By JUDITH MILLER | February 11, 2008
TEL AVIV, Israel — At age 93, Shmuel Katz, a founder of Israel's right-wing Herut movement and a member of the country's first Knesset, has almost seen it all. An immigrant to Palestine in 1936 from his native South Africa, he was present at Israel's creation and at each of its six wars with the Arabs, plus the two Palestinian Intifadas. He has known tough economic times and been embroiled in fierce ideological struggles, watched his once-fragile state become militarily invincible, and seen poverty turn into prosperity that is unrivaled elsewhere in the non-oil-endowed Middle East or in much of the world. He has endured inspired and mediocre leaders, foreign policy brilliance and folly, eras of euphoria and despair. It is this sweep of history, and his role as a chronicler of so many of its key events — including his latest book on a Jewish, pro-British spy ring during World War I and its tragic heroine, Sarah Aaronsohn — that makes his current mood so striking.
"I have never felt so downhearted about Israel as I do now," Mr. Katz — or "Mooki," as his dwindling circle of surviving friends still calls him, says. "We're in a terrible state."
The cause of his despondency is evident in the newspaper clips stacked on the card table that serves as his writing desk, dining table, library, and medicine chest in his compact room at the WIZO Parents Home, a nursing home in downtown Tel Aviv.
"There is a wave of hedonism in the country today," he says, wagging his large, still powerful hands at the BMWs and other imported luxury cars that whiz by. "People want more and more out of life — more money, bigger houses, faster cars. But they wind up getting less and less."
Corruption is widespread, especially in politics, he complains. Prime Minister Olmert, under attack for his stewardship of the 2006 war in Lebanon, barely escaped indictment last summer in a financial scandal. Israel's chief of staff stepped down from his post following disclosures that he was trading stock during the Lebanon crisis.
The military, too, has lost stature and has been poorly led. The sons and daughters of the Haredi, the most Orthodox of Jews, often shirk national service in the army, the traditional gateway to political office in Israel.
But the country's "true curse," he says, is its leadership. While there is no shortage of politicians and aspiring prime ministers, he says, "There are no leaders."
Given Mr. Katz's background, his disdain for Mr. Olmert and his centrist Kadima party, and for Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and Mr. Olmert's would-be successor from the more liberal Labor Party, is no surprise. But his scorn extends as well to the rightist Likud's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who also wants to succeed Mr. Olmert.
"Bibi was raised on Revisionist ideals. His father helped us," he says, referring to Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of the origins of the Spanish Inquisition. "But Bibi is weak," Mr. Katz laments. He claims the younger Netanyahu "broke down under American pressure" and became "just another fat, third-rate politician." If the outspoken Mr. Katz is nostalgic for the Israel of what Amos Elon called "the Founders" — for their drive and sense of purpose — who can blame him? But Mr. Katz's hero is not Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, without whom the state of Israel might not have been created, nor even Theodor Herzl, the Austrian journalist and father of modern Zionism. His reference point is Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, who split from the Zionist movement in 1934 to protest Ben-Gurion's acceptance of the British decision to separate Transjordan from the Palestinian mandate. Jabotinsky's insistence that the Jewish state be established on "both banks of the Jordan" led to the first major rift in the "Yishuv," the organized Jewish community in Palestine, and to the creation of the Revisionist movement whose principles continue to inspire those who value Jewish control of territory more than peaceful co-existence with the Arabs.
"Jabo," as he is known to devotees, was why he came to Israel from South Africa, Mr. Katz explains, recalling his nearly 80-year-old conversion to Revisionism with precision. A precocious, home-schooled Orthodox Jew who went to university at age 15, he attended a lecture that Jabotinsky gave in Johannesburg near the university in 1930. "He spoke for two-and-a-half hours, without notes," arguing that the Jews' only salvation was to establish their own state, Mr. Katz recalled. Captivated by both the man and his assertion that the Zionist vision could be established and preserved only through armed conquest, not diplomacy, Mr. Katz was hooked. "Right then and there," he recalled, "I decided that building a Jewish state would be my life's work."
A mediocre student, he dropped out of university to found a Jewish cultural organization in South Africa that ran out of money but was saved by a wealthy benefactor whose assistant Mr. Katz became. He also set about translating Jabotinsky's book "The Story of the Jewish Legion." After South Africans elected a government with close ties to the Revisionists, Mr. Katz's benefactor was named honorary consul to Palestine. Mr. Katz arrived in Jerusalem as the consul's secretary in 1936. He was 22.
He also stayed in touch with Jabotinsky, who admired his articles and the translation of his book, as "Jabo" wrote him, for its "perfect clarity, the forcible simplicity, the sachlichkeit [matter of fact, to the point] with which you present the most complicated situations." A devoted acolyte, Mr. Katz echoed Jabotinsky's warnings about the growing plight of Europe's Jews.
He also served as Jabotinsky's secretary for a five-day trip to Cairo, Egypt. "Years later, people were still describing me as Jabotinsky's secretary. That was nonsense," Mr. Katz says amiably. "But Jabo and I always stayed in touch. He was nice to everyone and treated everyone around him equally."
Few of Jabotinsky's rivals shared this benign view of him. In his biography of Ben-Gurion, Israel's first president and dominant political personality, Shabtai Teveth noted Ben-Gurion's fear of Jabotinsky's fondness for flags, uniforms, parades, and other military trappings. Ben-Gurion, who had known Jabotinsky since 1918, denigrating him as "Vladimir Hitler," warned prophetically that while there was little danger that the Yishuv would turn to the left, it might well turn to the right.
When South Africa's government changed hands again in 1938, Pretoria closed its Jewish consulate in Palestine, bringing the consul and his young secretary home. Unable to re-enter Palestine when World War II erupted, Mr. Katz was one of nine Jews whom Jabotinsky sent to London to lobby for a Jewish army, which Britain opposed, and the "evacuation" of the Jews from Europe, which the world ignored.
Mr. Katz was devastated when Jabotinsky died suddenly in New York in August 1940, from stress and overwork, Mr. Katz says. Menachem Begin became Revisionism's leader. Returning to Palestine after the war to rejoin the underground Revisionist fighting force, Irgun Zvai Leumi, Mr. Katz became a Knesset member for Begin's Herut Party for a single term after the state of Israel was founded in 1948.
In the end, it was Ben-Gurion's patient, pragmatic approach to building the Zionist enterprise — "another goat, another dunam," as Prime Minister Peres wrote in his 1995 memoir — which triumphed. Insistent that all underground groups and forces be subordinate to the young state's authority, Ben-Gurion disbanded them all. In 1948, Ben-Gurion fired on the Altalena, a cargo vessel carrying arms purchased by Mr. Katz's group. Mr. Katz still maintains that Ben-Gurion knew that the arms were meant for the new government. But Mr. Peres argues that Ben-Gurion feared that the dissidents would try to create a state within a state, a separate army, or to establish their own state or army in the Palestinian-Arab territories that were not incorporated into Israel.
Ben-Gurion also exiled Mr. Katz's Herut party to the political wilderness, where it remained until the mid-1960s. Then, in 1977, amid scandals and accusations regarding the huge losses endured during Israel's 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, Begin became prime minister.
Mr. Katz, meanwhile, had been running an Israeli publishing house that he had founded. After the 1967 war, he helped create the Movement for Greater Israel to build settlements on the Palestinian territories that Israel had won and occupied. But he returned to politics when Begin asked him to be his personal representative in Washington. That was a mistake, Mr. Katz now says.
Begin, he says, resisted his proposal to establish a serious information effort "to teach Jews their own history and explain ourselves and our positions to the world." The prime minister also disregarded his warning about being backed into a peace process that would require him to return Jewish land to the Arabs.
In January 1978, he broke with Begin over the prime minister's decision to withdraw from the Sinai to secure peace with Egypt, a much-praised treaty that neutralized what had been Israel's largest, strongest foe. To this day, Mr. Katz sees the treaty and the withdrawal from Sinai as a monumental strategic error. "The Arabs got land and a paper treaty without really offering peace," he says. "Are there Egyptian tourists here in Israel? Are there business ties? Are there cultural exchanges? Has peace been worth it? No."
Ultimately, he says, Begin turned out to be weak. "He couldn't stand up to the Americans. I saw that when we met with Jimmy Carter."
Did it matter that the treaty's framers won the Nobel Peace Prize and that Israel was widely praised for its willingness to trade land for peace? "I don't care what the world thinks, and wants or doesn't want," he declared. Israel had to pursue its own interests as it saw fit, irrespective of Washington's wishes.
He would not kowtow to President Bush, widely seen as America's most pro-Israeli president. While many Israelis were stunned and frustrated last year by Mr. Bush's belated determination to leave his office with a legacy of Arab-Israeli peace — an unlikely outcome, according to most Middle East analysts — Mr. Katz was neither surprised nor disappointed by Mr. Bush's sudden conversion to the peace process. "I never had much faith in George Bush," he says. "He is a weak man who has abandoned his views to be led by his State Department."
But Israel's "left-wing politicians" were even worse, he complained. "They think of this land as merchandise — something to be given away piece by piece, like wheat." The trend has continued under Mr. Olmert, he says, disparaging the prime minister for agreeing to call the return of Palestinian-Arab refugees who had fled during the Arabs' wars with Israel a "core" issue of the protracted conflict. Such an acknowledgment was dangerous, he insisted. "If you agree to take back 100,000 Palestinians, people will say, 'Why only 100,000?'"
After leaving government in the late 1970s, Mr. Katz retreated to his writing. In "Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine," he described the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict as Revisionists see it — the Arabs' unwillingness to accept Israel's legitimate claims to the land and their determination to destroy the Jewish state. Even Israel's Arab citizens desire this, he insists. The book, first published in 1973, is still in print. In "The Hollow Peace," Mr. Katz described how Begin, in his view, squandered the opportunity to implement Jabotinsky's Zionist vision. "Lone Wolf," a two-volume, 1,792-page biography of Jabotinsky published in 1993, is widely read. He hopes his new book about Sarah Aaronsohn will revive interest in what he regards as a neglected episode in Jewish history, he says.
Why this slice of history? Why now? "Because we have an obligation to record as a people whatever we have done to revive the land of Israel," he replies. "Why do we climb Mount Everest?"
Mr. Katz seems undaunted by the illnesses that have left him physically, if not mentally, disabled. Now often wheelchair bound, with poor eyesight, he has survived spinal stenosis, the removal of a gall bladder in the 1960s, a heart attack in 1983, bypass surgery in 1987, hip replacement in the '90s, and a stroke four years ago. As seemingly indestructible as the state of Israel itself, he is already planning his seventh book. A party for his new book, "The Aaronsohn Saga," will be held soon in his honor, but he is not looking forward to it. There will be fewer and fewer stalwart friends left to attend. "Where are they now," he asks, "the new defenders of the faith?"