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Israel Studies 1.2 (1996) 278-293

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The Likud In Power:
The Historiography of Revisionist Zionism

Avi Shlaim

Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu by Colin Shindler Tauris, 324 pp., 1995
Summing Up: An Autobiography by Yitzhak Shamir Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 276 pp., 1994
Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis between the U.S. and Israel by Moshe Arens Simon and Schuster, 320 pp., 1995
A Zionist Stand by Ze'ev B. Begin Frank Cass, 173 pp., 1993
Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism by Benjamin Netanyahu Farrar Straus Giroux, 152 pp., 1995

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 Labor rule and ushered in a new era which was to last fifteen [End Page 278] 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 countrs. First, whereas most of the existing books deal with specific issues such as the peace with Egypt, 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 Labor 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 that must have puzzled most of his listeners.

At the 17th Zionist Congress in 1931, 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 to acquiring land, building settlements, and working in cooperation with the British mandatory authorities toward the final goal of statehood. Jabotinsky's Zionism 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 [End Page 279] 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...


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