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Israel: The Threat from the Right

Jerusalem, mid-April, just before Yitzhak Rabin’s election

Ever since the December elections the right-wing coalition in Israel—the Likud—has been a looming presence here and one often misunderstood abroad. The Likud now commands thirty-nine seats in Israel’s Knesset (roughly a third of the total). It is often mentioned as a possible partner in a national coalition government with the embattled Alignment (such as the one formed after the 1967 war). This growing prestige has not been lost on Likud leaders; they are presenting themselves as united, confident, and capable of exercising power. They have taken Mrs. Meir’s resignation as a signal that new elections are in the offing and are already working on their campaign. In short they are behaving like a plausible political alternative, and this is something new in Israeli political life.

The foreign policy pronouncements of the Likud have certainly remained hawkish. It essentially opposes any territorial compromises beyond the return of half of Sinai to Egypt and the return to Syria of the new bulge in the Golan Heights taken by Israel in October. Likud’s augmented strength has therefore been interpreted abroad as resulting from despair among Israel’s public over peacemaking, and pessimism about the state’s security.

This analysis is completely false. Politics in Israel did not begin when the Western press discovered it. The Likud’s success, if anything, is an indication that Israelis are more convinced than ever of their staying power—the October war confirmed nothing if not Israel’s ability to survive. They are now becoming increasingly preoccupied with the problems of daily life, and with those social rifts and political divisions that have been plaguing Israeli society for many years but which had always been shunted aside by defense priorities and collective insecurity. The Likud is gaining because, like the Alignment left-opposition, it is raising questions of domestic reform.

The Likud, like the Alignment, is dominated by ideas and factions whose history goes back to the early days of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. The most important of the factions are the Herut (“Freedom”) party and the Liberals who had combined to form the right-wing Gahal bloc in 1965. Herut is a direct political outgrowth of Irgun Zvai Leumi, the fanatically anti-British terrorist group, which had been itself a stepchild of the Zionist Revisionist movement. The Revisionists seceded from the left-dominated World Zionist Organization in 1933. Their animating force was the fiery Vladimir Jabotinsky, surely one of modern Jewry’s stormiest figures, who, although himself Russian-born (in Odessa—a contemporary of Trotsky), was deeply influenced by the Italian Risorgimento. As the chief advocate of Jewish armed resistance, founding the Jewish Legion during World War I and then the paramilitary youth organization called Betar, Jabotinsky, it is said, thought of himself as the Jewish Garibaldi.

Jabotinsky’s romantic nationalism and brooding sense of Jewry’s doom in Europe (he died in 1940) blended, not always harmoniously, with his abiding admiration for Western modernization and liberalism. The latter aspect of his thought (he had even pressed for the latinization of the Hebrew alphabet) was not easily passed on to the desperate and immensely bitter post-Holocaust conspirators of the Irgun. Under Menahem Begin, the Herut Revisionists have taken a chauvinist and decidedly illiberal direction.

Begin grew up among the Polish Jewish bourgeoisie before World War II and still has about him, or so say those close to him, some of the foxy elegance of the Polish aristocracy. He is always correct and courtly, but he is also a didactic and usually unconvincing orator whose real power is maintained by surprisingly brutal backroom power plays. This can be attested to by such ambitious young right-wing reformers as Ezer Weizman, who finally left Herut in disgust, and Shmuel Tamir, who was drummed out of Herut for his liberal views, but who has now rejoined the Likud as leader of the Free Center.

There is little doubt that Likud’s over-all chances for an electoral victory would be greatly enhanced by Begin’s ouster. The younger and more moderate elements in the Likud are leaning toward the proposal of General Ariel Sharon of the Liberal party to abolish factions and “overhaul” the leadership; and it is generally assumed that Sharon himself would benefit personally from such a development—not only because of his exploits in October’s war but because “Likud” was Sharon’s brain child in the first place. Sharon’s electoral strength has never been tested, however, and he gives the impression of being abrasive and egotistical. It is difficult to see how he would make inroads where Begin could not. Likud’s major chance for success might come in the unlikely event that the leadership went to a more moderate figure such as Weizman or Tamir or the new mayor of Tel Aviv, Shlomo Lahat.

Herut’s traditional battle has been, nevertheless, the same as that of Revisionism before it—a continuous vilification of Labor Zionism (which still considers Revisionism “fascist”) and of the plodding socialist strategy of Ben-Gurion and Ben-Tzvi which Jabotinsky claimed discouraged immigration of the predominantly petit-bourgeois Jews of Europe and America.1 Herut’s social and economic theory has repudiated working-class solidarity and institutions (“Jewish nationalism cannot afford the luxury of class struggle”). It proposed instead a kind of corporate state that would arbitrate wage demands, abolish restrictions on the use of Arab labor,2 and encourage a fully capitalist economy.

This implies, of course, the effective dismantling of the Histadrut. It also implicitly opposes the principle that Jews must do their own work in the fields and factories, without hiring workers from the less demanding, politically disorganized, and easily exploited Arab population—the twin pillars of the Yishuv’s socialism and the industrial strategy which prevented the emergence of a Jewish “colon” class.

But Herut, like Revisionism before it, is not wholly reactionary. It enthusiastically advocates the populism, egalitarianism, and ambitious self-discipline of the petit-bourgeoisie. It is suspicious of big capital, big empires, and monopolistic impediments to “free enterprise.” Moreover, it leans toward a sentimental and heroic political nationalism that, aside from a well-sharpened moral snobbery toward the goy (e.g., Begin’s recent statement, “The world doesn’t care about slaughtered Jews, only armed ones”), now translates itself into an oblique “historic” claim upon, roughly, the whole territory of ancient, tribal Israel under King Solomon. (Herut’s ideologues wisely do not choose another epoch, which would, say, lop off Tel Aviv and Haifa.)

The other major faction of the Likud is the Liberal party, whose prestate movement, the General Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, combined the pragmatic diplomacy of Theodore Herzl with a rather phlegmatic ideological pluralism and cosmopolitanism. Zionism was for them more an answer to gentile racism than a positive cultural ideal. (The early publicist Achad Haam was less kind: he believed the Zionism of Herzl to show the greatest ignorance of Jewish culture and its modern possibilities.)

At any rate, the General Zionists (as now the Liberals) generally served to organize the middle-class Jews in Europe and America who usually preferred to contribute money and influence rather than their own futures to Zionism. The Liberals still draw support and financial backing mainly from Israel’s haute-bourgeoisie which more and more seems to be developing an authentic class-consciousness. For example, Mark Moshevitz, president of Israel’s Association of Manufacturers and perhaps the most important of the Liberal party’s backers, recently served notice that the postwar wage hikes demanded by the Histadrut (to cover only partly the abolition of staple subsidies) would be the “last time” the government forced the “productive class” to pay for the “war burden.” (His firm, Elite Foods, last year made a 50 percent gross profit.)

The Liberals attack maladministration and inefficiency, and aspire to a formal liberal-state apparatus which would eliminate the stranglehold of Israel’s Orthodox rabbis on civil institutions. They recently defied the Herut faction and supported, in principle, an electoral reform bill certain to cut back the power of smaller parties such as the National Religious party. But they would no doubt dispense with their anticlericalism if they, with the rest of the Likud, came close enough to power and an alliance with the National Religious party became feasible.

Herut on the other hand finds its main support today among poorer Sephardic communities, the sansculottes of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, whose social outlook is now not very different from the one they had in Casablanca or Algiers before 1950. Their leaders and intellectuals drifted mainly to Paris (e.g., the writer Albert Memmi), leaving them to be buffeted by Israel’s devoted yet often condescending political establishment and the inevitable dislocations of settling in a country largely run by immigrants from Eastern Europe. Apart from those few who were incorporated into the Labor machine from the frontier towns to which many Sephardic Jews were dispatched (Migdal Haemek, Yerucham, Qiryat Shemona, Dimona), they have found their main chances for economic success and social recognition through small—then larger—business enterprises in the cities.

Fear and hatred of Arabs are understandably more widespread in the Sephardic neighborhoods—they are refugees from Arab states—but it is not Herut’s chauvinism that wins over so many Sephardic voters. Large sections of the Sephardic communities regard the Histadrut economic establishment and the Labor party,3 with some justice, as an elite patronage system for veteran bureaucrats. In fact, only 3 percent of high-level government positions (Israel’s bureaucracy is large—and cumbersome) are held by Sephardic Jews, who make up 50 percent of the population. Herut rides high therefore on its populist demagoguery, arguing for a “freed” market economy and an end to the tyranny of Israel’s “socialist-bureaucratic despots.”

Both as an employer and as a union representing well over 80 percent of Israel’s workers, the Histadrut can take much of the credit for building a workable Jewish state. But it is hard to deny that particularly in the last decade the Histadrut leadership and Israel’s socialist parties have preferred to develop the profit margins of “public” industries within a market economy—and themselves as a labor aristocracy—rather than to evolve the industrial democracy and planning that were supposed to serve as a base for a more classless society and more equally distributed social benefits. The industries run by the Histadrut (Hevrat Ovdim)—including light manufacturing, banking, insurance, retail trade, construction, heavy industry, etc.—make it Israel’s biggest capitalist. These enterprises were established, often at great immediate sacrifice, with the intention of combining economic growth and social welfare. But the executives who now run their operations appear to have appropriated the sterile pragmatism of Western “managers,” and they have been more intent on fitting Israel’s public corporations into the pecking order of European multinationals than on carrying out bold experiments in industrial relations.

Furthermore, Labor party bosses and conservative union leaders have provided Hevrat Ovdim managers a congenial setting in which to operate. They were instrumental in pushing Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, the former radical secretary general of the Histadrut, out of office last fall, and show little interest in such elementary issues as conservation and air pollution where the immediate profits of Hevrat Ovdim plants are at stake (e.g., their abortive attempt to extend the polluting operations of the Nesher cement factory in Haifa by further encroaching on the Carmel Mountain National Park).

Most striking is the Histadrut-Labor attitude toward health care. After running their own sick-fund for two generations, the Labor leaders are the major opponents of a national health insurance scheme, which although improving the quality of health care would deny the Labor establishment a comfortable pocket of patronage. All of this makes them easy targets for Herut’s self-congratulatory criticism.

Worse still, Pinhas Sapir, Israel’s high-handed “socialist” finance minister, has personally presided for the last seven years over a program of huge subsidies to “development” capital. He has virtually challenged the Israeli bourgeoisie, and the Histadrut and kibbutz industrial planners, to compete for these lucrative “incentives” in an openly political fashion. Playing sugar daddy in turn to private and public corporations, Sapir often subsidized quick profit undertakings which distorted economic growth and guaranteed private enrichment at government expense. Apparently without any interest in social equality himself, he has painstakingly cultivated Israel’s big-bourgeoisie and, particularly, Jewish investors from abroad (his “millionaire’s club”).

Sapir has replied with a Benthamite petulance to recent demands from Moshe Zanbar, governor of the Bank of Israel (and no socialist), for controls on capital (“it would be inefficient”). Instead he has attempted to meet the crushing war expenses by abolishing government subsidies for food, fuel, and transportation: a hard blow for most Israeli wage-earners.4 This is Sapir’s idea of a “war economy.” Nor is he apparently capable of appreciating the damage such measures do to Israel’s social cohesion—condemning increasing numbers of families to elaborate and demeaning welfare programs, intensifying growing class divisions, and giving full run to Israel’s nouveaux riches, who set an unrealistic standard of expectations for the majority of Israelis (“Put a castle next to a house and the house becomes a hut”). Israel’s unabashed consumption binge and social uneasiness of the last five years owe a great deal to Sapir’s shortsightedness, and so ironically do Labor’s current political difficulties.

Begin scores very well by exploiting thwarted hopes for more equality—and by railing against the widening “social gap” (“ha’pear ha’sotziali“) which has emerged under forty years of Labor’s continuous rule. Although Begin’s populism must rankle his Liberal party allies in Likud, one understands nothing in fact about Israeli politics until one realizes that the Labor party and not the right-wing bloc is broadly perceived to be the party of privilege—the party of the “new class.”5

This was graphically confirmed only last week after the brutal terrorist attack on Qiryat Shemona. The mainly Sephardic residents of this “development town” received the Labor ministers who came to the funerals there with an open antagonism that almost led to a riot. A few hundred of them subsequently held a rowdy demonstration at the Knesset and would not be appeased, even by some very impressive promises from the government—e.g., Sapir will be “giving” them 250 million Israeli pounds in additional aid. When they finally broke into the Knesset, only Begin was able to quiet them. He assured the demonstrators that the security arrangements for the town would indeed be tightened, as the government had pledged.

But I suspect that Likud’s approach to foreign affairs, dominated by Herut’s proposals for annexation, will be the strongest obstacle to its taking power during the next few years. For Likud usually persists in relying on euphemism—calling the West Bank “Judea and Samaria”—and trying to ignore the Arab civilization that lives on top of this soil. Their plan to offer West Bank Arabs full Israeli citizenship—like the old PLO “secular” state—would, at best, result in another Algeria. True, they offer the standard hawkish arguments on security, especially the Liberals and Free Center, who generally shy away from esoteric nationalist exhortations but hardly need to since Likud’s own flamboyant military wizard, Ariel Sharon, has emerged as a leading Liberal. However, Likud as a whole does not devote much energy to fresh thinking on security and foreign policy, and depends rather on the nationalist fantasies of Begin (and of Moshe Shamir’s Movement for the Whole Land of Israel). These fantasies extend now to the Palestinians as well. Recently in the Knesset Begin attacked Golda’s now defunct “throne speech” for including the word “Palestinian.” “No wonder,” he claimed, “the whole world now believes there is a Palestinian nation.”

With regard to the Palestinian issue, Jabotinsky himself was far more astute than Likud is proving to be today. Assessing the moral dilemma posed by the Jewish claim on Palestine which of necessity conflicted with the claim of Palestinian Arabs, Jabotinsky contrasted the “hunger” of the Jewish Yishuv to the “appetite” of the Palestinian Arabs. Like the right wing of the Labor Alignment itself, Likud leaders refuse to recognize that increasing numbers of Palestinians now claim only that part of Palestine where Arabs now live, and for which they do indeed hunger, and rightly so.6

The Likud’s approach to vital security matters seems dramatically out of step with the Israeli public’s decidedly “dovish” turn since October, yet their strength appears to be growing significantly. It is not clear how unconditional this support will be; for Likud seems quite content to try to slide into power on the slippery slope that could be created for it by further Alignment scandals and domestic failures. It is uncanny and troubling how eager to accommodate this opportunism the Alignment has seemed to be since last October.

Postscript: Tel Aviv, April 23

A combination of public pressure and renewed political deadlock has finally forced the Gush to be more realistic. After concluding that his own standing with the public was too low for him to attempt to lead the government himself, Sapir spent over a week coyly trying to find a “new” face from the veterans of the ex-Mapai bloc to replace Golda Meir. He failed. Like Sapir himself, none of the other possible candidates relished the prospect of becoming the new target for public bitterness.

When the Alignment’s coalition partners declared that they would now not join any new government, making inevitable new elections in the near future, Sapir shrewdly decided that he had better begin to share power with the party’s young Turks, and he then threw his support to the most popular figure of this group, Yitzhak Rabin—the unofficial new leader of the party’s doves and moderate left.

Sapir’s decision to back the party’s left wing and thereby oppose a national coalition with the Likud had broader consequences. The right-wing leaders of the Rafi faction, though smarting over Dayan’s now likely departure from government,7 reckoned that they had better start pushing through some open doors on their own. Doing an about face on Rafi’s threat to bolt to the Likud and emphasizing the need for party unity, Dayan’s heir-apparent Shimon Peres declared that he would himself be a candidate for the party leadership unconditionally. To his credit Peres then set the tone for an open and courteous contest with Rabin; in losing, he went to great lengths to calm factional bitterness and he has, for the moment at least, earned for himself a reputation as a moderate and the esteem of an apparently united party.

However, the climax of this drama came in a seedy Tel Aviv meeting hall where the 600-member Central Committee of the Labor party (composed of Mapai, Ahdut Ha’Avoda, and Rafi—Mapam is a partner in the Alignment, not in the Labor party) met to elect Yitzhak Rabin to lead the party and the government. The vote was surprisingly close and tempers were still raw from the meeting of the previous night; but the banal political jostling which led up to this vote seemed genuinely dwarfed by the slowly emerging recognition that this was nevertheless a historic moment. Without quite letting go, Israel’s founders were passing on their power to a new generation.

Nor does the fact that Sapir “swung” the election to Rabin contradict what seem good prospects for internal party reform and reorganization. No one knows how well Rabin would have done on his own had Sapir kept out of it; and both Rabin and Peres have plainly implied that they regard themselves as allies in what should now be an easier struggle to open up the party, eliminate factions, and, ultimately, break the power of the Gush. Equally important, Rabin’s election appears to mark the beginning of the end of Israel’s parliamentary crisis, although probably not the end of Mrs. Meir’s caretaker government. For it seems unlikely that Rabin will succeed in forming a durable government where Sapir expected to fail. Most politicians here are agreed that new elections should await the final Agranat Commission report expected this summer. (Meanwhile this caretaker government should be able to manage the Syrian disengagement.) Rabin’s victory therefore won’t be fully achieved until he faces a general election in the fall, presumably as the leader of a more democratic party. And this only if he can get by Likud’s challenge.

But in spite of a reckless last-minute attempt by Ezer Weizman to discredit him (as “incapable of withstanding stress”), Rabin now seems to have every hope of becoming a strong and popular leader, perhaps the only public figure in the country now capable of unifying a strong majority of Israelis for the difficulties ahead. One hopes that he will have the courage to persist with pragmatism and openmindedness when confronting the narrowing options for a diplomatic settlement with the Arab states and the Palestinians; and that he would earn an equally pragmatic response from the other side. Both the Israelis and Arabs deserve no less.

  1. 1

    Begin usually carries this criticism to absurdity by charging the LaborZionists with some of the responsibility for the Holocaust; by failing to plan a revolution against the British in 1936-1939, they thereby denied European Jews a refuge. Between Hitler and the British Colonial Office (remember the White Paper?) Begin’s “plan” would probably have led to the snuffing out of the Yishuv there and then.

  2. 2

    Labor’s historic scruples with regard to Arab labor are now greatly compromised. Seventy thousand Arabs work in the Israeli economy—mainly in agriculture and construction—and although labor exchanges still formally guarantee wages equal to Jewish wages, many menial jobs now held by Arabs no longer have Jewish counterparts. Hence wages in agriculture have, for example, fallen 16 percent (Jerusalem Post, February 15, 1974).

  3. 3

    The Histadrut and government owned or controlled enterprises make up roughly 50 percent of Israel’s productive forces. But their dominant or monopoly position in virtually every key sphere of Israeli industry and banking gives this “public sector” decisive economic power.

  4. 4

    It is instructive that Likud joined the parties of the left (and Ben-Aharon and Eliav) both in opposing the abolishing of subsidies and in calling for an end to easy loans to big business. But Likud’s eighteenth-century faith in “free enterprise” would be a further dose of poison rather than an antidote.

  5. 5

    Arthur Koestler in Promise and Fulfillment (1949) wrote a remarkable anticipation of Israel’s Labor aristocracy.

  6. 6

    Some updating of my earlier comments on the Palestinians (NYR, April 18) should be made here. It has been reported recently (by Dan Margolit of Ha’aretz) that Arafat himself finally made a gesture toward Israel, trying to arrange a meeting between PLO leader Abu Iad and Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon. The contact was apparently rebuffed by the Meir government.

    The Qiryat Shemona massacre was explicitly undertaken by Ahmed Jebreel’s fanatic thugs to subvert rapprochement between “Zionists” and “Palestinian defeatists.” By “defeatists” Jebreel’s group was presumably referring to both Arafat and Naif Hawatmeh of the PLO, both of whom have been reported as favoring a separate Palestinian state. Jebreel has connections with Saika, the Syrian terrorist group, and George Habash’s PFLP, both of which have fanatically opposed any accommodation whatever with Israel. In view of this background, the massacre should not preclude contacts with the PLO but should emphasize all the more their urgency.

  7. 7

    A sure sign that Dayan’s power has withered is that the party journal, Ot, closed down last month to placate him, will now recommence publication.

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