To judge by the noises of horror that greeted the appointment of Rehavam Ze’evi to the Israeli cabinet, one would imagine that the ideas he stands for—most notably, “transfer” of Palestinians out of the Occupied Territories—were outside the bounds of decent opinion. Even the defence minister, Moshe Arens, a prominent figure on the Israeli right, told US television that Ze’evi’s proposals were totally abhorrent to the majority of Israelis. In fact, Ze’evi pronouncements seem to echo the latent sentiments of a sizeable proportion of Israeli public opinion. When the Israel Institute of Applied Social Research asked nearly 1,200 Israeli Jews in June 1989 to consider nine different plans for the Territories, 51 per cent selected “transfer” as their first choice.
Ze’evi’s elevation has dented Israel’s new-found popularity in the west but, more important, it has revealed the extent to which the far right has penetrated to the centre of power in Israel, partly at the expense of the centre-right. For decades, the mantle of ultra-nationalism rested safely on the shoulders of Menachem Begin. As a charismatic disciplinarian, a strong and principled leader of the Herut movement, he was perceived by friend and foe alike as the first keeper of the Revision ist Zionist faith passed down to him by its founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Jabotinsky was a fin de siècle conservative intellectual from an assimilated, secular, upper-middle-class background, who thought the route to securing the Jewish homeland lay through diplomacy and negotiation. This contrasted with the youthful radicalism of Begin and his adherents, who came from an intensely Jewish eastern European environment. Even further to the right was Avraham Stern, who favoured armed struggle against the British and, 50 years ago, formed the paramilitary Stern “Gang”. Stern was killed by the British in 1942, and the Gang changed its name to “Lehi”—”Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”. A key figure in the group was one Yitzhak Yezernitsky-Shamir.
More than 30 years later, after decades in the political wilderness, Shamir became a senior figure in the first Begin government. When Begin offered administrative autonomy to the Palestinians, he was strenuously opposed by Shamir. The difference of opinion between the two men was symptomatic of a long-standing ideological division within the Israeli right. Lehi looked back to the times of King David for its inspiration. It was both mystical and maximalist in determining the specific point in time to delineate the borders of Israel. The rival Irgun faction, however, claimed its point of reference as the Balfour Declaration and the British mandate. The schism over the Camp David Accords brought this submerged difference to the surface. Begin was able to return Sinai to Sadat while retaining the West Bank, but his opponents were unable to surrender any part of the Biblical land of Israel. Begin did not espouse their slogan, af sha’al— “not one inch”.
In June 1979, the far right split km Likud and formed the “Techiya” party. Yet neither Shamir, nor the many Likud members of the Knesset (parliament) opposed to Camp David, were among them. Begin was alarmed at the establishment of Techiya, since it was not a party of rabble-rousers, but numbered among its members businesspeople, academics, lawyers and poets—and former adherents of Lehi.
In the event, Techiya won only seats in the 1981 election. Begin held power, but only at the cost of mounting a militant and often violent campaign. indicated to the maximalists that changing attitudes could be pursued through means other than the ballot box.
Techiya put aside its fundamental disagreement over Camp David to enter the Begin administration during the disastrous war in Lebanon in 1982. It perceived the Likud government as the mainstay of nationalist endeavour. It had to be defended against the left, and bolstered and influenced from within. When Begin departed a broken man in 1983, he was succeeded by the colourless Shamir, ye the 1984 election did not produce victory for the discredited Labour Party. The disillusionment over the Lebanon debacle manifested itself in a further redivision of the nationalist vote. Some 100,000 voters deserted Likud—and Techiya increased its number of seats. Yet the sensation of 1984 was that a sufficient number had voted to put Rabbi Meir Kahane of the Kach party into the Knesset.
The late Kahane soon became the man the Israeli peace camp loved to hate and the figure the western press often wrote about. Yet his election masked the rapid advance of the far right, not so much elec-torally, but in terms of ideas and influence. Another far right party, Tsomet, was formed as a broad alternative to Peace Now at the end of 1983 by the former Army chief of staff, Rafael “Raful” Eitan. It catered for Labour pioneering groups that had espoused a maximalist position on the Territories. He had a long history as a blunt practitioner of hard-line policies and little time for Palestinians or liberal Israelis who advocated moderation. His appeal was that of an unsophisticated, no-nonsense military man, given to the undiplomatic turn of phrase. “The Arabs have always been the enemy. But since we’ve had a state, we’ve seen to it that they can’t kick us around any more.”
Raful unnerved many Israelis with his “home truths”. At least one Labour Knesset member voted to ban Tsometfrom the 1988 election after Raful commented that the higher birth-rate of Palestinians was unnatural and motivated by nationalism. Both Techiya and Tsomet joined the narrow right-wing government formed by Shamir in June 1990.
Another-right wing veteran from a left-wing background was Rehavam Ze’evi. In 1987—before the Intifada—he began to advocate transfer as a solution to Palestinian aspirations in the Territories. Although he was barred from public platforms initially, the Israeli public gradually became enchanted by the simplicity of the idea. Asked in the same opinion poll cited above: “if a Palestinian state were established [in the Territories] would most Israeli Arabs be interested in joining?”, some 71 per cent of the Jewish respondents answered “yes”. But virtually the same fraction of Israeli Arabs answered “no”. The wishful thinking of Israeli Jewish opinion in its belief that this complex problem could be solved by the exodus of Arabs was all too clear. Ze’evi’s ideas fell on fertile ground.
Although Ze’evi won only two seats in the 1988 election with the slogan “Them or Us!”, his real success was to force other parties on the right to address the subject. Thus Raful of Tsomet began to boast that he would be willing to deport a million people if there was trouble on the West Bank. Techiya rejected mass expulsions in 1988, yet its party chairman had commented two years earlier that a transfer of half a million Palestinians should be a precondition for peace negotiations.
While Likud opposed transfer, individual members made sympathetic noises. Although Techiya, Tsomet and Moledet collected only 6 per cent of the vote in 1988 and returned 7 members to the Knesset, observers have estimated that, if the hawkish wing of Likud is taken into account, the far right can count on the support of 25 per cent of the Israeli public—and this was a conservative estimate before Saddam’s attacks on Tel Aviv.
No doubt, Mr Shamir needs Ze’evi’s support to neutralise both western pressure for a future international conference and Labour Party proposals for a genuine dialogue with the Palestinians. But it may also signify Mr Shamir’s long-buried ideological preferences. With the Peace camp demoralised and undermined by Arafat’s solidarity with Iraq and popular bitterness at the missile attacks, what better time to take advantage of the situation and ensure a realignment within the right away from its centre? When Moledet was established, the ideologue of Lehi and doyen of the far right, Israel Eldad, was approached to run for the Knesset. He turned them down. Perhaps he understood that his old comrade-in-arms from the underground, Yitzhak Shamir, was more than a match for his troubled opponents.
New Statesman 1 March 1991