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Jabotinsky's ghost

Beyond the war in Lebanon lies the ultimate question of Israel's coexistence with a Palestinian state. To confront it, Ehud Olmert knows he must break with the political tradition into which he was born.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left). A photo of Vladimir Jabotinsky (right) loomed over former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he spoke at the Likud Party convention in August, 2004.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left). A photo of Vladimir Jabotinsky (right) loomed over former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he spoke at the Likud Party convention in August, 2004. (Getty Images Photo / Pedro Ugarte)

EVERY DAY BRINGS more grim news of the conflict in Lebanon and Israel, with a mounting death toll from Katyushas and F-16s. But Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, knows that beyond this conflict with Hezbollah is another, still more existential one with the Palestinians, and that this war in Lebanon only postpones-though it makes more urgent-the deal he must one day make.

Olmert also knows better than most that in the background is the climax of a different long struggle, more than 80 years old now, for the soul of Zionism. It is a struggle in which he-much more than Ariel Sharon, his immediate predecessor and the father of the strategy of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank-has an acute personal interest.

Like his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, Olmert was born into the political tradition known as Revisionist Zionism, founded by Vladimir Jabotinsky. A brilliant and intensely controversial figure, Jabotinsky split the Zionist movement in the 1920s, preaching a ``Greater Israel," with a Jewish majority outweighing the Arab population, to be won by force and guarded, in his famous phrase, by an ``Iron Wall." In the words of the former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller, Olmert is ``one of Likud's princes from a prominent Revisionist family." And if Olmert is a prince, Livni is a princess: Both are children of the Irgun, the armed rightists who followed Jabotinsky and fought both British and Arabs. Livni is one of the few prominent Israelis who can still quote from ``Jabo's" works, and her father's gravestone bears a map of that Greater Israel.

Jabotinsky did not live to see the creation of the Jewish state-which was not, in any case, the one he had dreamed of. And indeed the situation today is paradoxical. In his lifetime, Jabotinsky's appeal to his followers was his apparent realism and rejection of compromise, rather than the evasions and denial of other Zionists. As it turned out, Zionism found, like any other political movement, that realism itself means compromise, and that it may be better to accept what you can get rather than hold out for what you want. It will be a supreme irony if the ultimate compromise-and the final abandonment of Jabotinsky's ideal-is made by his direct ideological heirs.

. . .

No Israeli needs to be told about this astonishing man, whose shadow falls across the country to this day-his legacy is found in the names of sports clubs as well as the platforms of political parties-but even among those Americans who count themselves friends of Israel there are many who have scarcely heard of Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa in 1880, he became an ardent Zionist as a young man, and an immensely prolific journalist, historian, and novelist who wrote and spoke compellingly in Russian, Yiddish, German, Italian, Hebrew, French, and English. His translations (including the Sherlock Holmes stories) helped create the modern Hebrew language, and there are still Israelis who abhor his political legacy but admire his literary genius.

Before the Great War he had proclaimed Zionism not merely a political creed but a psychological remedy, to cure the Jews of the ``mutilations of history." In his blunt way, he said that degrading exile had made the Jews into ``Yids"; now they should become Hebrews again. In an article from 1911 entitled ``Against Excessive Apology," he admonished the Jews to stand up straight, to stop cringing and making excuses, and to tell the goyim ``to go to hell."

During that war, Jabo and his comrade Joseph Trumpeldor helped raise a Jewish Legion among the settlers in Palestine to fight with the British and drive out the Turks. While the campaign was underway in the fall of 1917, the London government (having also made inconveniently contradictory promises to the Arabs) issued the Balfour Declaration favoring the creation of a national home for the Jews, and after the war the British took charge of Palestine. Violence broke out almost immediately between Jewish settler and indigenous Arab, with the British ineffectually standing between, and continued until the ignominious British departure in 1948, not to say ever since.

In 1920, Trumpeldor died a hero defending his settlement against Arab attacks; three years later Jabotinsky founded Betar, whose name was a Hebrew acronym paying tribute to Trumpeldor. This militant youth movement was intended to instill discipline and pride, and maybe-so some Betarim hoped-to prepare for ``armed struggle." They marched in uniform, they forswore alcohol, and they kept fit. Their athletic tradition as well as their name survives in the Jerusalem Betar soccer club, which by no accident Olmert supports.

What distinguished Jabotinsky wasn't an enthusiasm for sports, but his forthrightness, or his intellectual honesty. From Theodor Herzl onwards, other Zionists had never been clear in public-or even in their own minds-about their objectives and how they could be accomplished. Herzl said more than a little optimistically that the existing inhabitants of Palestine would welcome the Zionists bringing progress and civilization.

What the Balfour Declaration had promised-at a time when Jews were still less than a 10th of the population of the Holy Land-was a homeland, not a state, and the mainstream Zionists under Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, were very cautious about using that word. Although they naturally wanted Jewish immigration to the land, they were cautious also when it came to speaking of numbers or majorities.

Not so Jabo. Soon after founding Betar, he proclaimed the Revisionist Zionist organization in opposition to Weizmann, with a platform of admirable clarity: ``The revival of the Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan." ``When I was a child," Livni has said, ``all I ever heard about was that we Jews have the right to a state on both sides of the Jordan." But Jabotinsky knew very well that the Jews would not be welcomed: ``The native population, civilized or uncivilized, have always stubbornly resisted the colonists," he said, ``and it made no difference whether the colonists behave decently or not."

For that reason it was ``utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs," Jabotinsky wrote, and the Zionists must be ready to use physical force: An ``Iron Wall" was needed to protect the enclave while they established a majority as quickly as possible.

. . .

All of this dismayed Weizmann. In a phrase still apt today, he reminded his fellow Zionists that Palestine was ``a sensitive world nerve," and he called the Revisionist program ``midsummer madness," wanted by ``nobody except a few partisans of Jabo." Why raise ``this bogey" of a state with a majority, Weizmann asked? ``Why arouse our enemies?"

He went further. Today only the bitterest enemy of Israel would call its government fascist, but that was just the accusation once made-by other Zionists-against the Revisionists. In 1929, Weizmann even told a friend, the New York lawyer Morris Rothenberg, that the Jewish extremists displayed ``Hitlerism in its worst possible form." (This was before Hitler came to power, let alone showed what horrors he would inflict on the European Jews, and Weizmann would scarcely have used this phrase later. But it was startling even then.)

For his part, although he shared much of the rhetoric of the contemporary radical right, Jabo always repudiated the fascist label. He deplored political assassination, and he said that ``it must be hateful for any Jew to think that the rebirth of a Jewish State should ever be linked with such an odious suggestion as the removal of non-Jewish citizens."

For the last 10 years of his life, Jabotinsky was banned from Palestine by the British authorities. He traveled the world, speaking, organizing, and warning of the approaching catastrophe in Europe, before he died of a heart attack at a Betar camp near New York in 1940.

But his soul went marching on. He had founded one more group, the Irgun Zvei Leumi, which turned toward increasingly violent means to make Palestine ungovernable and force the British out. In July 1946 the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people, British, Arab, and Jewish, a deed whose 60th anniversary was celebrated recently with the unveiling of a plaque by Irgun veterans. The following year, in reprisal for the execution of Irgun men, they hanged two kidnapped British soldiers, and in 1948 they shot dozens of Palestinian villagers. The leader of the Irgun was Menachim Begin, Jabotinsky's sometime disciple, then rival, and finally successor, who never extenuated what he and his comrades had done, or apologized excessively.

As the birth of Israel approached, something close to civil war broke out. The Irgun had chartered a ship they called the Altalena, Jabotinsky's old pen name, to run guns, but by the time it made its journey the Jewish state had been born and David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister, demonstrated vigorously that there would be only one legitimate source of power by ordering his forces to open fire on the ship. To this day, ``Altalena" is a fighting word in Israel. Depending on who you are, it means a brave display of authority or-as Olmert, the son of an Irgun gun-runner, and Livni, whose father was another Irgun leader, were brought up to believe-a bitter betrayal.

Shortly after the creation of the new state, Begin visited America, and was fiercely denounced in a letter to The New York Times from 28 eminent Jewish liberals, among them Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Einstein. Begin was a ``terrorist, right-wing chauvinist," they said, whose movement was ``closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy, and social appeal to Nazi and Fascist parties."

It seemed that those words had been heeded. For more than a quarter-century-a time Olmert and Livni must still remember-Revisionists, Betarim, old Irgun hands, grouped round the Herut party, were not merely excluded from all power but well nigh proscribed and anathematized by the Labor establishment. In 1977, both Weizmann and Einstein must have turned in their graves when Begin, now leader of the Likud block which had absorbed Herut, at last came to power. Likud went on almost to replace Labor as the habitual party of government, under Begin, Yitzhak Shamir (once leader of Lehi, a group even more extreme than the Irgun), and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father had been Jabotinsky's secretary.

. . .

With Olmert and Livni in power, it could seem that Jabo's legacy has triumphed. But has it? Apart from his dazzling intellectual gifts, and what even enemies conceded was a leonine personality, what had seemed most attractive about Jabo was his honesty and realism. Today it is his inheritors who have been forced to accept a new reality.

As Tzipi Livni says, the old Revisionist creed of a Greater Israel ``had no provisions for a Palestinian state, but instead envisioned our living together with the Palestinians in one state." That was on Jabotinsky's assumption that enough Jews would immigrate to create a permanent majority, on both sides of the Jordan. Now the Israelis face the prospect that they will quite soon be a minority even between the Jordan and the sea.

And so today's realism is very different from Jabo's. For all his ferocious response in Lebanon, Olmert knows that, and so does Livni. ``If we want to preserve a Jewish majority and still remain a democracy," she has said, ``giving up the territories is the only solution." As the nightly news reminds us, Israel is still in no mood for excessive apology. All the same, when Livni says, ``My goal is to give the Jewish people a home, and that's why I must accept a Palestinian state. I had a choice, and I chose two states for two peoples," she is saying goodbye to her father's dream, and to Jabotinsky's.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of ``The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma," which won a National Jewish Book Award.

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