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’.
After Israel’s victory in June 1967, Begin continually spoke out against any possibility of relinquishing the West Bank and refused to recognise the concept of a Palestinian people because to do so would have implied their right to national sovereignty in the areas where they lived. His definition of the Palestinians was quintessentially Jabotinskyian, in that it focused on their status as a national minority: they were part of a wider Arab nation that had already realised its right to 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 organisation pure and simple. He made no distinction between the policies of its radical and moderate factions: they were all latter-day Nazis, and the PLO’s Covenant was the equivalent of Mein Kampf. This attitude was unambiguously stated in the Likud’s 1977 election manifesto: ‘The so-called Palestine Liberation Organisation is not a national liberation movement but a murder organisation 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 organisation.’
When Begin came to power he was asked by a reporter whether he intended to annex the West Bank, and replied: ‘you annex foreign land, not your own country.’ In fact, he did not go ahead with annexation because he also wanted to achieve peace with Egypt. He was prepared, however reluctantly, to give back the whole of Sinai, and even dismantle Jewish settlements there, in return for that peace, because Sinai was not part of the Biblical Land of Israel. He nonetheless saw the withdrawal from Sinai not as a prelude to further withdrawals but as a means of ensuring permanent Israeli control over the West Bank.
Begin was unable to distinguish clearly 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 to the Revisionists and consequently lost him their support. The document recognised ‘the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements’, though Begin insisted that the Hebrew version refer to ‘the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael’ rather than to ‘the Palestinians’. He applied a similar sophistry to UN Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from territories ‘occupied in the recent conflict’ in return for peace. In Begin’s view this did not include the West Bank, which the Six Day War – a defensive war – had purged of ‘foreign aggressors’. All that he would offer the residents of the West Bank was an autonomy plan which they rejected out of hand.
In June 1982, taking advantage of Egypt’s disengagement from the conflict, Begin, aided and abetted by his Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, launched Israel on the road to war in Lebanon. Shindler devotes four chapters to the Lebanon war, but the real logic behind it eludes him. The war was about securing the Land of Israel and it was directed primarily against the Palestinians, not against Lebanon or Syria: the extermination of the PLO – the symbol and the spearhead of Palestinian nationalism – was the immediate aim. If the PLO were crashed, Sharon persuaded Begin, the Palestinians on the West Bank would become demoralised and their will to resist the imposition of Israeli rule would effectively come to an end. The war succeeded in 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.
Shindler shows very vividly the effect 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 example of the analogy is a telegram he sent to 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. Chaika Grossmann, a member of the Knesset who had 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.’ Amos Oz, who saw the invasion of Lebanon as ‘a typical Jabotinskyian fantasy’, wrote that ‘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 delusion and fed by paranoia, Israel’s war in Lebanon went from bad to worse. The 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 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 abate. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of the few Jewish American leaders openly to oppose the war, said that Begin had squandered Israel’s fundamental assets – its respect for itself and the respect of the world – and doubted that he could remain in office. A year later, in September 1983, Begin did resign. ‘I cannot go on any longer’ was all he could venture by way of explanation. It was an odd remark, which said nothing and everything. His Zionist dream shattered, he, too, was a broken man and 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 Begin. The contrast in temperament, personality and style could hardly have 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 spellbinding orator, the other could hardly string two sentences together. Shamir’s greyness of character and lack of charisma may have helped him to get elected. Some Likud members saw him as Israel’s Clement Attlee: 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 the more intransigent of the two. For him there could be no concessions on the borders of the Land of Israel. He was strongly opposed to the Camp David Accords, and unreceptive on the whole to the idea of bargaining and compromise, his natural instinct being to stand firm in the face of external pressure. In November 1988 the PLO moderated its political programme, accepting 242 and opting for a two-state solution. Shamir, however, dismissed any comparison between Sadat’s peace initiative and the PLO’s new stance, even threatening to imprison Arafat if he flew to Israel to talk peace. ‘Hitler and Arafat belong to the same family of demagogues,’ he proclaimed, ‘enemies of the Jewish people who think nothing of killing millions in order to achieve their objective.’ Nor did he yield to the pressure for an international conference to deal with the Arab-Israeli dispute. The Palestinians characterised 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 writes that, regardless of all other assessments, he remains as convinced as he has ever been that the only peace the PLO can offer Israel is 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 joined a National Unity Government for a period of 50 months. During the first 25 the Labour Party leader, Shimon Peres, served as prime minister and Shamir as foreign minister; in October 1986 they swapped places. Peres and Shamir were described, unkindly, but not inaccurately, as the Odd Couple. Mutual distrust pervaded their relationship from the beginning, and the broad coalition, with its rotating prime ministers, was itself a recipe for political paralysis for it gave each party a veto over the policies of its partner. The Labour Party was wedded to territorial compromise over the West Bank with King Hussein of Jordan. To overcome the King’s reluctance to engage in direct negotiations with Israel, Labour agreed to an international conference under the auspices of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. Likud, on the other hand, was totally opposed both to the Jordanian option and to the convening of an international conference, which Shamir believed would imperil Israel’s very existence. After rotating 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 Peres and Hussein at the home of Lord Mishcon in London. The agreement envisaged an international conference with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and negotiations on the basis of Resolutions 242 and 338. Peres read the agreement to Shamir but refused to give him a copy although by now Shamir was the prime minister. Such was the mistrust between them. Although the agreement did not commit Israel to anything of substance in advance, Shamir understood that it might open the door to territorial compromise and sent a private message to the US Secretary of State George Shultz in a bid to subvert it.
George Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, were much less tolerant of Shamir’s stonewalling than Reagan and Shultz 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: Shamir came up with his own peace plan. It specified that the peace process would be based on 242 and 338 and on the Camp David Accords (which Shamir had opposed in 1978), that there would be no participation by the PLO and no Palestinian state. The most important part of the plan was the suggested staging of elections in the Occupied Territories to select Palestinian representatives for the negotiations with Israel.
The Shamir Peace Plan was not Shamir’s idea. It was suggested to him by Moshe Arens, the hardline 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 revealing account of the rise and fall of the Shamir Peace Plan and of the deepening crisis in US-Israel relations. Arens found Shamir unenthusiastic about the peace process and wondered how to get this ‘reluctant dragon’ to head the Israeli initiative. It seemed that Shamir had 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 his ministers and party colleagues – Ariel Sharon, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i – who began a rebellion against him, accusing him of leading Israel to destruction. Shamir did not put up a fight for his plan. On the contrary, he started to backpedal. This in turn provoked a crisis in the Cabinet which culminated in the Labour ministers walking out in March 1990. Shamir then formed a narrow government which he led, or rather failed to lead, until his defeat by Yitzhak Rabin in the 1992 elections.
Moshe Arens was probably as close as any other Likud leader to Shamir but 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. He was also a believer in Jabotinsky’s iron wall but concluded that Israel had reached the point where she could speak to her Palestinian and Arab opponents from a position of military strength. That wasn’t Shamir’s view: he even spoke of mobilising American Jewry to face ‘a threat to the 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 inaction. In a heart-to-heart talk with Arens, he confessed that he was not even sure a dialogue with the Palestinians was 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. 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 suited Shamir’s sensibility much better 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. 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 Likud ‘princes’, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Begin, son of Menachem. The other Likud ‘princes’ were deterred from throwing their hats into the ring by Netanyahu’s popularity. 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 him as an intellectual lightweight, a purveyor of sound-bites for American television. Nevertheless, Netanyahu won the contest on the strength of his popular appeal and proven public relations skills.
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 articles and lectures reflecting the mainstream political thought of the Likud Party. In an article originally published in 1990, 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 double back on their course.
Benny Begin’s Zionist stand rests on two propositions: the right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael and the right of the Jewish State to national security. 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.’ 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 Shamir, he is guided by the conviction that it is better for Israel to be criticised 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, DC – David’s Capital,’ he asserts, echoing his father, ‘shall forever remain undivided under Jewish sovereignty.’
Benjamin Netanyahu also comes 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 élite unit for five years, rising to the rank of captain, so he has some practical experience of fighting Arab terrorism. In 1982 he was appointed Israel’s deputy ambassador to Washington and later its permanent representative to the UN. While serving in the US he also gained a reputation as an expert on international terrorism and became a frequent participant in talk shows. His family set up the Jonathan Institute named after his elder brother ‘Yoni’ who served in the same IDF élite unit and was killed in the Entebbe raid. The main aim of the Institute is to mobilise 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 Reagan and apparently inspired the air strike he ordered against Libya in 1986.
In Fighting Terrorism, a book rich in unintended ironies, Netanyahu defines terrorism as ‘the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends’. 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 simply a terrorist organisation in collusion with dictatorships. 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 terrorist operations against the democracies. Hizballah (‘the Party of God’), which was born in the aftermath of the Lebanon invasion and continues to fight Israeli forces and proxies in southern Lebanon, is presented as a terrorist organisation sponsored by Iran. But even if Iran supports Hizballah, it does not effectively control it. Moreover, guerrilla warfare would be a better description than terror for Hizballah’s operations: they take place mostly on Lebanese soil, under battlefield conditions, against Israeli soldiers. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, born in Gaza in 1987, fits Netanyahu’s definition rather better: 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 Hizballah and it receives much less material support from the dictatorships of the region. Far from being part of an international terrorist network, Hamas is an indigenous movement with its own agenda – an Islamic state in the whole of Palestine. It is vehemently opposed to the peace process with Israel and denounces Arafat as a collaborator. It is, again, ironic 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, main-stream Fatah movement.
But a greater irony is that Benjamin Netanyahu is the principal political beneficiary of its suicide bombings inside Israel. Hamas attacks have the effect of shifting public opinion against the Labour-led Government and the peace process in favour of its right-wing opponents. On 29 May the Israeli public will, for the first time in its history, elect not only its representatives in Parliament but the prime minister. The only two candidates for direct election as prime minister are Peres and Netanyahu. Against Rabin, ‘Mr Security’, Netanyahu never stood a chance. The assassination of Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist last November 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 lives of about sixty Israelis abruptly reversed the trend, giving Netanyahu a narrow lead of 48 per cent against Peres’s 46 in the 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 are thus intimately linked to the continuation of the phenomenon he is at pains to revile in his own warlike book.
Despite its various permutations since the Twenties, the Likud has always remained an ideological party. The main difference between Netanyahu and his predecessors is that 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 power. In his book, Netanyahu denounces 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 fails to come up with a coherent alternative. Because the majority of Israelis still support the accord, Netanyahu’s tune has begun to change in the run-up to the May 29 elections. ‘The Oslo Accord endangers Israel,’ he has said, ‘but one cannot ignore reality.’ And reality means the beginning of the end of the Revisionist Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty over the whole of the Land of Israel.