• Print

Israel: The Last Hurrah

Jerusalem, early April, before Golda Meir’s resignation

No historical struggle, no cultural revival has been more deliberate and self-conscious than that of the Jews in Israel. They are fanatics about individual liberty and personal independence—often to a point of being impudent and undisciplined—and in bearing immense burdens they have evolved a comparatively sophisticated egalitarian spirit. No doubt Israel is and had to be a “free society”; but it has become a very poor democracy.

The Jewish settlement in Israel—the “Yishuv”—was carried to statehood by clumsy and often contrived political institutions that have never been overhauled. The authority of these institutions is crumbling as the fervid appeal of the Zionist movement continues to fade for the “new” Israeli public, mainly young, native born, and reluctant to accept ideological conformity. The older leaders have already used up most of the large reserve of prestige upon which they have long been feeding. But the recent discrediting of Israel’s leadership, particularly acute since the October war, may ironically prove to be a great advance for Israeli political life, which has consistently been demeaned by despotism, however benevolent or self-sacrificing.

For David Ben-Gurion, Jewish political construction depended on a cohesive, organized, and visionary labor movement. Nationalism implied the creation of such national facts as Jewish industry, Hebrew language, and housing; and these required both direction and cooperation. Guided by this strategy, the socialist leaders who in 1920 organized the Jewish workers of Palestine into the super labor federation called the Histadrut brought the labor movement and, not just coincidentally, the entire Jewish community here to political, economic, and military pre-eminence. But these people never had much time or inclination to ponder how their own power would or ought to be checked. They were the stepchildren of Russian revolutionary movements and themselves presided over conspiratorial, subversive, and underground groups; when it came to conflicts with the Arabs, the British, or intrigues with their allies in fighting the Nazis, orders had to be given and followed.

The socialist parties, to their credit, maintained a lively dissenting spirit, but Israel’s veteran Labor leaders have spent most of their lives flaunting or fighting legal (Turkish, then British) authority and doing what was politically expedient (“ein brera“) for the sake of their single-minded dream. That’s the stuff of which revolutions are made; but the revolutionary leaders have understandably clung to arbitrary and paternal and conspiratorial practices when dealing with the new problems raised by success.

For Israel, at least, the “revolution” ended in October. The traditional political system has been badly crippled, and now appears to be merely superimposed upon a much changed and troubled society. In the euphoria that followed the 1967 war, the Labor Alignment was opportunistically patched together from tired factions of the Labor establishment that had been bitterly contending with each other for years. These old conflicts have become much worse since the October war and are now paralyzing the Israeli government. Although some of these disputes are by no means irrelevant to the country’s crisis—particularly disagreements on security strategy and economic policy—the most pressing problem for Israel’s discouraged and disillusioned public has been the deterioration of the political process itself.

A healthy society, Plato observed, needs laws no more than a vigorous body needs medicine. Israel, however, has neither health nor law. It has no formal constitution, no developed tradition of parliamentary ethics and ministerial responsibility, no serious checks on executive authority, no routine contact between elector and elected, no Bill of Rights. And although the parties are publicly financed, no laws govern internal party democracy or organization; the bosses of the old Mapai (Ben-Gurion’s moderate Labor party)—called the “Gush”—came to run their organization with Tammany Hall insolence and transformed it into a well-greased machine with immense political leverage and economic power. As Prime Ministers, Ben-Gurion, Sharrett, Eshkol, Golda Meir have all relied on the Gush apparatus to hold their coalitions together. In short, there is no strong traditional democratic procedure that can carry out the public’s vigorous demand for change and yet help to keep changes orderly.

Quite the contrary, within the limits of conventional Israeli politics there was no effective way to resist what became a conspiracy of indifference by Alignment politicians to the outrage, both in the public and in the party, over the creation and composition of the “new” government. Golda Meir’s most recent “last hurrah” was undertaken in the face of near unanimous opposition from the press and when her personal popularity was at an all-time low. It astounded even her most generous supporters for its lack of public conscience. But more to the point, her return indicated that the exhausted and ideologically bankrupt elements of the Labor Alignment would be giving themselves another chance. It is not surprising that many Israelis are now taking “to the salons and to the streets.”

No fewer than three new citizens’ organizations have been formed in the last few weeks to rally the public behind the cause of more accountable and democratic government.1 The most successful and exciting group thus far has been founded by a core of war-hardened reserve armor and paratroop officers, as well as reservists from other divisions in the IDF. The leaders of this group themselves come mainly from the Labor Zionist settlements. They have organized in support of a strict constitutionalist and social democratic charter, and in March they carried out an impressive demonstration in front of the prime minister’s offices in Jerusalem.

Some 6,000 to 8,000 citizens came to this rally, and far from engaging in demagoguery the young leaders (including Captain Motti Ashkenazi, a war hero on the Sinai front who had earlier campaigned against Dayan) spoke quietly and soberly of democratic ethics and parliamentary reform.2 The movement, now called simply “Change,” had originally named itself The Union for Governmental Responsibility. More directly, its leaders called for the resignation of Mrs. Meir and her leading ministers, and for an immediate election of new leaders within the Labor party and for the dissolution of factions within it. They will shortly be organizing a national conference and are clearly enjoying the momentum of having captured the imagination of large sections of the “younger” generation (which in Israel usually means those up to the age of forty-five, when active army service ends). They are getting wide and sympathetic coverage in the press.

A somewhat stodgier “academic” movement, pressing for essentially the same demands but with more refined political ambitions, is the Movement for Social and Political Renewal. Led by the Ha’aretz columnist and Tel Aviv University law professor Amnon Rubinstein, the group hopes to be the nucleus for a constitutionalist, technocratic, and “Westernist” political party, drawing its members from the universities and the free professions. They have the implicit intention, furthermore, of chipping heretics away from the Alignment (such as the “nevertheless Alignment” group) as well as the center liberals from the Likud. But unless they successfully recruit some of Israel’s academic superstars from the Hebrew University, or at least win the support of some other prominent journalists and professional trade union leaders, they seem inevitably headed toward some marriage of convenience with Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights party which has three seats in the Knesset.

Jerusalem’s more prominent academics and former generals who have closer connections to the government bureaucracy have been reinvigorating their own constitutionalist lobby, founded before October by the archaeologist-general Yigael Yadin. Yadin is a self-styled independent and is still sitting on the Agranat Commission. But under its new leader Meir Amit this lobby is becoming more partisan. Its sole aim is ostensibly parliamentary and constitutional reform, but it will likely serve as a “rank-and-file” base for a power play by the new generation of “Mapai” cabinet ministers, mainly former IDF commanders (Yitchak Rabin, Chaim Bar-Lev, Sharon Yariv). These men see themselves as the natural heirs to the old Gush machine after Golda is finally forced out, ideally along with the two leading old-guard political bosses, Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir and Housing Minister Yehoshua Rabinowitz.3

In fact, Meir Amit, himself a former general and now director of the Histadrut’s largest industrial complex—Koor—has simultaneously been meeting in private with Rabin and the other “young” cabinet members. They have dubbed their timidly Thermidorian but decidedly more dovish and pragmatic4 faction “Challenge.” Naturally enough, they speak not of wholesale changes but of “refreshing” the leadership. This group (along with Ahduth Ha’avoda’s Yigal Allon) would have the inside track in any conventional political race. Yitchak Rabin’s popularity within both the intellectual and the military establishments, however, now transcends that of the group, and he is often being mentioned as the next Israeli prime minister. His aloofness within the party prior to October may prove a more important political virtue than his reputation as a general and as ambassador to Washington.

Finally, there remain older radicals of the Labor Alignment whose names are by now familiar abroad because of their protests against Israel’s rigid policies on the occupied territories—Yitchak Ben Aharon, Arie Eliav. These men must be distinguished from the new citizens’ associations because they seem unwilling to bolt the party, although they had the temerity not to vote confidence in the new government. They are obviously reluctant to forego orthodox Labor coalition politics in favor of testing their strength independently in new elections. Unlike Challenge they claim to want a veritable revolution within the labor movement; but despite their obvious courage and integrity they are wary of mass politics in modern Israel and of the new protest movements trying to stir up the population.

The same is true of Mapam, the party of the old leftists, who were generally sympathetic to the Soviet Union until the revelations of the early 1950s. Periodically in and out of government as an independent party, they joined the Labor Alignment when it was formed in 1969. Although still socialists and dovish in foreign policy, they sided with the well-connected Gush machine in opposing democratization. Mapam is fearful, perhaps justifiably, that their slim constituency in the left-wing kibbutzim will be insufficient to guarantee them anything near the political influence they enjoy under the present Alignment. Mapam’s leaders have already begun discouraging the activities of the small radical peace party called Moked on their kibbutzim (where the Moked won a remarkable 10 percent of the vote in the last elections). And in the worst tradition of coalition politics, Mapam has been demanding a third minister in the government to “make up for” the extra one “granted” to both the National Religious party and the Independent Liberals. This would, by the way, bring the Israeli cabinet to twenty-three members, i.e., one third of the votes which the coalition controls in the Knesset would have found their way into the cabinet.

The arrogant way in which the government coalition was put together in February was itself one of the most revealing and demoralizing political events to have happened here recently. Following the December elections there was a deceptive lull which lasted through the mid-January disengagement pact with Egypt, and which was finally disrupted when negotiations over the formation of a new cabinet were undertaken in earnest. Only then did it become clear that the changes which the Alignment had promised during the election campaign—both in politics and leadership—were merely bait thrown out to quiet the public’s anger in November. Furthermore, in attempting to punish the Alignment government, protest voters seemed to succeed in punishing only the rest of the electorate. With the Alignment down to fifty-one seats (fifty-four with the cooperative splinter Arab lists) the National Religious party’s ten votes (a drop from twelve) became essential for a stable, albeit unpopular, Knesset majority.

The NRP’s Machiavellian rabbis wasted little time in laying it on the line to Sapir, the Alignment’s chief power broker: the Law of Return, already a contentious document, would have to be changed so that only converts made under the orthodox law would be able to enjoy the special privileges given Jewish immigrants to Israel.5 This led to the now infamous debate on “Who is a Jew,” and a depressing spectacle it was. In the midst of a crisis of survival, Israelis were forced to watch their chief ministers pandering to obscurantist principles of religious fundamentalism; an exercise which moreover threatened to weaken the already feeble status in Israel of the Conservative and Reform movements to which most American Jews at least formally belong—and this at a time when American Jewish support was being strained to its limits.

Golda, mainly because of American Jewish pressure, would not budge; and neither would the NRP, which was encouraged (perhaps illegally) by Israel’s two chief rabbis, its own young radicals, and Orthodox leaders abroad. A suggestion by the NRP and Likud that they form a “national coalition” government, in which the Gush would be a minority and Mapam would likely not care to sit, was also rejected by Mrs. Meir, and there the issue stood for over three weeks. While Israel’s leadership was trying to blend the Talmud with party patronage, by the way, 21 percent of Israel’s young men (between eighteen and twentynine) were “weighing the possibility” of emigration, or so a subsequent poll revealed (Ha’aretz, March 26).

The NRP finally rejoined the coalition when Dayan returned, but the pious politicians are still arguing among themselves; and with one of their leaders, Michael Hazzani, the minister of welfare, threatening to resign from the coalition, the entire storm might blow up again with the NRP reviving its demand for a new Concordat.

However, debate over “Who is a Jew” was but a symptom of more ominous ailments to which the Israeli government has become prone. Indeed, as Arie Eliav put it to me, “leadership has been replaced by cover-up.” During this period Golda and Dayan in fact imposed an astonishingly strict discipline upon the party, which kept dissent under wraps until the middle of February. Only then did the lonely and enigmatic struggle of Motti Ashkenazi to unseat Dayan finally gain steam.

As Dayan’s popularity dropped (Ha’aretz showed him at 50 percent, as against 90 percent last summer), party members began pecking away at him openly. David Shacham, editor of Ot, the Labor party’s eclectic magazine, was extremely critical. Mapam joined in, as did Ben Aharon and Eliav, and finally a young protégé of Sapir, Yossi Sarid, began asking Dayan embarrassing questions in the Knesset.6 On February 19, Dayan finally “resigned,” declaring that under existing conditions he would not take a post in the next government, and unleashing his own tough-minded followers—the Rafi faction—to bring pressure on the Alignment to reimpose party discipline. If they did not get their way, they were ready to demand a “national coalition,” to which Dayan would be indispensable, or, a last resort, new elections and internal “democratization.”7

Faced with the prospect of a minority government without Rafi or, worse yet, new elections, the Gush bosses who would otherwise have been glad to see Dayan fall proved themselves to be paper tigers. With the demise of the Alignment at hand, they loudly and humbly begged Dayan to return and decided to reimpose discipline at least in the Gush; they secretly promised to fire David Shacham and suppress Ot, which, after all, Golda did not like any more than Dayan did. Thus, as the chorus of pleading from the Gush grew deafening, and as Golda’s threat to retire was greeted with relief by the public—revealing the political wasteland that awaited them both—Dayan and Mrs. Meir seized upon one of many Syrian mobilizations to rejoin the fold. They returned “for the sake of the national interest.” (Ot was closed down.)

But the December-to-February “cover-up” had a more sinister side. Dayan, not satisfied to stifle criticism within his own party, tried to “discipline” the public as well through the IDF bureau of information and censorship (“Dover Tzahal“). By arrogating to itself responsibility for the public’s “morale,” the bureau began going far beyond the bounds of censorship established by twenty-five years of precedent. Deaths at the front were reported abstractly (no names were given and no circumstances); the real cause of the costly fire at Abu Rodeis, an errant Israeli hawk missile, was not reported until the story was broken independently by an NBC reporter who filed the story outside the country. Dayan himself took on the academic establishment, impugning their loyalty and the propriety of their attacks on the defense ministry during “wartime.”

The inner cabinet as a whole went along with this attempt to project an image of “normalcy”: it opened the universities with more than half the students at the front and refused to take strong emergency measures to reorganize the ravaged Israeli economy. But of course both decisions, added to the public’s fear of not being told the truth about the war, backfired. Public morale is low. The new Ministry of Information, to be headed by Rafi’s Shimon Peres, which has been given authority over radio and television, is not likely to raise spirits either. Peres has been talking about “too much coverage” being given to marginal political groups.

Nevertheless the pressure on Golda and Dayan to resign is now building up once again. Confidence in the defense minister suffered another blow in midMarch, with the surprise resignation of General Israel Tal—the army’s assistant chief of staff and one of its most respected and reliable officers. For it has been revealed (by UPI, since the military censor quashed the story in Israel) that while Tal was commander of the southern front in December and January, Dayan had given him an order to “heat things up.” Tal, a tactical genius who takes a moderate position on the question of the occupied territories, demanded that Dayan put the order in writing. Dayan refused. However, when Tal subsequently returned to the General Staff, he found that the northern front’s General Yitchak Chofi had been appointed to his old post (chief of the General Staff). Tal was left with little option but to resign. The dovish reserve general Mati Peled fears that this resignation will be only the first of many.

Furthermore, Dayan’s hard line on the territories will not gain him any more popularity than will his political maneuvers. No matter what the Agranat Commission of Inquiry into last October’s “mistakes” has to say about Dayan’s responsibility for military failures, support has greatly dwindled for his views on security. A Ha’aretz poll (March 5) revealed that 67 percent of Israelis favor substantial territorial concessions as part of an effort to win a political settlement; while 77 percent among the more highly educated and professionals support this policy of diplomatic flexibility. Dayan’s constituency has therefore been slowly evaporating; but his pet issue is essentially his only issue, and unless Dayan brings off some unanticipated feat in foreign policy—Kissinger seems strangely eager to supply Dayan with a personal triumph—he is not likely to be a force in Israeli politics except in the struggle of the present government to survive. He undertook to serve under Golda precisely and merely because he shied away from alternatives.

However, in view of internal party cleavages and the persistence of external criticism—particularly since it is directed against a prime minister who is proving increasingly thin-skinned—it is difficult to conceive of this government lasting much beyond disengagement talks with Syria. And unlike disengagement, the Palestinian challenge is not an issue likely to keep Mrs. Meir’s government together; in fact it can be expected to blow the cabinet apart. Mapam and the Independent Liberals will favor diplomatic initiatives. The Challenge group, including Yigal Allon, will at least keep an open mind to whatever schemes for a Palestinian role Kissinger proposes. Golda and the Gush old guard on the other hand will favor only a Hashemite solution as they are skeptical of all Palestinian national rights. The Rafi (Dayan and Peres) and the NRP will not agree to any substantial withdrawal from the West Bank whatsoever. In short, this is hardly a stable alliance, and it will become less so as historical options narrow.

But unlike Dayan, Likud, the bloc of right-wing opposition parties, does have other issues; and this explains the paradox that its strength increases while its pronouncements remain “hawkish.” In fact, there is no small danger that Israel’s opportunity to reach a political settlement with her neighbors, especially with the Palestinians, will be compromised by further Likud gains in the next elections. Should the Alignment continue to tumble into scandals and fail to change the current leadership, a Likud victory would be at least a distinct possibility. The Likud and its implications for Israeli politics will be discussed in a later issue.

—April 5

Postscript, April 11

After this article was completed, two major and related events forced the various factions of the Alignment to the moment of decision, well before the knotty Palestine issue could do so: the release of the interim report of the Agranat Commission, followed by Golda Meir’s resignation. At this writing, the government is still wallowing in crisis.

The members of the Agranat Commission were not empowered to consider failures of diplomacy or to assign ministerial responsibility, only to analyze the operational and technical failures leading up to October 6. Their recommendations were nevertheless devastating. The chief of staff, David Elazar, was forced to resign, although firmly repudiating any inference that Dayan stood apart from the army’s operations; and the competence of some other high IDF commanders was seriously questioned. To the public’s chagrin, the commission cautiously avoided assigning responsibility directly to ministers—the Tel-Aviv University Law Professor Amnon Rubinstein pointed out in a careful analysis that this was an over-timid interpretation of its powers (Ha’aretz, April 9). But the commission’s report clearly implied that the efficiency of decision making on defense had deteriorated significantly as a result of the secretive and unscrutinized consultations of the “kitchen”—Meir, Dayan, and Galili.

According to Dayan’s own pronouncements on ministerial responsibility, he should have resigned forthwith. But Rafi’s leaders were not prepared to permit Dayan to be lopped off the government so neatly, and are openly flaunting their friendliness to the Likud. Mapam and Ahduth Ha’avodah, whose members regarded Elazar as one of their own, threatened to vote “no confidence” in any government in which Dayan was minister of defense; while the Gush politicians, fearful of having the rug pulled out from under them should any of the other factions leave, generally favored having Dayan reassigned with as little abrasion as possible. However, abrasiveness has become a way of life with Israel’s political leaders.

With Alignment radicals and the articulate public once again demanding her resignation—and with her saving prestige no longer capable of bridging the factional disputes—Golda Meir resigned in exasperation. She is an old woman who indeed had come, as she put it, to the end of her road; perhaps well beyond it.

But Mrs. Meir’s resignation has only served to intensify the confusion. The Gush bosses will now certainly occupy the center of the political stage here, but their ability to write the script is no longer assured. Their power has always rested on both the basic consensus among the factions on ruling together and on the trusting indifference of the public—and both have now disappeared. Sapir and his cronies have already come up with a self-serving compromise: A Gush prime minister (perhaps Sapir himself) with Dayan reassigned to a new post. Failing this, the Gush leaders, according to some rumors, might attempt to join Rafi and the Likud in a national coalition, leaving the Alignment’s left wing to fend for itself. After all, Mrs. Meir was the decisive opponent of such a national coalition last month and now she is gone. But this last possibility would require an act of cynicism beyond the capacities of perhaps even the Gush bosses.

The late Levi Eshkol, a champion of the Gush, was once offered the choice between tea and coffee, and, so the story goes, he replied, “Well, I’ll take half and half.” Now that the left wing of the Alignment has summoned up the courage to force a showdown with Rafi, it will be up to the Gush leaders to choose sides. But if new elections and serious reform of the Alignment’s party arrangements are not forthcoming, it will be a sure sign that the Israeli public is being served up some such repugnant beverage.

  1. 1

    Israel’s present system of proportional representation greatly enhances the power of party “list makers” who have transformed their parties into pyramids of privilege controlled from above. A British-style constituency system, or variations upon it, has often been proposed, but this of course is in itself no panacea. Laws governing procedures inside the parties themselves are urgently required. 

  2. 2

    The democratic standards for which these young Turks are striving should put to rest any silly fantasies about a military coup inside Israel. Even if there existed a leader to attempt it—some suggest General Sharon but usually only to slander him by insinuations—there would be no followers. The IDF is not a band of mercenaries; it is a cross-section of Israeli society, and its officers are drawn disproportionately from the country’s most progressive social groups. 

  3. 3

    Rabinowitz earned his place in the cabinet by taking a trouncing in the Tel Aviv mayoralty election—a clear and stunning rejection of the Gush. 

  4. 4

    The “generals” can be expected to be more dovish precisely because they are unencumbered by the veteran Zionist leadership’s blinkers with regard to Palestinian Arabs. Although in fact they usually avoid the issues of a separate Palestinian state on the eastern front, all, especially Rabin, their “leader,” are convinced that Israel must rely on negotiations and international (mainly American) guarantees, more than on territory, for durable security. 

  5. 5

    This was not merely a point of theological significance. Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate has used its advantage in coalition politics to fashion a formidable, profitable, and widely resented monopoly on all clerical functions—marriage, funerals, divorce, supervision of Kashrut, etc.—by blocking competition from secular authority or other streams in Judaism. 

  6. 6

    Sarid told me that he and his “associates” were still apprehensive that Dayan might bolt to the Likud, a possibility greatly underlined by Dayan’s transparent cease-fire with General Ariel Sharon. Sharon left the army calling David Elazar incompetent and demanding his resignation as chief of staff, and vilifying Bar Lev for “politicizing” the army. But for Dayan, who appointed both, Sharon had only praise. 

  7. 7

    Rafi, the list formed by Ben-Gurion after he left Mapai in 1963 during the aftermath of the Lavon crisis, includes Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yitschak Navon (the second choice for president, last time around), and others of the new generation who promoted themselves as democrats and technocrats. Rafi, however, had shrewdly opposed opening up the party lists last November, fearing a revolution against Dayan. The rediscovery of its democratic principles probably means that Dayan believes he has nothing to lose, and he is probably correct.