Courtesy Reuters

The Last Revisionist Zionist

"Ecclesiastes, of course, was right: indeed, nothing is new under the sun," writes Yitzhak Shamir in his autobiography. This seems a surprising statement from a man who has seen and molded dizzying changes in an amazingly active life. Inspired by the visions of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Jewish nationalism, Shamir came to British -- controlled Palestine in 1935 as a young Polish immigrant named Yitzhak Yezernitzky and joined the militant Jewish underground. The name Shamir came from a forged identification certificate he carried. Shamir became the commander of the underground militia known as the Stern Gang, or Lehi. After Israel's establishment in 1948, he spent 17 secretive years working as a Mossad agent. He then began a rapid political climb in the rightist Likud party: first a member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), then its speaker, then foreign minister, and then in 1983 prime minister. Despite this remarkable career, Shamir considers his career as a Lehi fighter 50 years ago "the best part of my life." Shamir's formative experiences etched such lasting impressions on him that whatever occurred thereafter has seemed only a slight variation on the same theme. This is not an unusual phenomenon among people who, in their youth, participated in dramatic events and therefore consider later life a dull anticlimax. For a person who eventually assumed awesome responsibilities for an entire nation, however, such a nostalgic, petrified worldview is crippling and dangerous.

As prime minister, Shamir vehemently rejected any proposal to convene a superpower -- sponsored international peace conference with the Arabs. " `Peace' secured in this way, under duress," he writes, "would only bring greater demands in its wake until everything the Arabs wanted would, at last, be theirs, even Jerusalem." His rejectionism strained relations with the United States and brought down the government of national unity that he had formed with the opposition Labor Party. Shamir candidly admits that "somewhere in the back of my mind there still echoed the fiasco of 1939," when the British brought Jewish and Arab leaders to a roundtable conference in London as a final attempt to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict in Palestine. Shamir's militant opposition to attempts to avert a direct clash between the defenseless Jewish minority and the Arab world just before the Second World War seem relevant to him 50 years later, when a powerful Israel forced the Arab states begrudgingly to come to terms with its existence. But Shamir's perceptions of the Arabs have not changed, so there is no reason for him to change his mind.

It is a pity that, even as he sums up his life, Shamir remains totally mobilized. His personal account reads just like his beloved underground's old pamphlets -- a perpetual struggle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. Shamir does not allow himself to open up and share with his readers the emotional intensity, the personal passions, or the intellectual and literary wealth of the fascinating political culture -- the Revisionist Zionist movement -- of which he is the last remaining founding father.

SHAMIR TACTICS

Israeli political history is in large measure the conflict between Revisionist Zionism and Labor Zionism writ large: the more pragmatic Labor Zionists, with their devotion to socialism and compromise, formed the -- state majority and, through the Labor Party, held power until 1977; the Revisionists, who insist on Jewish sovereignty in the entire biblical land of Israel, formed the PRE -- state underground and later the Likud Party. "As for myself," writes Shamir, "nothing I have learned since I was a young man in Poland has altered, or in any way lessened or diluted, my belief in the logic, the justice and, yes, the grandeur of the objectives, as Jabotinsky articulated them, of Zionist activism." Shamir still retains this emotional allegiance to Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the charismatic founder and leader of Revisionist Zionism.

Like his fellow believers, Shamir was attracted to Jabotinsky's sweeping vision: his magnetic oratory, ideology of integral nationalism and monism, distaste for socialism, obsession with ceremony, and particularly his cult of power. Much has been written on the political and cultural environment in post -- World War I Europe that nurtured such ideas and on the tragic paradox of Jabotinsky, the Jewish liberal who was influenced by those cultural trends. Shamir's attachment is merely emotional, for he and most of his Jewish colleagues in Palestine exposed Jabotinsky's inherent contradiction: he wanted to achieve a Jewish state in the whole land of Israel (including Transjordan) by a show of strength and military power -- while under the patronage of Great Britain. The British, who ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate after World War I, would assume moral responsibility for the Jewish "orphans," Jabotinsky believed, or at least treat Jewish settlers returning to their biblical homeland as well as it treated white settlers in Kenya, Ceylon, or Singapore.

Jabotinsky abhorred wanton killing and condemned terrorism, but his disciples in Palestine believed that only acts of terror directed against the British occupiers would free the land and establish a Jewish state. Shamir and Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, the largest underground group and Lehi's main competitor, planned their revolt against the British despite the objections of Jabotinsky. The underground therefore was both an indirect challenge to Shamir's mentor and a direct challenge to the elected bodies of the Yishuv, the PRE -- 1948 Jewish community in Palestine. David Ben -- Gurion, the doughty Labor leader who would become Israel's FIrst prime minister, and the leadership of the Yishuv "had the habits of settling for immediate, if deceptive, calm," writes Shamir, adding a fat hint about his feelings on Labor's current politics. Then, as now, his leftist opponents displayed "a kind of pessimism inappropriate to the daring concepts that were both Herzl's and Jabotinsky's." Shamir is not concerned in the least that those "pessimists" represented the overwhelming majority of the Yishuv, and that they correctly assumed that the real threat to Jewish statehood was Arab belligerence, not British intransigence. Ben -- Gurion and his allies opposed terrorist acts against the British on moral and political grounds. Strained relations with the British jeopardized military preparations for the inevitable confrontation with the Arabs, which of course came when six Arab armies immediately invaded Israel after it declared its independence on May 14, 1948. One shudders to think what would have happened had the "dissenters" -- Shamir and Begin -- been directing Jewish political activity during the crucial years before 1948.

But the Lehi, led by Shamir, had no doubts about the "daring concepts" of Zionism, and dismissed the realpolitik of Ben -- Gurion, depicting him as the founder of the "Jerusalem National Old -- Aged Home." Avraham Stern, the founder of Lehi, wrote: "Force always forged the destiny of nations . . . The destiny of the land of Israel has always been determined by the sword, not diplomacy. The only justice in the world is force and the dearest asset in the world is freedom. The right to life is granted only to the strong, and power, if not given legally, should be taken illegally."

STERN UND DRANG

Kati Marton has written a fine new book about Lehi's final act of pistol diplomacy -- the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator given the unenviable task of resolving the Arab -- Israeli dispute during the warfare of 1948. Marton has done a splendid job of recounting the tragic tale of the Swedish messenger of peace who paid with his life for his naive attempt to meddle in the Byzantine politics of the Middle East. She provides a solid historical background to explain Bernadotte's murder in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood by Shamir's gunmen on September 17, 1948. Some of Marton's historical contexts are strained, and her attempt to connect the 1948 assassination to the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron's Ibrahimi mosque by a fanatical Jewish settler is tenuous at best. She highlights, however, important facts that Shamir, in his autobiography, chooses to blur. Marton meticulously describes Shamir's direct responsibility for planning and giving the order to commit the crime, a widely known fact in Israel. Shamir, however, dismisses the deed: "The idea was conceived in Jerusalem by Lehi members operating there more or less independently. Our opinion was asked and we offered no opposition." This laconic treatment is another reason why the Lehi commander's autobiography cannot be treated as a wholly reliable historical document.

Lehi's modus operandi was objectionable even to Begin. "He opposed all assassinations," Shamir writes of the Irgun leader. "Going to war when there was no alternative was all right, but the singling out of one person, even of an informer, for execution was morally wrong in his eyes." Shamir writes disapprovingly about Begin's belief "in the primary importance of the political effort and its priority over armed conflict." Begin once asked Shamir, "Do you really think you can create a state with pistols?" Shamir, however, had no second thoughts. Even after the state of Israel was established, he believed that he could change the course of history itself with pistols.

Shamir would like to conclude the story of Lehi with the end of the underground days, and therefore devotes only one short paragraph to his failed attempt to form a political party. This was indeed a farce, and Shamir writes that he "had not especially welcomed or encouraged the party's birth, so its end . . . did not sadden me." Thus he exempts himself from describing the deep rift between ex -- Lehi members from the radical left and the radical right.

More significantly, he does not have to reflect on the difference between himself and Begin, the other great underground leader: Shamir could not adapt to ordinary political life, while Begin showed great political skill in transforming his Irgun from an underground movement to a mass political party -- the Likud. Thus, Begin could offer Shamir a place in the Likud's leadership when Shamir retired from the Mossad in 1970. What he was unable to achieve in 1949, he received from Begin on a silver platter: a place in Israel's national leadership. In 1983, in a moment of great irony, he received Begin's supreme gift, the prime ministership, after Begin suddenly resigned in agony over Israel's ill -- fated invasion of Lebanon. Here, then, is the greatest example of the contrast between the principled Begin and the unscrupulous Shamir: it never would have occurred to Shamir to quit over such a matter of conscience.

AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE

Likud's victory in the 1977 elections, which made Begin the first non -- Labor prime minister of Israel, marked a turning point in Israeli history. It inaugurated a period of rapid social mobility that soon made Israeli society unrecognizable. The old and established elites represented by the Labor party -- most of whom were Ashkenazim, or Jews of Central European ancestry -- lost their primacy, privileges, and preferred access to public funds. Government, social status, and economic resources passed into the hands of talented people from classes heretofore disadvantaged -- especially the Sephardim, the Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry who were now the majority of Israel's population -- or kept far from government for ideological reasons. The Likud's economic policies, which caused running inflation and hurt economic growth, nevertheless contributed to the emergence of Israeli nouveaux riches and the opening of the affluent society to many members of the weaker classes. The gap between the haves and the have -- nots grew, but in contrast with the past, the haves were no longer only Ashkenazim. The massive influx of new government officials led to protectionism, inefficiency, and even corruption. Yet it improved the Sephardim's self -- image and helped consolidate a confident new elite. One could see this as the consummation of the Likud's historical purpose, which was no longer based so much on the Jabotinskyite creed as it was on venting frustration and rage against the Ashkenazi establishment that had disadvantaged the Sephardi masses. After the 1977 upheaval, Likud supporters could make political choices unencumbered by feelings of ethnic grievance, whether justified or not.

This new sociopolitical environment caused considerable changes in the Israeli value system. The old ideological barriers -- the final remnants of the PRE -- state pioneering ethos -- were removed and Israelis unashamedly pursued the good life. But history constantly intruded. Israel, which had fought traumatic wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, fought its most divisive conFLict after the Begin government invaded Lebanon in 1982. After the intifada began in 1987, Israelis, who generally preferred not to dwell on the question of what to do with the 1.5 million Palestinians who had been living under military occupation since Israel took the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, found the Palestinians at center stage. While the country endured constant terrorist attacks and bravely attempted to absorb hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Likud poured money into Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. The persistence of the intifada caused Israelis to realize that the Likud's ideology of "Greater Israel" entailed the permanent burden of controlling a murderously hostile population, which interfered with the main new Israeli concern: pursuing the ideals of the consumer society. They wished to be rid of the Palestinians even if it meant relinquishing control of the West Bank and Gaza. Yitzhak Rabin, the taciturn war hero who now led the Labor Party, offered an approach to the Arab -- Israeli conflict based on pragmatism, not ideology. In 1992, Israeli voters chose Rabin, not Shamir; on September 13, 1993, Rabin signed an autonomy plan with the Palestine Liberation Organization and shook hands with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, marking an Israeli -- Palestinian rapprochement. Likud's social and economic agenda eventually undermined its own foreign policy.

Shamir could not adapt. He remained loyal to the old Revisionist ideology. After the 1992 elections, he writes, "the inevitable, grim post -- mortem commenced. How had it happened? Why did so many voters turn their back on the Likud?" Shamir cannot find plausible answers, but his book's epilogue provides a clue: Israelis longed for peace, but for Shamir, they were a "a nation led by men who made peace paramount, like a golden calf, to be worshipped at the expense of the values and aspirations that made Israel unique and placed it at the heart of world Jewry." Israel longed for prosaic sobriety, but for the old warrior this was dull and unheroic. "Calm is rubbish," goes the old Jabotinskyite saying.

To the Israeli prime ministership Shamir brought his old traits: tenacity, willpower, a Manichaean worldview, a tribal morality, and a fossilized ideology. He was not a man interested in ideas. Shamir was a pragmatist who believed in revolutionary action, not an ideological hairsplitter. When Shamir read insults to intellectuals in Russian revolutionary literature, he once said, "I did not understand it, but now I do understand it through our experience . . . Without their ideas we are nothing, but without understanding reality -- their ideas remain always in the realm of ideas." But from the wealth of Jabotinsky's ideas, Shamir culled only two principles -- holding on to the occupied territories and denying any collective rights to the Palestinians -- both of which he stubbornly defended, frustrating his American and Israeli interlocutors, and both of which were overriden by Rabin. Once again, the last doctrinaire of the old school was overtaken by history.