Shamir takes the helm
For more than eight hours Israelis anxiously awaited the outcome of last week’s secret ballot held in Tel Aviv’s sweltering Ohel Shem (Tent of God) theatre. Finally, Herut party officials announced the decision: Israel’s 68-year-old foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, would succeed retiring Prime Minister Menachem Begin as party leader. After five days of heated competition for the post, Shamir won 436 votes from the 1,000-member central committee and beat his principal contender, Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, by 134 votes. Then, after hurried negotiations the next day, Likud coalition party leaders announced their agreement in principle to Shamir’s leadership, placing him in the favored position to become prime minister.
In choosing Shamir as Israel’s sixth prime minister, the Herut party—and later the coalition—opted for tradition, rejecting a spirited bid by Levy, 45, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco with a strong following among the poor and working classes. With Israeli occupation troops bogged down in Lebanon and the nation facing an unprecedented economic crisis, the party’s electoral college clearly decided that it was no
time to gamble. To reassure Israelis further, Shamir announced that he would continue to follow Begin’s policies. The task may not be an easy one. Agudat Yisrael, an ultraorthodox, nonZionist party with four members of parliament, will be tempted to press for stricter enforcement of religious law. One of its leaders, Avraham Shapira, indicated last week that it would not sign “a blank cheque.” As well, three Liberal MPs in Shamir’s own Likud threatened to rebel. The North African immigrants’ TAMI party, with three MPs and one minister, also is restless about proposed cuts in welfare budgets. Still, Shamir is a skilful leader and he stands a strong chance of keeping the fragile coalition together. Echoing Begin, a longtime colleague and friend, Shamir declared, “We must bring peace to all the borders of Israel so that no enemy will dare attack us.”
But the return to business as usual may be only temporary. Because of his age and lack of widespread popular appeal, Shamir is expected to serve only as a caretaker prime minister. National elections, which may be held as soon as late October, will unleash the many tensions simmering beneath the surface of
Israeli society. In addition to the historic divisions between right and left, between the Sephardim, or MiddleEastern-born Jews and the European immigrants, there is a new rift in postBegin Israel—between the Second World War generation and its children. For many modern Israelis the Holocaust is a gruesome historical fact but not a visceral personal memory. For many young people Europe is little more than a conglomeration of countries that they have never seen.
Some of those tensions surfaced during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon last year when, for the first time, Israelis in large numbers broke ranks with their own government in a time of war. The Peace Now movement, which demanded a withdrawal from Lebanon, attracted thousands to rallies that denounced Begin and his “politics of aggression.” At the same time, the Arab world’s success in winning Western sympathy, if not support, has increased anxieties in Israel. The next generation of political leaders faces a difficult choice: whether to continue Begin’s militarism or endorse a more conciliatory policy with its Arab neighbors. The path it chooses is crucial to the future of
the entire Middle East.
Shamir comes from the same generation of underground guerrilla fighters as Begin and shares many of the same values. If anything, he is even farther to the right than Begin. Like the former prime minister, Shamir grew up in Poland and trained as a lawyer. He broke off his studies in 1935 to go to Palestine, where underground groups were fighting to establish a Jewish state. Shamir joined the notorious Stern Gang, one of the most violent underground movements fighting the British mandate in Palestine. At the time, Shamir considered Begin’s own guerrilla group, Irgun Zvai Leumi, too moderate.
The Stern Gang pursued a deliberate strategy of political murder. In the early years of the Second World War it refused to co-operate with the British in the fight against the common enemy, Nazi Germany. The British arrested Shamir in 1946 and exiled him to Eritrea in Ethiopia. The Sternists later shot the British investigating officer who had seen through Shamir’s disguise (like Begin, he had posed as a rabbi with a beard). Shamir escaped from a prison camp in Eritrea and made his way to the French-ruled colony of Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden and from there to Paris, where he spent two years. To this day he is more comfortable speaking French than English.
He withdrew from political life until 1955, after which he spent 10 years in the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Then,
in 1973, he won a seat in the Knesset. Reviving his old differences with Begin, Shamir bitterly opposed Israel’s formal agreement with Egypt in 1978 to hand back control of the Sinai Desert. At the time, Shamir argued fervently that Israel gave away too much for too little. He is a man of little subtlety. “The land of Israel is ours,” he told a party meeting last year. By that phrase he meant the whole of Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Shamir believes passionately in the Israeli right and duty to retain the entire territory. To this day, his mind is closed to any talk of compromise with the Arabs —either Jordan or the Palestinians.
Despite his hawkish views, Shamir has been a surprisingly successful foreign minister. His quiet manner and distaste for rhetoric have allowed him to restore Israel’s relations with the United States, Western Europe, Latin America and black Africa after the trauma of the Lebanese War. It is a testament to his skills as a diplomat that Shamir has created few enemies in cabinet and can count on strong supporters. One is Ariel Sharon, the controversial and still influential former defence minister. Sharon would have been a leading contender for the Herut leadership himself had he not fallen into disgrace for his apparent indifference after last year’s massacre of about 800 Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Phalangists in Beirut. Last week Sharon reportedly offered his support to Shamir
in return for his old job as defence minister.
To accomplish that, however, Sharon would have to dislodge his successor, the tactful and restrained Moshe Arens, perhaps the most popular of Begin’s ministers. Arens, a 57-year-old U.Strained aeronautical engineer, easily could have been selected leader last week if he had held a seat in the Knesset. Like Shamir, Arens is a hard-liner who opposed the Camp David accords. He is expected to run in the next election and will likely emerge as a leading contender to replace Shamir.
Another candidate will be David Levy. Despite last week’s personal setback, he remains a major figure in Israeli politics. If he eventually succeeds in becoming prime minister of Israel, it would mark a radical departure. He would be the nation’s first Sephardic prime minister. Born in Morocco, Levy emigrated to Israel in 1957 as a construction laborer. He made his mark as a union leader and spokesman for the Sephardim. The father of 12 children, Levy comes from a small, ramshackle town in the Jordan River valley. He represents a younger generation of poor Jews who have migrated to Israel since 1948. Only now are the Sephardim emerging from the slums to demand their place in the political establishment. Although the Sephardim make up 55 per cent of Israel’s population, the Ashkenazim, or European Jews, who originally settled the state, still dominate the Knesset by a margin
of three to one.
Despite the ambitions of some of the leading members of the Likud—a bloc comprising Begin’s Herut party, the Liberal Party, Al’am and one independent member—it is by no means certain that it will win the next election. Although Likud leads the Opposition Labor Party at the polls, it holds only 46 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to 50 for Labor. Begin’s Likud has stayed in power six years by skilfully managing a ragged coalition with four small ultraright-wing and religious parties. While many were more at home with the right-leaning Likud than with Labor, some, like the Liberals, were loyal only to Begin.
If Shamir manages to hold the coalition together, he will preside over a country deeply marked by his predecessor’s politics and personality. A man of extreme passions, Begin maintained an unflinching commitment to his vision of Israel: a tough, heavily barricaded state that would provide safe refuge for the Jews forever. Asked once how he would like to be remembered by history, Begin replied, “As the man who set the borders of the land of Israel for all eternity.” Like many of his countrymen, Begin is obsessed with security, an obsession rooted in memories of the Holocaust. A Pole born in Brest Litovsk (now part of the Soviet Union) in 1913, Begin advocated Zionism at the outbreak of the Second World War. The Soviets arrested him and sent him to a Siberian labor camp. When they released him a year later, he discovered that Nazi invaders had massacred most of his family. According to Sol Linowitz, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Middle
East negotiator in 1979-1980, “The first thing to understand about Begin is how heavily the Holocaust hangs over him— a fact he never forgets and from which he cannot escape.”
As a young man Begin learned the power of arms as a guerrilla in Britishoccupied Palestine. When Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing 91 people, the British put a $50,000 reward on Begin’s head. His advocacy of violence led Israel’s first
prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to denounce him as a “fascist.” Still, Begin never forgot the lesson his mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, had taught him in the underground Irgun movement. To survive, he counselled Begin, Israel would have to erect an “iron wall” between itself and the hostile Arabs.
As a politician who spent 29 years in opposition and lost eight elections, Begin never wavered from that goal. In
1970 he moved his party back into opposition after three months in Golda Meir’s coalition government rather than endorse an Israeli withdrawal from territory in the Sinai and Golan Heights occupied in the 1967 war. At the time, he vehemently declared, “I would rather chop off my own hand.” In recent years his obstinate endorsement of a controversial Jewish settlement program on the West Bank put Begin at odds with Israel’s most powerful ally, the United States. Still, Begin never feared international notoriety. He outraged world opinion by ordering an Iraqi nuclear power station bombed in 1981. Begin claimed the plant was a threat to Israel’s security. His critics say the bombing was a daring election ploy designed to bolster the Likud’s shaky fortunes in the 1981 elections.
Throughout his six years in power Begin found solid support among right wingers and the Sephardic community. Most observers say that the alliance with the Sephardim was based partly on a shared mistrust of the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians. As Jimmy Carter wrote in his memoirs, “[Begin] has a tendency to treat the Palestinians with scorn, to look down on them as almost subhuman and to rationalize his abusive attitudes toward them by categorizing all Palestinians as terrorists.”
Carter also characterized Begin as far less accommodating than Anwar Sadat in the negotiations leading to the Camp David accord, the first between Israel and an Arab neighbor. While Sadat and Begin both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, at the negotiating table, Begin proved aggressive, unrelenting and forceful. A tenacious
nitpicker, Begin has infuriated many Washington officials over the years. Typically, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said, “He’s a most remarkable man, very legalistic, extremely stubborn, not a joy to negotiate with.”
Shamir, in contrast, is well regarded in Washington. Relations between the two countries have been unsteady in recent years, partly because of Begin’s implacable insistence on continuing Jewish settlement of the West Bank. Although Shamir hews to the same hard-line position, his personal style is less irksome to the Americans. As The New York Times commented upon Shamir’s appointment as foreign minister, “He is apt to be rather taciturn, a refreshing attribute in a country where foreign policy pronouncements have sometimes shot off in all directions, like popcorn.”
One of Washington’s main concerns about Levy was his inability to speak English. Ironically, when Shamir became foreign minister in 1980 he spoke only halting English and had spent only three days in the United States. Since then, however, he has visited the United States several times and earned Washington’s respect.
Arens remains Washington’s favored Israeli leader. He served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington until Begin summoned him to replace Sharon earlier this year. Although Arens shares many of the same right-wing views as Begin, his stint in the United States may have tempered his views. He also won friends in Washington when he recently urged Begin to impose a temporary freeze on settlement of the West Bank as an inducement to bring Jordan’s King Hussein into the Middle East peace process. While the show of moderation may have been tactical rather than heartfelt, Washington, used to dealing with more strident Israeli politicians, appreciated it.
Arens also developed an unusual rapport with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. Earlier this year Shultz even invited Arens to a concert at Washington’s Kennedy Center, then to a private dinner. The gesture was highly unusual since it involved the ambassador of a country that the United States was officially rebuffing (because of Begin’s rejection of Ronald Reagan’s peace plan of last September). Arens also scored points with the United States by making it known that he was appalled by Begin’s outright and hostile rejection of that plan. In the end, the bellicose Begin waged one war too many. The disastrous invasion of Lebanon last June alienated large segments of Jewish opinion in Israel and abroad because of a widely shared perception that the invasion was an act of aggres-
sion rather than a defence of Israel’s borders.
Israel’s agony over Lebanon parallels a continuing economic crisis. On the surface the standard of living for the 3.8 million Israelis is the equal of many Western European nations. But many citizens are living beyond their means, succumbing to easy credit and banks that encourage wage earners to carry overdrafts of up to $600. As a result, inflation is expected to hit 160 per cent this year. In July alone, prices rose by 6.3 per cent. Because the government indexes almost all wages and benefits, ordinary Israelis have some protection. But there is growing concern about the fragile economic edifice.
In a belated attempt at restraint, the cabinet recently proposed a $526-million spending cut last month, mostly in defence and welfare. That prompted the three-member TAMI party to threaten to bolt the Likud coalition unless the government taxed the rich more heavily. The crisis also led to bitter infighting within the Begin cabinet and damaged his government’s credibility at home and abroad.
For the exhausted and dispirited prime minister, the economy was one challenge too many. “I cannot go on any longer,” Begin told his ministers last week as they begged him to stay. But, while the timing of his departure was surprising, party insiders had predicted the event for months. He has fought depression ever since his wife of 43 years, Alicia, died last November. Reticent but influential, Alicia was Begin’s closest confidant. Moments after his election win in 1977, he pulled her in front of television cameras and quoted the Book of Jeremiah: “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals when thou wentest after me in the wilderness in a land that was not sown.” Since his wife’s death, Begin has become closer to his children—son Binyamin Zeev, a 41-year-old government geologist, and daughters Leah, 35, and Hassia, 38. His son, who shuns the limelight, reportedly played an influential role in persuading his father to retire just two weeks after his 70th birthday.
For Begin, at least, the long struggle is over. He is expected to retire to the modest Tel Aviv apartment he shared with Alicia for 30 years and to write a political memoir of his hero, the 19thcentury Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi. Meanwhile, as Jews around the world this week celebrate Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish new year and a traditional time of reflection—the forces of past and present wrestle for the future of Israel.