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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.

  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.

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