The Fighting Family

Avi Shlaim

  • Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu by Colin Shindler
    Tauris, 324 pp, £25.00, August 1995, ISBN 1 85043 969 9
  • Summing Up: An Autobiography by Yitzhak Shamir
    Weidenfeld, 276 pp, £19.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 297 81337 4
  • Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis between the US and Israel by Moshe Arens
    Simon and Schuster, 320 pp, $25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 671 86964 7
  • A Zionist Stand by Ze’ev Begin
    Cass, 173 pp, £15.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 7146 4089 1
  • Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism by Benjamin Netanyahu
    Farrar, Straus, 152 pp, $17.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 374 15492 9

Menachem Begin and his Likud union of nationalist and liberal parties won their first electoral victory on 17 May 1977, bringing to an end three decades of Labour rule. The Likud was to dominate Israeli politics for the next 15 years. Colin Shindler’s book provides the first comprehensive survey of the Party’s origins, rise and decline, while paying particular attention to the role played by its successive leaders.

The 1977 election marked not only a change of government but the triumph of Revisionist Zionism after a half-century of 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, Begin referred to ‘the titanic struggle of ideas stretching back to 1931’, a reference to the 17th Zionist Congress, at which Ze’ev Jabotinsky launched a direct attack on Chaim Weizmann and forced him to tender his resignation as president of the World Zionist Organisation. Weizmann typified the Zionist establishment’s piecemeal approach of acquiring land, building settlements and working in co-operation with the British mandatory authorities towards the final goal of statehood. For Jabotinsky Zionism was primarily a political movement rather than an agency for economic development. Land settlement was not among his chief concerns. He denounced Weizmann’s ‘Fabian tactics’ and insisted on a forthright declaration that the aim of the movement was a Jewish state on both sides of the River Jordan. Weizmann, in turn, was appalled by Jabotinsky and his followers’ lack of realism, their melodramatic way of looking at things, and the myopic militancy of their policies. The battle lines were thus firmly drawn between territorial minimalism and territorial maximalism, between a gradualist approach to statehood and militant declarations calling for an instantaneous solution. In 1935 the Revisionists seceded from the World Zionist Organisation in protest against its continuing refusal to declare a Jewish state its immediate aim and formed their own New Zionist Organisation, which elected Jabotinsky as its president.

Jabotinsky viewed Arab opposition to Zionism as inevitable and believed that efforts to achieve a reconciliation were doomed to failure, arguing that the Palestine Arabs would never voluntarily consent to the transformation of Palestine from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority. Nor would he settle for a partition of Palestine. His version of the Zionist dream demanded a Jewish state over the whole of Eretz Yisrael. Britain had already committed the original sin by establishing the Emirate of Transjordan on the eastern part of the Palestine mandate in me early Twenties. A partition of the western part would be unacceptable not only to the Revisionist Zionists but also to the Arabs because both sides claimed the whole country for themselves. Only superior military power, Jabotinsky 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 was a defining characteristic of Revisionist Zionism from the beginning.

The Revisionist movement had its own paramilitary force, the Irgun (National Military Organisation), which was commanded by Jabotinsky until his death in 1940 and by 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. But some of the more militant members of the organisation, led by Avraham Stern, broke away to form a small underground movement calling itself Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, but known as the Stern Gang. Stern saw Zionism as a national liberation movement, advocated armed struggle, and because he saw the British as foreign conquerors, was unwilling to wait until the war against Nazi Germany was over before initiating a military revolt against the occupation of Palestine. Indeed, 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, kept up the 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 their search for allies against Britain.

Both organisations were dissolved after the declaration of independence in May 1948, and many of their members enlisted in the Israel Defence Forces. 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. Veterans of the Irgun continued to call themselves the Fighting Family. The Stern Gang also turned itself into a political party, the Fighter’s List, which won one seat in the Knesset in the 1949 elections.

Begin remained the undisputed leader of Herut until his sudden withdrawal from political life in the aftermath of the ill-fated war in Lebanon. Herut was returned with 14 scats in the first Knesset. The official Revisionist Party was routed, failing to win 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, 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, ostracised thanks by and large to David Ben-Gurion, whose governing slogan was ‘Without Herut or Maki’ (the Israeli Communist Party). Gahal joined the Government for the first time during the crisis of May 1967, when Levi Eshkol was prime minister. Begin had the title of Minister without Portfolio. In July 1970 Begin and his colleagues left Golda Meir’s National Unity Government 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 helped to prepare the ground for the Likud’s rise to power in 1977.

Begin was 63 when he became prime minister. No other Israeli prime minister has been so divorced from the political realities of his day. He was an emotional man, deeply traumatised by the Holocaust and haunted by fears of its recurrence, who saw his enemies, among them Britain, the Arab states and the PLO, 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. His critics called him ‘the High Priest of Fear’ because of his compulsion to play on the anxieties of the population, but these were always anxieties which he himself shared and they made him 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, he never wavered in his ideological commitment to the Land of Israel. 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.’ On 3 May 1950, he referred to the ‘vassal-state that exists on our homeland’, and to King Abdullah as ‘the Amonite slave’.

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