WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's U.S. visit raises a number of questions about his position in Israel's government. Is Shamir just a dogmatic ideologue, an unrepentant terrorist, a defiant member of the old guard, a right-wing extremist? The answer is perhaps a surprising no, and lies in the nature of contemporary Israeli political life. It says much about Shamir, the political bloc he represents and the party he heads, as well as about the nature and standing, politically and electorally, of the "opposition" Labor Alignment.
The current political situation in Israel is complex and cannot be perceived correctly by looking at public-opinion polls which, in any case, are often deceptive and misleading.
The political spectrum in Israel is clearly divided between two major political and ideological camps--and electoral blocs--containing diverse and sometimes extreme subgroups. Shamir's power and appeal lie in the Nationalist bloc, composed from left to right of the National Religious Party and Herut moderates, to the Liberals, to the Herut radicals, to the now splintered Renaissance Party and to the extreme-right Kahanite fringe, considered pariahs. Shamir is leader of this bloc.
The alternative, the other major political bloc, is the Liberal bloc, comprised of the Mapam Marxist party, the Progressive List for Peace (the Jewish-Arab minorities party), the Citizens Party, the Liberal Party and Labor, which is deeply divided into several factions. Peres heads the center group of Labor. Jerusalem party secretary Uzi Baram heads the old, historic Mapai Party while the current defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, heads the United Kibbutz Movement. Ranging to the right, there is also the faction of the Moshavim (cooperative agricultural settlements), which is as close as the Liberal bloc gets to a "complete Israel" movement, causing a convergence with the moderates of Herut in Likud.
If you lay out the two camps on an electoral map stretching from the Kahanites on the extreme right to the Progressive List for Peace on the extreme left, one would find Shamir occupying almost the exact center--along with Peres. The difference between the two is that Shamir is slightly to the right of center, Peres slightly to the left.
Shamir is hardly the extreme, fringe politician he is often perceived to be. In fact, he approaches the center of the center, which explains the role of Likud, the most powerful group in the Nationalist bloc. Likud has repeatedly demonstrated it can win at the polls and can put together coalitions to form a government. In the 1981 and 1984 elections, it stood as a party that could win as a right-of-center party. It is Likud that can form a coalition government, albeit a narrow one, with the support of the nationalist bloc. The crucial fact about Labor is that it cannot form any sort of government in coalition with the Liberal bloc, even if the Arab Communist party rallies to its side.
Likud today is what Mapai was in the days of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, an institutionalized party able to form a narrow government coalition. Menachem Begin, a brilliant tactical, electoral and parliamentary politician, built Likud into a center-conservative party with radical and nationalist ideological tendencies. However, its electoral support comes from the parties to the right of Likud.
Ze'ev Jabotinsky built Zionist Revisionism, Likud's forerunner, as a one-man party. It stayed that way under Begin and remains so with Shamir. Jabotinsky and Begin were both charismatic leaders, something Shamir obviously is not. Nonetheless, Likud is a single-leader party. Jabotinsky and Begin, however authoritarian and authoritative, were constantly challenged from within by powerful and ambitious Zionist Revisionists. Both weathered the opposition, and so has Shamir to date.
Labor, on the other hand, was historically a party divided by ideological splits typical to socialist movements in Europe and the United States, between Marxists and Democratic Socialists. It was never dominated by a single person, even under Ben-Gurion. Betar, Herut and Likud were dominated by charismatic figures like Jabotinsky and Begin and to a lesser degree, Shamir and his allies, the "Princes," sons of the old underground heroes--such as Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel's ambassador to the United Nations--comprising almost a familial rule of Herut-Likud. They give the party its tone, deciding on issues, government appointments and promotions.