By Colin Shindler
Cambridge University Press, £22.99
Dishevelled, disorientated and dodging bullets off the Tel Aviv coast, Menachem Begin surely felt his life was over on 20 June 1948. That day, the Irgun militia leader defied the state of Israel's month-old provisional government by smuggling forbidden weapons aboard a requisitioned ship, the Altalena, at the height of the War of Independence - hence Ben-Gurion's barrage.
In The Rise of the Israeli Right, Colin Shindler describes the Altalena incident as Begin's epiphany. Militants wanted him to launch a retaliatory insurrection but Begin, who was to become leader of Herut and then Likud, realised "that he could not be both revolutionary and parliamentarian" writes Shindler.
The latter path demanded patience and compromise. Only in 1977 did Begin achieve an election victory. Yet, since then, rightists have largely dominated Israeli politics.
Begin's was a remarkable career. Jailed by the British as a terrorist, he was a firebrand who rejected partition in 1947. He remained party leader despite losing eight elections in succession. Once in power, he wrong-footed critics by signing Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab state, only to collapse after leading Israel into a brutal, divisive war in Lebanon in 1982.
Shindler's real focus, however, is Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a charismatic orator and founder of Revisionist Zionism, from which Likud would later emerge. As Shindler's sub-title - "from Odessa to Hebron" - hints, Jabotinsky found his metier in cosmopolitan, intellectually charged Russian Odessa; by contrast, Hebron, acquired by Israel in 1967, speaks of primeval, ancient Jewish dreams. Such tensions between universalism and particularism, secularism and religiosity, still bedevil Revisionists.
Shindler, Emeritus Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, connects old Revisionism to today's Likud and the broader, fragmented right. He also focuses on cultural context, economic influences and personalities. Comparing Jabotinsky (born 1880) and Theodor Herzl (died 1904), Shindler reveals that both initially wanted Jews to adopt prevailing European cultures. Both were as much poets and prophets as political leaders. And both were liberal atheists who became late converts to Zionism.
Jabotinsky died in exile in 1940, before the Shoah and Israeli independence. Shindler shows how Begin arguably hijacked his legacy after 1948, having in 1929 been embarrassed by an earlier rival, Abba Ahimeir, calling for a fascist "national dictatorship". Jabotinsky, too, was chided for encouraging militaristic parade-ground antics while proclaiming his genuine affection for English virtues and British governance.
The book is deeply researched and full of surprises. Labour Zionists called Jabotinsky a bigot yet, in the 1930s, Shindler tells us, he decried plans to expel Arabs, and affirmed Arab national rights when most Labourites did not. Established Revisionists initially saw Begin as a foreign interloper, while Benjamin Netanyahu's actions contrast with Jabotinsky's famed respect for diplomacy. Devotion to Eretz Israel and loathing of socialism remain constant themes. But commercialism, the power of rabbis and Netanyahu's "salesmanship over ideology" might have left Jabotinsky aghast.
Certain questions remain unexplored. Given that Sephardi Jews make up more than half of Likud's support base (Triumph of the Marginalised is an excellent section), Shindler could ask why none of them has headed the party. And, too often, he introduces events non-sequentially, which breeds confusion.
Overall, however, The Rise of the Israeli Right is a timely appraisal of what drives this political bloc. With its detailed index, footnotes, glossaries and illustrations, Shindler's latest book ably portrays a movement whose members long considered themselves outsiders, yet which now seems to rule the political roost.