Resourcefulness was one of the qualities which made Yaacov Meridor one of the most noted leaders of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the pre-State Israeli underground movement. He escapedfive times from British detention camps, ventures which he graphically and proudly described in his book Long is the Road to Freedom. The British authorities in Palestine and in London who had to deal with him hardly saw him in such a light. To them he was a ruthless terrorist.
To Menachem Begin, Meridor was a pivotal figure in the "revolt" against the British occupation troops. However, the mainstream Jewish leaders, such as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, saw the Irgun as a dangerous organisation which was harming the war effort against the Nazis and bedevilling the relationship with the British government led by the pro-Zionist Winston Churchill, who it was hoped would abandon the pro-Arab policies of the Chamberlain era. Begin even accused the Jewish Agency leaders of betraying Meridor and other Irgun men to the British.
An enthusiastic member of the right-wing Betar youth movement in Poland, of which Menachem Begin was the leader, Meridor settled in Palestine in 1932. He worked in orange groves and in paving roads, and moved into the Irgun Zvai Leumi after a short stint in the less radical Haganah.
Meridor impressed the charismatic Irgun commander David Raziel, who sent him to Poland in 1938 for a special military course arranged by the Polish army. Before returning in 1939 he arranged an illegal shipment of arms from the Polish port of Gdynia, but the ship never arrived.
When Raziel and Avraham Stern were detained by the British authorities at the beginning of the Second World War, Meridor became provisional commander of the Irgun. Divisions within the Irgun which followed Raziel's and Stern's release provoked a permanent split and the creation of an even more extremist group, Lehi, led by Stern.
For two years after Raziel's death in 1941, while on a mission in Iraq for the British army, Meridor led the Irgun. But when Begin arrived, as a private in the Polish army, he passed over the leadership to him, recognising the latter's superior strength.Meridor took part in a number of attacks on British troops and army stores. Though his identity was given away by a "traitor" within the Irgun, Meridor managed to evade the British security services until 1945.
Seeing Meridor as an important prize, the British intelligence officers took him by special plane to Cairo where he was thoroughly interrogated without providing any new information. During his three years in detention camps he was known to have made at least five attempts to escape, finally succeeding in early 1948 when he made his way to Paris and then to the newly emerging state of Israel proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion.
Rejoining Begin as second-in-command of the Irgun, Meridor was involved, in May 1948, in one of the great tragedies of the movement. Ben-Gurion, as prime minister, demanded the unconditional surrender of the Irgun ship Altalena, which had arrived off the Tel Aviv coast from France with arms and "fighters". Begin and Meridor set conditions. The impasse ended with Ben-Gurion ordering his troops to fire on the ship, setting it alight and killing a number of men. Ben-Gurion, who may have suspected Begin of planning a coup d'etat, accused him of disobeying the rightful orders of the government.
After the War of Independence, Meridor became a Herut member of the Knesset. For two years, 1982-84, he served in Begin's Likud government as economics and planning minister. He had earlier been involved in shipping and in import businesses, establishing in 1963 the Maritime Fruit Carriers company, which eventually collapsed.
Like Begin, Meridor was seen by many in the new state as a highly controversial and tarnished figure, though fiercely defended by others. By the end of his life, Meridor saw the old divisions between the "terrorists" and the moderates abandoned for the history books.
Tall and sturdily built, Meridor hardly looked the part of the conventional "underground" leader. He was also a committed family man. He married his childhood sweetheart Zipora Frenkel shortly after his arrival in Palestine and they had two daughters and a son. Zipora died last year.
Yaacov Meridor, soldier, politician: born Lipno, Poland 1 September 1913; Minister of Economics, Israel 1982-84; married Zipora Frenkel (died 1994; one son, two daughters); died Tel Aviv 30 June 1995.
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