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(JERUSALEM) - It came so suddenly, this surge of power from the Revisionists, and no one expected it at all. Menachem Begin, their political leader for so many years, was an authentic hero of the war of independence. Vladimir Jabotinsky was Begin's intellectual mentor, the father of Revisionist thought. But for nearly thirty years, both were regarded as historical curiosities, of no particular relevance to contemporary Israel.

It is an index of how lightly these men were considered that Amos Elon, author of a celebrated popular history called The Israelis: Founders and Sons, published in 1971, did not mention Begin even once, and limited his discussion of Jabotinsky to an Israeli's disparaging description of him as "our own d'Annunzio." As for Walter Laqueur's more scholarly A History of Zionism, a now standard work published in 1972, it contains only two brief references to Begin, and treats Jabotinsky's thought not as current ideology but as a largely discredited Zionist heresy.

In her autobiography Golda Meir, central figure in Israeli politics until her recent death, dismisses Begin contemptuously, and ignores Jabotinsky. Abba Eban, foreign minister in the last Labor regime and a major Zionist thinker, had the grace to concede in his own autobiography that Jabotinsky demonstrated a "capacity to elicit strong loyalties and to draw men to his obedience" and acknowledge Begin as a persistent factor in parliamentary opposition. But neither could imagine that Revisionism represented more than a marginal political force.

Yet Begin is running the country, guided by Jabotinsky's philosophy. When his party won the election in 1977, it was said in explanation that the victory did not represent an endorsement of Revisionist ideas but a repudiation of the tired, intellectually stagnant and faintly corrupt Labor Party. The election was said to be a quirk, which would in due course be rectified by a return to the Labor Party's Zionist orthodoxy. No one seemed to believe that, for the thirty years it was in eclipse, Revisionism lay only dormant, gestating in the soil of the Israeli spirit, whose favorable conditions were simply not recognized. Now, after two-and-a-half years as prime minister, tirelessly promoting his Revisionist notions, Begin appears as strong as ever, and there is not a successor in sight.

Why, one might ask, did Israelis deceive themselves about Revisionism so profoundly during the decades prior to Begin's election? For an answer, I think, it is necessary to turn back to Israel's protracted war of independence, waged separately against the British and the Arabs, before culminating successfully in 1948. In a real sense, Israel has rewritten the history of that period, not under directive as in the Soviet Union but in a kind of subconscious effort, as peoples often do, to promote national unity. Some of what happened then is less than glorious, and unpleasant to remember.

It is common knowledge, of course, that in those days Israelis-apart from a common goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine- were seriously divided.

Zionism's dominant wing was controlled by practical men under David Ben-Gurion, whose vision was to create not only a Jewish but a socialist state. They preferred negotiations to warfare, looked ahead to Israel's taking its place among the respectable nations, and readily considered compromise to achieve their ends. The Revisionists, inspired by Jabotinsky's romantic ideal of a state extended to its Biblical borders, cared nothing about socialism. Under Begin's leadership, they dismissed negotiations as a waste of time, practiced terror against all enemies and insisted that the Jewish state compromise nothing. Ben-Gurion's people were willing to accept the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab lands. Begin and his people, foes of partition, wanted to fight on until all the land was theirs.

The great scandal among the Jews occurred in June of 1948, just after Zionism's two wings agreed to merge their private armies-the dominant Zionists' regulars and the Revisionists' terrorists-into a single Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Ben-Gurion's government did not then know, however, that in earlier negotiations Begin's people had secretly acquired a ship in France called the AItalena, which they had loaded with arms and immigrants, including many volunteers. Begin has said repeatedly that both the arms and the men would have been turned over to the IDF, but Ben-Gurion was not so sure. After the first shipments were unloaded by Begin's men and dispatched to obscure destinations, the IDF took action. In severe fighting, the AItalena was sunk in the Tel-Aviv harbor, and most of its cargo was lost. Dozens of Jews were killed in the action, most of them Revisionists, some of them authentic heroes, and a heritage of great bitterness has persisted.

Most conventional Israeli histories of the period barely mention the Altalena affair, and there is scarcely talk of it as a significant encounter in what nearly became a civil war. Most of the accounts of the era-and most of the debate that has been conducted since-depict the two sides as disagreeing over tactics. It is usually said that Ben-Gurion's side believed that acts of terror were counter- productive, and a poor way to inaugurate a state, while Begin's side contended that terror had been the most effective instrument against the British, and would be no less useful against the Arabs. What is usually forgotten is that Ben-Gurion's government genuinely feared the prospect of a state- within-a- state, in which the Revisionist army would pursue the goal of wrecking partition. What is also forgotten are the profound ideological differences between the two forces, going to the heart of the nature of Zionism and the Jewish state.

These are the differences of which one heard so little during the nearly three decades prior to Begin's election. The Labor Party was comfortably in power, so much so that in practical terms Israel thought of itself as a one-party state. There was a consensus in Israel that partition, though a compromise of the Zionist ideal, remained the best hope for making peace with the Arabs, even though no Arabs seemed prepared ever to make peace with Israel. In 1967, after Israel called the bluff on Nasser's bombast, the IDF raced to the Jordan River, as well as to the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights, and the old Revisionist gleam was rekindled. But, in fact, until 1977, though the army remained on the post-war borders, Israelis still generally believed that Revisionism was a notion with few adherents and no political future.

When Begin was elected, of course, no one knew what to expect of him. In opposition he had tended to demagogy, but in that he was like parliamentarians around the world, and some predicted confidently that power would sober him, and persuade him to join the ranks of practical politicians. Optimists said he would play the role of the Nixon who went to China, of the de Gaulle who ended the Algerian war. In fact, his more rabid followers accused him of compromising from the start and Anwar Sadat found enough promise in Begin to undertake his spectacular pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the bargaining that ensued after the Jerusalem visit, neither Sadat nor President Carter found Begin a very reasonable man, and on several occasions the negotiations among them nearly collapsed. But, after threats and guarantees and pressure from home, Begin agreed to return the Sinai, and the first Israeli-Arab peace treaty in history was signed.

For Begin, Biblical Israel meant Judea and Samaria on the West Bank, however, not the Sinai. Jabotinsky never spoke of the Sinai as being part of Israel's historical destiny. The Labor government established Sinai settlements after 1970, though to enhance security and not to claim sovereignty, and most Israelis assumed the occupation would last only until Egypt ended its state of war. It is true that Labor had made outlandish promises to coax settlers into the desert, and some of Begin's followers said it was a principle that Israel must never surrender land, wherever it may be. But Begin himself had no commitments, and let the issue of the settlements nearly wreck the peace talks anyway. The explanation is that he wanted no one to believe, inside Israel or out, that when the real negotiations started-over the West Bank-he would give way on Jewish rights to the land.

Meanwhile, Gush Emunim had been founded, quite independently of Begin but representing the regeneration of Jabotinsky's vision. The election of 1977 had obviously released a long suppressed emotion among a segment of Israelis, and groups of Gush Emunim-the name means "Bloc of the Faithful" -began to organize all over Israel for the purpose of settling the West Bank. Though the Labor government had previously established security settlements there, Gush Emunim's work was to be qualitatively different. One can call them idealists, or fanatics, or crazies, but they meant to realize the Zionist principle that all of Palestine was Jewish, and they were willing to make any personal sacrifice, violate any secular law, risk any public opprobrium, to do it.

I've met a great many Gush Emunim settlers in recent months. They range generally from their late twenties to their late thirties-too young to remember the AItalena affair-and some are even younger. They are mostly married, and they have many children among them. They are intelligent, well educated, and, though practicing, tend to wear their religion lightly. They build schools and libraries, and try to make their settlements cheerful, but that is difficult to do behind barbed wire. They are also very open, and admit that their experience as settlers has given meaning to their lives, and they acknowledge that they have no sympathy for the agony of their Arab neighbors, since they consider the land to be their own.

Begin's relations with the Gush Emunim are ambiguous. Ideologically, they are his people and he shares their goals. But as prime minister he is responsible for Israel, not simply for promoting Revisionism, and their behavior undermines his relations with the United States, Israel's patron, and embarrasses him in the eyes of the world. They have insisted on more and more settlements, over international protests. They have covered the West Bank with a system of vigilante law, damaging the atmosphere of lawfulness and liberty throughout Israel. Whatever the cited mandate, their practices resemble the imperialism practiced by Menachem Begin countless peoples before them, and they are near to destroying the peace agreement with Egypt. And Begin, though he has occasionally reprimanded them, is unwilling or unable to stop them.

Gush Emunim has thus emerged, in the past year or so, as the most powerful political force in Israel. It has no more than four or five thousand settlers in a few dozen settlements on the West Bank, but it is highly organized, extremely determined and has a clear vision of what it is doing. According to the polls, a majority of Israelis are worried about it, and give a higher priority to peace than to retention of the territories. But the majority is too divided over the terms of any future peace agreement for the West Bank, and too mistrustful of the Arabs, to organize into a meaningful political force. Furthermore I have a suspicion that, deep down, almost every Israeli possesses at least a glimmer of admiration for the Gush Emunim settlers, for they are out on the front lines, almost alone, realizing the Zionist dream.

Last May, Gush Emunim people were the backbone of the resistance to the evacuation of the last Sinai settlement prior to the return to Egypt. Neot Sinai was the settlement's name and, though no guns were fired, there was heavy stoning and the flinging of fiery torches by the settlers when the army came to evict them. At least seven Israeli soldiers were injured. It was the first serious civil strife over Revisionist issues since the AItalena incident, and many Israelis were very upset about it. The fighting stopped only when Begin promised to raise with Sadat the prospect of the settlers keeping their land. No one expected anything to come of the promise, but Gush Emunim felt that it had made its point.

The point was that if settlers are willing to throw stones and torches for their settlements in Sinai, imagine what they will do for their land in Judea and Samaria. No one used an expression as explicit as civil war, and the newspapers alluded to such a possibility only indirectly. But the Neot Sinai episode proved that Revisionism is thriving, and feels more aggressive, as well as more self-righteous, than at any time since 1948. Before Jews actually raise arms against Jews, Begin must agree to turn the West Bank over to the Arabs, and Gush Emunim must make a decision to defy the government's orders. Neither is certain to happen. But I consider the situation shakier than most news reports reveal and, with the international pressures for a settlement running into increasing conflict with the vaulting ambitions of Gush Emunim, each day brings the prospect of an Altalena-type crisis, or worse, a little closer. And Begin, thus far, has shown no sign of being able to master the momentum.