Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, who died Monday at his home in Jerusalem at age 102, was an outsider twice over in terms of Israeli political life and the tightly knit ideological cliques that shaped the Jewish democracy in its early years. The fact that his second son has become the dominant leader of the Israeli right over the last two decades is testimony to the fading importance of these cliques and the more fluid politics that has replaced them.
As a young immigrant living in the land of Israel—Benzion moved from Poland in 1920 at age 10—he became involved with the militant Revisionist Zionist movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, editing a series of Revisionist newspapers during the 1930s and 1940s. He also served as the private secretary to Jabotinsky during the movement leader’s final years.
Benzion Netanyahu’s affiliation with Jabotinsky certainly didn’t make him popular in the Israel of the 1950s. At that time, Israel was dominated by the Labor Party of David Ben-Gurion, and it wasn’t a friendly environment for veterans of the Revisionist movement and its various military undergrounds, like the Irgun.
Many veterans of the Zionist right wing made their way to the United States. Benzion was one. And like many of them, Benzion had a career as an academic that flourished alongside his standing as a prominent Revisionist leader in the United States. (It is worth noting that several sons of such veterans have gone on to make prominent names for themselves in contemporary American political life: Rahm and Ari Emmanuel are sons of an Irgun fighter from Jerusalem, and J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami is the son of prominent Irgun activist Yitzhak Ben-Ami.)
But Benzion Netanyahu was not only an outsider as a Jabotinskyite in Ben-Gurion’s Israel. He was also an outsider in terms of his affiliations within the Israeli right.
The Zionist Revisionist movement was as prone to splits and factionalism as most other revolutionary movements. Jabotinsky was able to keep the various components together during his lifetime, but after his death in 1940, a rift emerged between the veteran, civilian members of the Revisionist Party, like Netanyahu, and the militants of the Irgun underground, like Menachem Begin. The older veteran members—former friends and associates of Jabotinsky—had no control over and little communication with the younger fighters.
When Begin, leader of the Irgun, launched the revolt against British rule in the land of Israel in 1944, he did so without seeking the counsel—much less the permission—of the leader of the Revisionist Party, one Aryeh Altman. Incidentally, the British authorities also mistakenly thought Begin’s forces and Altman were linked. The archives reveal that, as a result, the British Criminal Investigation Department spent many pointless hours in conversation with the mild and venerable Altman, believing that he had influence over their Irgun enemies.
Following the 1948 founding of the State of Israel, Irgun commander Begin formed the Herut Party. From the outset, its key leaders were veterans of the Irgun. Begin saw little need to reach out to the veteran members of the Revisionist Party, like Netanyahu. Rather, as far as he and those around him were concerned, the inheritors of Jabotinsky’s mantle were the Irgun fighters who had physically fought the British. Begin’s Herut and the Revisionist Party stood as separate, rival lists in the first Knesset election. Herut won 14 seats. The Revisionist Party, meanwhile, failed to gain a single mandate.
Henceforth its prominent members faded from political life in Israel. With no entry to the Labor establishment, they also found the door to Israel’s anti-establishment—Begin’s Herut Party—largely barred to them. Benzion Netanyahu’s attempt to embark on a political career when he returned to Israel from the United States led nowhere. Instead, he built a life as a scholar of Jewish history.
As the years went on, the veteran officers of the Irgun who formed the right-wing political elite in Israel around Begin retired from active political life. A number of their sons, who became known as the “princes” in Israeli political parlance, launched political careers.
Among them was Begin’s son, Benny Begin, who was science minister in the late 1990s. The sons of prominent Irgun men Eliyahu Meridor and Chaim Landau—Dan and Uzi, respectively—also rose in the Herut Party and its successor, the Likud. (Dan Meridor currently serves as deputy prime minister.) Another prince was Ehud Olmert, son of the Irgun officer Mordechai Olmert. A rare princess among them was Limor Livnat, daughter of Shulamit Livnat, known to an older generation of Israeli rightists as a famous singer of the songs of the underground movements.
These children of Irgun fighters, it was assumed, would be the inheritors of the leadership of the Israeli right, once the underground veterans themselves passed from the scene.
And so it turned out. Or almost. The man who would go on to make the Likud and the Israeli right synonymous with his own name from the mid-1990s and until today was Benzion Netanyahu’s son, Benjamin. Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his family’s close association with the Jabotinsky name, was thus something of an outsider when he returned from the United States to launch his political career in Israel in the late 1980s. But he set about conquering the Likud Party from below, with the aid of another outsider, a young Soviet immigrant and party activist named Avigdor Lieberman. He became prime minister in 1996.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergence as the dominant figure of the Israeli right represents a sort of late victory for the followers of the Revisionist Party over their altogether more formidable rivals in the Irgun in the long-forgotten tussle for Jabotinsky’s mantle. This mantle was no mere bauble. It turned out to contain within it the key to the leadership of the State of Israel. This fact would also have seemed immensely strange to the harried activists, outsiders, intellectuals, and underground fighters who competed over it in the 1940s.
But it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to the late Benzion Netanyahu, a man for whom both memory and the will to victory played a central role in human affairs, and who was surely quietly aware of this aspect of his son’s prominence.
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