Jabotinsky who? 1508

Betar alumnus Moshe Friedrich recalls visiting Haifa's Likud branch and overhearing a functionary there grumble about "this man Jabotinsky everyone talks about. Who is he? Why doesn't he ever show his face?" Little did the fellow realize that Jabotinsky's image wistfully surveyed the scene from the framed photo on the wall, directly overhead.

The incident is symptomatic.

Genealogically, Jabotinsky begat the Likud. Today's party is the direct descendant of the Revisionist Movement he founded in 1925. Very few veteran diehards and "Fighting Family" members remain, and those who do are relegated to the sidelines as eccentric specimen.

Their offspring, the "Likud princes," know what it was all about. Some, like Uzi Landau, are still passionately committed. Others, like Binyamin Netanyahu, puzzle some. Ehud Olmert is suspected of crass opportunism. Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Roni Milo are out.

Jabotinsky's mantle has passed to Ariel Sharon, once bent on out-radicalizing the most radical Jabotinsky disciples, who now accuse him of being a Mapainik in Revisionist clothing.

Numerous rank-and-file members owe little allegiance to the old nationalist, greater Israel ideals, which were their ideological party's raison d'etre in all its incarnations and under all its names. Few today recall that their party's principal progenitor was Herut, the political scion of the IZL underground commanded by Menachem Begin. Its activists were all Revisionists but not all Revisionists were Herutniks.

Three Revisionist lists vied in the 1949 election - Herut (which won 14 Knesset seats), Lehi's Lohamim faction (one seat) and Brit Hatzohar (which failed to pass the threshold). After the 1951 election, Herut emerged as the sole surviving Revisionist party.

From the outset there was no peace in its ranks. Three MKs quit in the first term - Jabotinsky's own son Eri, the legendary Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson) and Shmuel Merlin. Associated with them was young Shmuel Tamir who'd soon become one of the country's ablest and most flamboyant attorneys.

They were united by quasi-Canaanite leanings and talked about a new Hebrew nation (as distinct from Jewish) in renascent Israel.

Tamir was the only one of the group to come back to Herut politics, which he departed in 1959 to form the short-lived Mishtar Hadash (New Regime) faction. He returned again and stayed beyond the debut of Gahal - the 1965 confederation with the bourgeois Liberals, direct offshoots of the once-sizable middle-of-the-road and middle-class General Zionists, who, though severely pizzazz-deprived, could bestow legitimacy and respectability on political outcast Begin.

In 1966 Tamir tried to challenge Begin but was defeated. Tamir and fellow "conspirators," including his young aide Ehud Olmert, were ousted and formed the Free Center. It barely managed to win two Knesset seats in 1969.

GAHAL, MEANWHILE, did well. Brash air force ex-commander Ezer Weizman, just out of uniform and full of Six-Day-War glory, joined after heaping scorn on Yitzhak Rabin. Weizman soon became transport minister when Gahal was invited to join the national-unity government, the first time Begin was out of the opposition.

When Golda Meir agreed to the Suez cease-fire in 1970, Begin pulled his party out of the coalition. Disgruntled, Weizman went into political exile until assuming his instrumental role in the 1977 first-ever triumphant Likud campaign.

While Weizman sulked, another charismatic general, Ariel Sharon, fresh from military service, joined the Liberals in 1973. That party's staid old-timers never recovered from his onslaught.

At one point Sharon warned leader Simha Ehrlich that he'd drag him "down to hell." That was when Sharon resorted to a series of ultimatums, which stunned even the reluctant Begin and forged the Likud, into which incongruously entered David Ben-Gurion's most fervent followers from ex-Rafi splinters, as well as the Free Center, returning the prodigal Tamir to the fold with his somewhat less-than-loyal sidekick, Olmert.

Ever-restless, Tamir (credited with coining the 1967 slogan "liberated land won't be returned") now began talking of territorial compromise, heresy in Likud milieu. In January, 1975 that effected a split in the Free Center.

Olmert, his father Mordechai and Histadrut Leumit veterans launched a variant called the Independent Center, which soon merged with Rafi remnants and the Land of Israel Movement to form La'am. By October, 1976 Tamir was out of the Likud yet again, this time helping found the ill-fated Democratic Movement for Change.

Sharon, meanwhile, having traumatized the Liberals, left them in 1974, when Rabin became premier. Rabin appointed Sharon special security adviser, remembering that Sharon stuck by him while Weizman carped. On the eve of the 1977 election, Sharon tried to reenter his Likud creation, but the Liberals balked and blocked him.

Sharon went on to win two Knesset seats on his self-styled Shlomzion ticket, which he merged with the Likud immediately following its unprecedented victory. He then joined Herut, gaining some immunity from the vengeful Liberals, who couldn't sabotage his appointment as defense minister after the 1981 election. The rankled Ehrlich couldn't abide Sharon in the post (two years before the Kahan Commission removed him).

In 1981 Ehrlich told me that "for Sharon, tactics take precedence over principle. He dismisses anyone who's not a comrade-in-arms. His wishes become imposed decisions. He isn't a team-player. He's unbound by truth or a value-system. He's a law unto himself." Sharon coveted the defense portfolio considerably earlier but Weizman had first dibs. Sharon's chance came when Weizman bolted in 1980 after accusing Begin of not pursuing peace with adequate vigor. Weizman eventually voted for Labor's no-confidence motion and was expelled from Herut. In 1984 he managed to win a mere three seats for his Yahad list, which then melted into Labor.At the opposite extreme of the Likud spectrum, Geula Cohen and Moshe Shamir, unable to reconcile themselves to the Sinai withdrawal, left to establish the Tehiya party. They weren't the only Herutniks against the treaty with Egypt.

Most of the party couldn't swallow it. One of the staunchest opponents, Yitzhak Shamir, in fact took over as prime minister after Begin resigned in 1983, against the backdrop of the Lebanon war.

Shamir wasn't one of the Fighting Family's originals. He hailed from Lehi.

Despite his record and ongoing hawkishness, he was ceaselessly challenged from the Right by a curious trio, who gained notoriety as the "Constrictions Ministers." Finding it expedient to question Shamir's patriotic credentials, they formed an unlikely amalgam.

UNPREDICTABLE YITZHAK Modai, a Liberal free-market advocate and dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, was offset by Herut's populist David Levy, professional Sephardi and self-appointed representative of the disadvantaged, who lost no opportunity to take personal umbrage on their behalf. Spearheading the ultra-nationalist cause was Sharon, who challenged Shamir for the leadership and who, in a memorable convention session, grabbed the microphone from the hapless PM in mid-speech, and bellowed: "Who's against terror?"

Such antics by ostensible doubters of Shamir's ideological trustworthiness played a key role in bringing him down and ushering in Rabin's second term and Oslo.

By the time Netanyahu assumed Likud leadership, little was left of Begin's once formidable authority. Most veterans were either deceased or retired. The Liberals had merged with Herut and disappeared into a Likud much as we know it today - full of perk-claimers, political hitchhikers and promoters of vested interests.

It was bon ton to knock Netanyahu and very few top Likudniks resisted the temptation. Netanyahu's prime-ministerial stint (1996-1999) was doomed.

On the eve of the 1999 elections, Levy quit the Likud to field his Gesher concoction under Labor's auspices. Meridor, Milo and Yitzhak Mordechai vied for the new Center Party's prime-ministerial nomination. Benny Begin dropped out of the prime-ministerial race as National Union candidate. Olmert starred in Ehud Barak's TV electioneering, assuring the citizenry that Barak wouldn't divide Jerusalem. In no time Labor's new PM tried to do just that.

The barely forgiven Olmert managed to secure only the 33rd slot in the 2003 primaries for the Likud Knesset slate. David Levy won another Knesset term, this time on the Likud ticket - again.

His fellow Constrictionist Sharon enjoys the last laugh.

In 2001 he was directly elected to the premiership and last year, after the single ballot's restoration, he came back as head of the Likud's list, at least pro forma committed to its creed and platform. That platform still features unequivocal rejection of a Palestinian state. Sharon has just told remaining Likud ideologues that both the platform and their objections are irrelevant. Protests against his policy decrees, he intones, are unacceptable and intolerable.

Moshe Friedrich is sure the first Likud PM, in stark contrast to his current successor, "would've never needed to exclaim: 'I decide. I implement.'" For Begin that went without saying. Begin demonstrated his unquestioned ability to overcome opponents with ferocious finesse. He always exuded deference for democratic niceties and was singularly a stickler for the procedural small print.

Begin, says Friedrich, "would've never so much as intimated that ideological challenge - such as Sharon seemed to so often mount against Shamir - was in any way illegitimate, unethical or violated party rules. But Begin would've been shocked to the core by the failure of idealism, the lack of decorum and the loss of fidelity to Jabotinsky's teachings."

(©) The Jerusalem Post

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