article originally published in 1990 under the title ‘A Perennial Stream’, Begin observes that fifty years after the death of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Revisionist Zionism remained a perennial stream, direct and consistent, unlike other Zionist trends which meander and even retreat as they flow forward.

Benny Begin’s Zionist stand rests on two pillars: the right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael, the  Land of Israel, and the right of the Jewish State to national security. In order to realize the latter, Israel must implement the former in all of `Western Eretz Yisrael’.  In the Introduction he states his political creed even more succinctly: ‘This land is ours’.  It is an either/or situation, Begin asserts: ‘Either Israel controls Samaria, Judea and the Gaza district, or a murderous terrorist state will be set up there, headed by some faction of the PLO or Hamas’.

Using his background in geology, Begin junior describes the Middle East as follows: ‘it is a part of the globe in which you will find numerous political volcanoes, randomly distributed in space, which violently erupt, randomly in time’.  In his book, a phenomenon that is random both in space and in time, should be defined as disorder or chaos.  As is usually the case with Likud supporters, Begin’s conviction that instability is endemic in the Middle East reinforces an almost instinctive resistance to international peace initiatives.  The more they insist, the more we resist, he observes.  Like Yitzhak Shamir, he is guided by the conviction that it is better for Israel to be criticized than eulogised.  He praises Shamir for cutting ‘the solemn diplomatic nonsense` in the aftermath of the Gulf War, adding that the diplomatic course offered to Israel by the United States was a ‘blind alley in a dark neighbourhood, and we considered it both futile and risky’.  The demand that Jerusalem should be included on the agenda was anathema to him.  ‘Jerusalem, D.C. - David’s Capital’, he asserts, echoing his father, ‘shall forever remain undivided under Jewish sovereignty’.

Benjamin Netanyahu also hails from a prominent Revisionist Zionist family.  His father, Benzion Netanyahu, is an eminent historian of Spanish Jewry, an ardent nationalist and long-time supporter of Greater Israel.  Netanyahu junior was born in Israel  in 1949, received his schooling in Israel and America and studied business administration at MIT.  He served in an IDF elite unit for five years, rising to the rank of captain, so he had some practical experience of fighting Arab terrorism at the sharp end.  In 1982 he was appointed as Israel’s deputy ambassador to Washington and later as its Permanent Representative to the United Nations and he was successful at both posts.  While serving in the United States he also gained for himself a reputation as a leading expert on international terrorism and he became a frequent participant in talk shows dealing with the subject.  His family set up the Jonathan Institute named after his elder brother ‘Yoni’ who served in the same IDF elite unit and who was killed in the raid to rescue the Israeli hostages in Entebbe in 1976.  The main aim of the Institute is to mobilize governments and public opinion in the West for the fight against terrorism.  A volume edited by Netanyahu under the auspices of the Jonathan Institute, Terrorism: How the West Can Win greatly impressed President Ronald Reagan and apparently inspired the air strike he ordered against Libya in 1986.

Fighting Terrorism is a little book,  forcefully argued, and rich in unintended ironies. Netanyahu defines terrorism as ‘the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends’.  Ironically, by this definition both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir had been leaders of terrorist organizations in the pre-independence period although Netanyahu is unlikely to have had them in mind when formulating his definition.  For him terrorism is not what the weak do to the strong but what dictatorships do to democracies.  More precisely, he regards international terrorism as the result of collusion between dictatorial states and an international terrorist network - ‘a collusion that has to be fought and can be defeated’.  There is, of course, a view which holds that terrorism is the result of social and political oppression and that it cannot therefore be eliminated unless the underlying conditions change.  Netanyahu mentions this view, only to reject it out of hand.

To Netanyahu’s way of thinking, the PLO is nothing but a terrorist organization working in collusion with dictatorial states.  Israel’s destruction of the PLO base in Lebanon, he claims, deprived the Soviets and the Arab world of their most useful staging ground for mounting terrorist operations against the democracies.  Hisballah (‘the party of God’), which was born in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and continues to fight Israeli forces and proxies in southern Lebanon, is presented by Netanyahu as a terrorist organization sponsored by Iran.  But although Iran supports Hisballah, it does not effectively control it.  Moreover, guerrilla warfare would be a better description than terror for Hisballah’s operations because for the most part they take place on Lebanese territory, under battlefield conditions, against Israeli soldiers.  Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, born in Gaza in 1987, fits Netanyahu’s definition of a terrorist organization rather better because its attacks are mainly directed against Israeli civilians on Israeli territory. On the other hand, Hamas’s political links with Iran are much more tenuous than those of Hisballah and it receives much less material support from the dictatorships of the region.  Far from being part of an international terrorist network, Hamas is essentially an indigenous movement with its own agenda of creating an Islamic state in the whole of Palestine.  It is vehemently opposed to the peace process with Israel and it denounces Yasser Arafat as an Israeli collaborator.  Another irony is that in its early days Hamas was secretly supported by Israel in what turned out to be a short-sighted policy of ‘divide and rule’ aimed specifically at weakening Arafat’s secular, mainstream Fatah movement.

But the greatest irony of them all is that Benjamin Natanyahu is not just the most outspoken spokesman against Hamas but also the principal political beneficiary of its suicide bombings inside Israel.  These attacks have the effect of shifting public opinion against the Labour-led government and the peace process and in favour of right-wing politicians like Benjamin Natanyahu.  On 31 May the Israeli public will elect, for the first time in its history, not only its representatives for parliament but also the prime minister.  The only two candidates in the direct elections of the prime minister are Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu.  Against Yitzhak Rabin, `Mr Security’, Netanyahu never stood any chance.  The assassination of Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist in November 1995 dealt a severe political blow to Netanyahu and gave Peres a substantial lead in the opinion polls.  The spate of suicide bombings in early March which claimed the life of about 60 Israelis abruptly reversed the trend and gave Netanyahu a narrow lead of 48 against Peres’s 46 in the opinion polls.  To put it crudely, Jewish terror, which is not even mentioned in Netanyahu’s book, works against him while Islamic terror works in his favour.  Netanyahu’s prospects of reaching the top of the greasy poll are thus intimately linked to the continuation of Islamic terror which is the principal target of his own warlike book.

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.