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The Victory of the New Israel

I

The Palestinian scholar Walid Khalidi said to me recently that Menachem Begin may yet succeed where Nasser failed in bringing unity to the Arab world. No doubt this is why Yasir Arafat expressed satisfaction in June at the good prospects for Begin’s reelection. Yet the diplomatic and military pressures now mounting against Israel from Arab rejectionists, European leaders, and State Department officials have not united the Jewish state. The mean-spirited campaign that preceded the June 30 election has in fact revealed a country passionately divided by ideology, class, age, attitudes toward Orthodox faith and law—and crucially, ethnic origin. The ingathering of the exiles, it seems, has been a simpler matter than consolidating the nation.

What this election has also made clear is that the pro-Likud constituencies of the “new Israel,” composed mainly of Jews of North African origin, have proven even more convincingly to be a majority—albeit a slim one—in this turbulent society. It was these Jews whose support for Begin was decisive in the elections of 1977.1 They now may have superseded once and for all the institutions and values of historic Labor Zionism which before 1977 had presided over the Jewish settlement and the state without interruption since 1933.

Their victory was more convincing this time because by contrast to the campaign of 1977, they now supported a Likud government running on a record of economic mismanagement, civil corruption, and growing diplomatic isolation. Yet Begin’s coalition has held its strength: Likud will have forty-eight seats in the tenth Knesset to Labor’s forty-seven, and it seems the only party the president can call on to form the next government. By contrast, Labor and the Democratic Movement for Change shared forty-seven seats in 1977 to Likud’s forty-five.

To understand just how disastrous Likud’s policies have been to Israel’s economy, consider that in 1977 about ten Israeli pounds traded for one American dollar, while today the rate of exchange is 115 to the dollar and is climbing daily. Of course, this figure by itself is misleading: Israel has an efficient system of cost-of-living escalators which the finance ministry under Yoram Aridor has recently instituted along with a larger package of reforms. Wages, bank accounts, marginal tax brackets and so forth are now all 100 percent linked to the inflation, which is why, ironically, savings rates among Israelis are among the highest in the world in spite of the startling rate of inflation with which they must contend.

Still, as Uriel Lynn, the Likud-appointed commissioner of state’s revenue (and now a strong candidate to become governor of the Bank of Israel), conceded to me, the climate is foul for the long-term investments in industrial and high technology production that Israel needs to avoid economic collapse—including investments in aviation, computer software, and medical equipment, which now make up 9 percent of the GNP.

Much of Israel’s most vigorous industry is, in fact, now financed by foreign credit, and Aridor’s recent economic policies have greatly depleted reserves of foreign exchange—some fear by as much as a half billion dollars—in an effort to reduce short-term inflation rates in time for the election. He did this by lowering the purchase tax on a number of consumer goods—cars, televisions, refrigerators, and more—which Israelis from all classes rushed to import from European suppliers. The balance-of-payments deficit may reach $5.5 billion in 1981. Moreover, the Israeli treasury under Aridor’s direction has maintained an artificially high value for Israeli currency during this period, which is informally pegged to the surging American dollar. This combination of soaring inflation at home and over-valued Israeli pounds in Europe has put Israel’s crucial export industries, and agriculture, in such bad shape that Aridor had to pay exporters a 5 percent subsidy in June just to keep them solvent.

Aridor’s depletion of foreign reserves to promote a pro-Likud mood—something his predecessors Simha Ehrlich and Yigael Hurwitz have stubbornly resisted since 1977—may so adversely affect the solvency of Israel’s government that its guarantees to foreign banks lending money to Israeli industry will become as worthless as those from “developing” countries. Hebrew University political economist Avishai Margalit fears that credit may dry up in the near future and create unemployment in just those sectors of the Israeli economy that are the keys to the country’s future. In 1979, about $73 million in foreign investment was liquidated; in 1980 about $202 million. So Margalit may be right that foreign investors have already begun to withdraw credits.

Likud’s most serious economic failure has been its laissez-faire—one might say, après-moi-le-déluge—approach to economic productivity, in which there has been virtually no rise for the last five years. Don Patinkin, an economist at Hebrew University, points out that actual growth under the Likud from 1977 to 1981 is running at about 19 percent, half of what it was on average during the two preceding Labor governments.2 The main reason for this decline is the faith of Likud’s finance ministers that Israel’s entrepreneurs living in the suburbs of Tel Aviv will use their growing fortunes to invest in Israeli industry during this inflationary time instead of playing the market in bonds and stocks. Capital gains on both are, remarkably, tax-free in Israel. The government props up the market with indexed issues to secure short-term revenue. There may be a cautionary lesson here for representative Jack Kemp, who was in Israel recently to study the Likud’s economic record, which an economist friend of mine calls “supply-sadism.”

Israel’s most respected economists, such as Patinkin and Professor Haim Ben-Shachar, who was slated to be finance minister in a Labor government, wants to see the government and the Histadrut—Israel’s general federation of labor—again take the lead in organizing new industrial production. Labor party experts also claim that he would have attempted to cut the swelling defense budget and certainly phase out the millions of dollars in expenditures on West Bank settlements. If these austerity measures are not soon enforced, the value of the Likud’s shiny new shekel seems likely to decline twice as fast as that of the pound. Obviously, this economy is no place for poor people, or much of the middle class for that matter, which largely explains why some 100,000 Israelis have moved to the United States and Canada in the last four years. The inflation has barely touched real wages but it has put housing—still the most lucrative speculative investment in Israel—out of reach for virtually all families who do not qualify for government flats in Jerusalem suburbs or development towns.

I wrote in 1977 that the Likud government could not be expected to do much for Israel’s poor and that it might have to create circuses (such as altercations with Helmut Schmidt?) when the bread runs out. No one expected then that their finance minister would simply borrow money to subsidize bread—and poultry, milk, gasoline, and other essential commodities—for several months before an election, to contrive an illusion of prosperity. This is just what Aridor has done. Since February he has announced subsidies that will cost 18 billion shekels—while the whole year’s budget calls for 6 billion in subsidies. He has, in effect, spent 30 percent of the national budget during the months he was to have spent just 15 percent. He has even had the temerity to borrow almost 900 million shekels from some domestic private banks and not from the Bank of Israel in order to keep the impact of short-term inflation to a minimum. To his credit, Yaacov Levinson, president of the Workers’ Bank, would not go along. But the subsidies will have to be reduced and economists are predicting 250 percent inflation—or more: 35 percent of Israel’s budget already goes to servicing the national debt, nearly a 9 percent rise since 1977, and little has been done about the widespread problem of tax evasion which Uriel Lynn considers a “serious spur to inflation.”

II

Aridor’s actions invite what seems to me the most intriguing question of this election campaign: to which of the 800,000 Israelis who make up the Likud electoral plurality, aside from the religious parties, can such an irresponsible economic regime possibly appeal? Also, what deeper loyalties has the Likud been drawing on to maintain its coalition in spite of its failures of social administration? The answers lie in some of the basic demographic facts of Israel’s politics. Both Likud and Labor count on the support of specific groups of voters. In the case of the Likud, these include Tel Aviv industrialists and commercial promoters and hawkish veterans of the old Irgun and Sternist underground, and the young. It has also counted on the Sephardic poor of the “shechunot“—the marginal hastily constructed neighborhoods of Israel’s cities—and development towns such as Dimona.

The latter group remains the core of the Likud’s power, and Aridor’s largesse was directed mainly to them—to the industrial workers, vegetable peddlers, taxi drivers, waitresses, and petty clerks of the “second Israel,” who are mainly of Moroccan origin. They, or their parents, arrived in Israel in the 1950s and came to view the movement and the Histadrut as a condescending network of high-handed Ashkenazi bureaucrats who maintained control over the property and industries of the emerging state. The Moroccan immigrants had little patience for agricultural communes—although a good number joined moshavim. They refused to shed their cultural traditions and warm-hearted patriarchal families for the sake of Labor Zionist theories they could barely understand.

Few could speak Hebrew, most of the women were illiterate, and nearly all remained fixed in a universe of Jewish law and Oriental custom. They were shunted off for years to tent cities—maabarot. Superficial and reckless theories of “modernization” were inflicted upon them by European settlers who were inspired by their own revolutionary euphoria.3

The new immigrants and their children were then housed in slapdash housing developments which quickly became slums where schools were inadequate. Their previously strict Orthodox religious practices gave way to a mood of religiosity tempered by Israel’s urban street culture. They were hired by the Histadrut and various corporations but could not gain power in unions dominated by old labor officials. Some wound up in prefabricated towns and abandoned Arab villages in rural areas, such as Beit She’an, where once they proved allergic to socialism they were shunned by the residents of nearby kibbutzim and established moshavim such as Degania, Mesilot, Beit Alfa. The Labor aristocracy on their collectives used to consider it bad form to allow their children to marry the Moroccan immigrants. Most of the intelligentsia of the Moroccan, Jews went to live in France or Quebec. Today, only about 20 percent of Israel’s university students come from the “second Israel.”

Of course, much of the “second Israel” suffered from the good intentions of what Eli Vazana, a young Moroccan Jew I talked to, calls the “establishment.” Vazana is a resident of Katamon Tet, Jerusalem’s Moroccan quarter that overwhelmingly backs the Likud. He was one of the founders of the reformist “Ohalim” movement which the Begin government, to Vazana’s regret, absorbed during the last two years. Vazana and other Moroccan Jews I talked to acknowledged that a substantial Sephardic middle class has emerged since 1967; but the success of these owners of small retail stores, car repair garages, and other small businesses has only confirmed the rest of the Moroccan community in its suspicions of socialist planning and ideology. The Sephardic middle class has been joined, in recent years, by the overwhelming majority of immigrants from the Soviet Union who now number about 200,000 and seem even more contemptuous of democratic socialism.

Although there has been little integration of neighborhood schools in the last decade, the rate of intermarriage between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in the new Israel is nevertheless very high—perhaps 30 percent—and might eventually solve the problem of social integration more effectively than any social policy. But Israelis, especially those whose history in the country is short, have little patience for the long view. The Oriental Jews from the shechunot neighborhoods, Eli Vazana told me, remain impressed by Begin’s Manichaean view of the world and his displays of piety.4 He has always touched a responsive chord among these refugees from Arab countries who have inevitably been made to feel impotent by Labor intellectuals and political bosses, and who relish the feelings of superiority evoked by Begin’s martial rhetoric.

Most respond to Likud diatribes against Jewish fecklessness precisely because they see old Labor patronage as a domestic form of it—this in spite of the fact that it is the sons of the Labor aristocracy who still serve in elite army units in disproportionately large numbers. So aside from Aridor’s gifts, Begin’s tough talk against the Syrians in South Lebanon—as well as his bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor—have caused the shechunot to come back to Likud in a rush. Jews of Sephardic origin make up about 60 percent of the voting population—50 percent of those who actually vote—and consistently choose Likud over Labor by three to one. But numbers alone do not reflect their impact on Israeli politics. This time, little gangs of toughs from the shechunot began breaking up Labor party rallies. They also threatened passers-by who wore Labor party pins and broke car windows with Labor tickers. When Dan Margalit, a writer or Ha’aretz, tried to organize a “Hyde Park” debate in the Macheneh Yehudah market of Jerusalem, some young thugs beat him up.

The common perception within the “second Israel” that the Likud is their instrument for exerting national power is by no means fatuous. In spite of the fact that Labor’s Knesset list included twice as many Sephardic Jews (eighteen) as that of the Likud, none of Labor’s leadership is from the “second Israel.” By contrast, David Levi, a self-taught Moroccan Jew from Beit She’an, is a powerful force in the Likud today. He is second after Begin on the Likud list, the czar of housing and social policy, and head of the Likud faction in the Histadrut central committee. On the other hand, the indifference of so many Moroccan immigrants to the voices of respectable economists—such as Arnon Gafni, president of the Bank of Israel, who views Aridor’s policies as a violation of public trust—demonstrates just how estranged the residents of the “second Israel” are from the elites who have been trying to run Israel as a modern democratic society.

Nevertheless, should another Likud government finally be formed, it will have some internal divisions. Likud’s bourgeois, “liberal” wing is now led by Yitzhak Modai, the energy minister, an ex-army colonel who is more hawkish than his predecessors on diplomatic questions, but clearly opposed to maintaining policies which will bring financial ruin to a part of the old Liberal party constituents. Begin’s own likely successor in the Herut party is Ya’akov Meridor, an old crony from the Irgun underground, a businesslike and colorless man who has spent his life developing international maritime ventures and filling Herut’s coffers.

Both Meridor and Modai can be expected to demand budget cuts that will adversely affect the full employment currently enjoyed by the shechunot. As of this writing, Aridor has already told the professionals at the Treasury to raise the value added tax to 15 percent and gradually lift subsidies on consumer staples. Tougher medicine is forthcoming and it is worth remembering that the same poor people who put Begin in office in 1977 were a few months before demonstrating in the streets to protest rising prices.

Yet, as in 1977, there is no reason to assume that disaffection in the “second Israel” from the Likud’s fitful commitment to “fiscal responsibility” will translate into support for Labor. Rather, a new populist and radically chauvinist party called Tehiya (“Revival”) is waiting in the wings. Tehiya has brought together the leaders of Gush Emunim, firebrand Herut dissidents such as Geula Cohen, and Tel-Aviv University’s Yuval Ne’eman, a physicist and defense technocrat known as “Dr. Strangelove.” They have as yet put forward no new social policies and claim to be campaigning to undo the provisions of the Camp David accords, but they have emerged from the election as a fresh and concentrated version of the old Herut. They gained only three seats this time, mainly from the young and from settlers in the West Bank, but were doing much better in the opinion polls before the race appeared to be neck-and-neck. Geula Cohen’s son is now national president of the Association of University Students.

A word about the young seems appropriate here, since more than a third of the voters this time were under thirty and their numbers have been growing steadily. Dr. Ziona Peled, of Israel’s prestigious Institute for Applied Social Research, reported to me that during a survey in mid-June among Israel’s young—those between eighteen and twenty-nine—at least 55 percent indicated a preference for the Likud and other right-wing parties. Only 20 percent, mainly young people with higher education, chose Labor, which means that there is a majority for the right even among youths of Western Ashkenazi origin.

Of all the recent data this seems to me the most ominous. The occupation of the West Bank has, after all, gone on for over fourteen years and every voter under thirty will not remember what Israel was like within the old borders of the Green Line. For them “Judea and Samaria” are places where most of them did their army training and where settlers, who may be among their friends, prove their “pioneering spirit,” presumably in the manner of the chalutzim who settled the Jezreel valley during the 1920s and 1930s. The latter, of course, were part of a Labor Zionist effort to consolidate a Hebrew-speaking Jewish homeland during a desperate time. They did not settle with bulldozers, low-interest mortgages, jobs in the city, and the power of the Israeli state and army behind them. The chalutzim certainly did not expect to be a vanguard of occupation of a million Arabs.

But Israeli young people, much like the young everywhere, have now grown up with television journalism, in a simpler political universe explained by two-minute news stories featuring vivid images of Israeli and Arab leaders and American politicians who appear to think politics some dramatic test of strength.

Unlike young people almost everywhere else, young Israelis spend their days in grueling military service, learning how to take part in Israel’s cybernetic and disciplined army. Some are already hardened by the last war and all must prepare themselves psychologically for the next. This is not to say that Israel’s young betray no political pluralism: six of the pilots who bombed the Iraqi reactor greeted Begin at their base with their family cars plastered with pro-Labor stickers—which some of the army garage mechanics tried to remove. But one cannot ignore the growth of hard-line sentiment among young people in Israel, and the Likud has not failed to exploit it now, as in 1977.

Begin’s coalition, finally, will have to rest again on the support of the two major religious parties, the National Religious Party and the Agudat Israel. The NRP, now led by its young guard—education minister Zevulun Hammer and Yehudah Ben-Meir, who have been close to Gush Emunim and the West Bank settlers—won only six seats this time. They apparently lost support to Geula Cohen’s Tehiya but also to Tami, a small self-proclaimed party of Moroccan Orthodox led by former NRP stalwart and minister of religious affairs, Aharon Abu Hatzeira. Hammer and Ben-Meir are the products of Messianic Zionist yeshivas but they are now smooth politicians. They coldly dropped Abu Hatzeira when he was indicted—though not yet convicted—for graft, which further exacerbated ethnic tensions throughout the country, particularly after he was cleared of the initial charges against him. NRP ministers, including the old party boss Dr. Joseph Burg, have declared that they will not sit in the same government with Abu Hatzeira. But Tami’s two seats are now necessary for a Begin majority and the NRP will ultimately be willing to accept them.

The NRP’s chief concern still is to maintain the prerogatives of the Orthodox rabbinate over civil law—the so-called “status quo” in marriage, divorce, burial, and so forth—and also to preserve what they delicately call the “unity of the land of Israel.” In addition to their contempt for Tami—Abu Hatzeira remains under indictment for other offenses—NRP leaders seem genuinely worried about serving in a government that would have so slim a majority and yet have to take the consequences of its former economic recklessness. It has been pressing in vain for a national unity coalition that will include Labor and perhaps demand new elections thereafter. The NRP fixers have made such protests in the past and will now be more content to serve Begin than to try to heal their breach with Labor and then also have to contend with the secularist radicals in Labor’s camp, including the followers of the leftist Mapam faction and Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights party.

The Agudah party, whose four seats represent the “Charedim,” the zealots of the Meah Sha’arim quarter and other strongholds of anti-Zionist sentiment, is less likely to be satisfied with maintaining the status quo in civil life. Since 1977 the Agudah has managed to squeeze out of Begin’s government some preliminary concessions to the traditional Halachic law. All new laws not based on existing precedents in Israel must now be legislated in “the spirit of the tradition of Israel,” i.e., in the spirit of Talmudic law and not British common law. The Agudah leaders have also succeeded in making it far more difficult for women to obtain abortions, while making it easier for daughters of Orthodox families to escape military service.

Charedim living in newer neighborhoods of Jerusalem have also been fighting pitched battles with municipal authorities for three years to prevent drivers from using roads near their apartments during the Sabbath. They are likely to want tougher laws against public transportation during the Sabbath as a price for rejoining Begin. More important, they are sure to demand that the Law of Return be amended to specify as Jews only those converts who have been certified by the Orthodox rabbinate. This amendment would enrage not only secular Jews in Israel but also Conservative and Reform Jews in America. Secular protests can turn ugly. Kubbutzim members have in the past driven cars and tractors into the city on the Sabbath to demonstrate against Orthodox control. Nevertheless, Begin will almost certainly respond positively to Agudah’s demands.

Begin will carry the day in any such decision because he rules the Likud more strictly than before. Former defense minister Ezer Weizman, once Begin’s chief rival in the Likud, has sat out this election, predicting that new elections would be forthcoming. So Begin’s Likud is now packed with loyalists; and a new Likud government will not have to include Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement, now defunct. Yadin was thought a moderate and secularist force in 1977, though in fact he sat as Begin’s vice premier in the manner of a captive and it is thought he well deserves the political oblivion he now faces.

Nor will Begin have to include Moshe Dayan this time. Dayan broke with the Likud government in bitterness last year and barely won two seats as the head of an independent list called Telem. He wanted to be Begin’s negotiator at the Palestinian autonomy talks. But Begin is still smarting over the charge from his right-wing allies that Dayan had manipulated him into the agreement at Camp David. Besides, Begin knows that the rest of Dayan’s list—including Mordechai Ben-Porat and Yigal Hurwitz—are friendly to the Likud and would join it should Dayan resign because he does not want a back-bencher’s seat. So Weizman may have been wrong to suppose that a new Begin government will soon fall merely because it will be reaping an economic whirlwind. Indeed, any government Begin forms will likely try to hold together at all costs for four years more: the NRP and Agudat Israel do not view themselves as opposition parties.

III

Although it now seems evident that the Likud alone may be able to organize a parliamentary majority as a result of the June election, Labor’s better showing this time raises the question of its own long-term prospects. Begin cannot remain active in political life indefinitely—his heart is widely viewed here as a medical miracle—and no successor in the Likud can command the kind of support he takes for granted. Meridor is not popular in the “second Israel.” David Levi and General Ariel Sharon have a strong following there, but they do not get on and do not have Begin’s rabble-rousing skills. Neither would appeal, moreover, to the Likud’s new Tel-Aviv bourgeoisie, typified by Gideon Patt, the minister of commerce and industry, who thinks Sharon is insane.

Still, what must first be said about Labor’s current leadership—Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Chaim Bar-Lev, Abba Eban—is that they should have retired from political life four years ago. Imagine the consternation of Americans if, after Watergate, the Democrats were still being led by Lyndon Johnson. The last-minute reconciliation of Peres with Yitzhak Rabin—urgent as it was for Labor’s campaign—will only hold the party back. Yossi Sarid, a well-connected Labor member of the Knesset, told me during the night of the election that the party apparatus is currently strong but it may not remain so if it stays out of power; that it cannot hope to regain power unless it can make inroads into the “second Israel.” He left me to surmise that neither Peres nor Rabin seems likely to do this, although Rabin remains far more popular in the shechunot owing to his record of chief-of-staff during the Six Day War, and, ironically, the reputation for honesty he acquired by resigning the premiership in 1977 after his illegal bank account was discovered by an Israeli reporter.

Peres—who gained in prestige by acquitting himself well in his TV debate with Begin—was singularly unpopular throughout the campaign and could not reach out beyond the traditional Labor constituencies: the comparatively affluent middle class, the older and well-fixed workers within the Histadrut, the intelligentsia, older voters of European origin, and, most important, the residents of the Hityashvut Haovedet—the agrarian collectives. A fresher face might have also failed to form a new Labor government, but the results were close enough to increase speculation about Peres’s future. One indication that new leadership might have made a difference is that the return en masse of so many “undecided voters” to the Likud began to be reflected in the polls immediately after Workers’ Bank president Yaacov Levinson announced he would not serve in the Peres government. Of course, most of the undecided were from the “second Israel” and thus largely headed back to the parties of the right anyway—which is why those Western reporters who were announcing a likely majority for Peres in February (when 35 percent were undecided) seem irresponsible. Still, just three or four seats from the young or the shechunot would have swung the election in Labor’s favor. Peres and the rest were—and are—clearly identified with former Labor regimes and are not the leaders to win them.

Moreover, Peres ran a shoddy campaign, one unworthy of his talents. First, he tried to out-perform Begin as a devotee of West Bank settlement—in private, he would concede much more flexible views—and then he attempted to rally an “Ashkenazi backlash” to the hooliganism of the pro-Likud punks who disrupted his rallies. He did not, as the historian Yehoshua Arieli observed, present a social democratic, peace-loving vision to the substantial part of Israeli society that might still be moved by it; this is not yet a country that is sufficiently urbane to do without social vision. Since 1967, Labor has consistently allowed right-wing groups to preempt questions on which Labor could have encouraged a national debate: e.g., whether or not to settle the West Bank. Peres’s campaign reflected this failure of nerve by harping on Likud’s failures and stressing how much “stronger” the country would be under Labor leadership.

Peres also held out the clearly anachronistic prospect of a territorial compromise with Jordan—something that both King Hussein and Moshe Dayan have insisted is impossible5—instead of forthrightly taking up the challenge of settling the Palestinian question in the ways envisioned by the Camp David accord. Also, political commercials on television had a significant part in galvanizing party loyalties this year and my impression was that Likud won the battle of the jingles hands down.

Still, the best augury for the Labor party this time was the extreme devotion of the kibbutz movement to it after Begin’s reelection appeared imminent. The Hityashvut Haovedet found its voice after years of growing indifference to Labor party interests, and three weeks before the end of the campaign was able to contribute much by way of manpower, organization, and spirit. Along with the writers and intellectuals—including Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Don Patinkin—who quickly came back to Labor, the Hityashvut raised the level of Labor’s propaganda. Its workers helped to revitalize the party’s image and spread an infectious “stop Begin” sense of urgency among the Likud’s traditional opponents. Tens of thousands of young people from the kibbutzim came to a last-minute rally in Tel-Aviv, and sent election-day workers to polling areas as far away as Jerusalem.

By contrast, the splinter parties of the left led, respectively, by Shulamit Aloni, Amnon Rubenstein, and Meir Pa’il, continued to carp at Labor until the day of the election. Much of their criticism was justified. Labor’s list is no doubt less dove-ish and liberal than what, say, Oz, Yehoshua, Patinkin, and Arieli would have wished, and certainly less talented than the lists put together by Labor’s left-wing detractors. But I cannot believe that the small leftist parties did themselves credit in pointing out Labor’s weaknesses so relentlessly since they could not hope to replace it themselves. The lists of Aloni and Rubenstein barely won three seats between them, and Pa’il did not even make it to the Knesset; but they nevertheless withheld their endorsement of the Labor party just when it was most needed. Much more irresponsible were the Israelis who planned trips abroad for the day of the election in order to beat the fare hikes on July 1. Polls showed months ago that these trips would seriously influence the results of the election since probable Labor voters going abroad outnumbered probable Likud voters by two to one. Yet 250,000—fully 10 percent of the electorate—were absent from Israel on election day.

One surprising feature of Labor’s comeback was its substantial number of votes from Israeli Arabs, accounting for between two and three seats. The communist Rakah party lost an equal number of seats which means that about a quarter of the Arab voters switched to Labor this time. Some may be tempted to believe that this shift in Arab votes to Labor reflects the increasing faith of Arab citizens in the conventional politics of the state. In fact, the rate of Arab participation dropped from 83 percent to 65 percent this time, and the swing away from Rakah reflects the radical estrangement of more and more Arabs from Israel’s future. Jellal Abu-Tuami, head of an exceptionally active “Citizens for Peres” committee working in the Arab sector, told me that the Arab vote for Labor was, in his view, a desperate act of revulsion against the growing power of the Israeli right. Several weeks into the campaign, Meir Kahane, leader of the fascist Kach party, presented a platform that called for jailing Jews who have Arab lovers. This shook the Arab community. Kahane got a few thousand scattered votes and will not sit in the Knesset, but Arabs could not help taking a dim view of the political forces that produced his candidacy.

Israeli democrats and civil libertarians, such as the writer Yoela Harshefi, have been making efforts to work with the Arab community, and for the first time an Arab politician will sit for Labor in the Knesset. But as of this writing, Abu-Tuami has yet to receive a phone call from Peres or anyone else in the Labor establishment to express appreciation for his efforts. Instead, Ra’anan Cohen, head of the largely inactive “Arab section” of Labor which Abu-Tuami wants to see disbanded, is taking credit for the Arab vote and praising Arab voters for their “political maturity.” Abu-Tuami feels there might be even more votes for Labor among Arabs if the party could change this patronizing attitude, but he fears that time may be running out.

As to the other changes that Labor needs to make, the party cannot expect to win a majority in the country without taking serious steps to win back some of the voters in the “second Israel.” The most optimistic Israeli commentators predict that Yitzhak Navon, the popular president of the state and himself a descendant of one of Jerusalem’s respected Sephardic families, may resign the presidency to fight for the party leadership. He would certainly do better than Peres among voters not drawn to Labor—he was always thought the most affable of Ben-Gurion’s protégés—but Navon has never been tested as a national political leader. He cannot legally re-enter politics for a full year after resigning, and so seems unlikely to affect the immediate political confusion which would ensue if the NRP finally stayed out of Begin’s government or succeeded in bringing about new elections.

Ezer Weizman, a charismatic figure who has always been admired in the shechunot, might hope to lead a third force in new elections. This could then be joined to a Labor plurality should Begin’s government, which would remain in office as a transitional government, be discredited by the impending economic crisis. But Labor will have to take more fundamental action to build bridges to the “second Israel” than simply putting forward, or joining with, a more acceptable candidate.

One reform which could improve relations between ethnic groups concerns the Histadrut. Sephardic workers make up about 80 percent of the industrial proletariat, but under the current rules workers’ councils, in which these Sephardic laborers predominate, have no direct control over the Histadrut’s central committee. The latter is elected in a separate poll for which party lists are manipulated by Labor Alignment higher-ups. Not surprisingly, Labor’s slates have always been heavily weighted in favor of old-guard, European leaders like the secretary general, Yeruham Meshel, who is now anathema to much of the rank and file. Yair Zaban, a new Labor member of the Knesset (Mapam), and for years a radical member of the Histadrut’s central committee, expressed to me his concern that a portion of the workers’ councils will put up their own lists for the next Histadrut elections if the double form of representation that disenfranchises them is not eliminated. Should such independent lists spring up, the Likud’s ubiquitous David Levi may take control of the Labor unions as well.

Labor will also have to move to end the estrangement of residents of development towns from the old Labor settlements among which they live. Zaban is pressing for new institutions which would plan industry and social policy on a regional basis, something which would force kibbutz business enterprises to cooperate, and in some cases, integrate, with enterprises in development towns. Such cooperation, he holds, would greatly increase opportunities for social reciprocity in Israel’s hinterland and, finally, provide the basis for the integration of school systems which are now considerably better in the kibbutzim and established moshavim. Just such a strategy for reorganizing the public economy and educational system along regional lines was put forward to me by Jallal Abu-Tuami as the most plausible way to integrate Israeli Arabs into the national life. It seems an idea whose time has come; but Shimon Peres does not seem bold enough to carry it through.

IV

Diplomatic problems, however, continue to put questions of social reform in eclipse. Begin will now remain in office for at least a while longer, and likely beyond April 1982, when the Camp David timetable calls for Israel to return the remainder of the Sinai to Egypt. This will mean dismantling some strategic air bases and well-established settlements. But Begin’s top ministers and advisers on foreign-policy matters—Yitzhak Shamir, the foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, and Moshe Arens, chairman of the Knesset Committee on Security and Foreign Relations—were all opponents of the Camp David accord and wary of having these final parts of the Sinai revert to Egyptian control. The Palestinian autonomy talks always seemed to them doomed precisely because they can imagine no West Bank concessions.

To this group, which Begin has certainly joined in spirit since Weizman and Dayan resigned, the Jewish settling of the West Bank remains essential not only in order to preempt the evolution of a Palestinian state—which most Israelis now regard as a Trojan horse for terrorism—but also as fulfulling some revisionist Zionist mission to unite “Eretz Israel.” Since Tehiya’s three representatives in the Knesset share these views—and are even more fanatical about them—and since Tehiya is one of several groups who might hold the key to a Likud majority, Begin may harden his line on the Palestinians still further. He may accelerate settlement, reclaim exclusive water and residual land rights—which he was reputed to have conceded in conversations with Sol Linowitz, President Carter’s negotiator—in the hope that President Sadat will scuttle the Camp David process before the Sinai withdrawal is complete.

Begin’s group certainly would want to avoid having the Israeli-Egyptian peace break down, as they believe it may, after the Sinai has been evacuated; they would rather have Sadat—not Begin—be the first to flinch. One can only imagine that such calculations crossed Begin’s mind when he arranged to be photographed bear-hugging Sadat for the world press just two days before Iraq’s reactor was bombed.

That raid may have nevertheless done more for peace than for war, at least for a while. Harvard’s Nadav Safran, who was one of the first to promote contacts between Israeli and Egyptian leaders and who is certainly no friend of Begin, told me that he thinks the raid may have been a benefit to current American peace initiatives insofar as it has deflated the illusions among some Arab nations that they could plausibly make war on Israel as long as they had a bomb of their own. Of course, the bombing of the reactor was a diplomatic disaster for Israel in the UN; and State Department officials cannot view with favor the announcement of Sadam Hussein of Iraq that he intends to improve relations with Moscow. But, so long as Israel maintains a monopoly on the threat to use nuclear weapons, it can match the worst threats directed against it by such bloody-minded regimes as Hussein’s or Qadhafi’s. A nuclear race in the Middle East, one in which each side will be sprinting for a “second strike deterrent,” could turn the area into the fuse for nuclear holocaust: the Syrian missile crisis graphically shows how easily, and how often, military threats in the area can escalate, and neither the military leaders of Israel nor, say, Iraq would want to risk the other side’s striking first.

Yet, even if this raid could be viewed as one more detail in a long and brutal conflict, it has left this question: what will Israel’s government do with the five or ten years of clear military preeminence the raid seems to have reconfirmed? So far as the West Bank is concerned, the Begin government has been providing a chilling answer. In just four years, General Sharon, acting less like minister of agriculture and more like colonial secretary, has orchestrated the quadrupling of the West Bank’s Jewish settler population, which now stands at about 21,000. He has funneled millions of dollars to build facilities for Jewish settlement—roads, housing, water supply, and so forth—and has recently spent about $10 million more without securing authorization from government budget committees. Meanwhile, the settlers have been allowed to organize their own military units and are heavily armed in their new collectives—i.e., Karnei, Shomron, Ofra, and others that have been placed close to the most heavily populated Arab cities of Hebron, Nablus, and Jenin.

The Ramallah lawyer Aziz Shekhadeh, a man of great courage and moderation who supported the Sadat initiative in the face of PLO opposition, told me recently that he fears the Israeli Power Corporation will soon take over the old Jordanian Jerusalem Electric Company and merge it with Israel’s grid. His son, Raja, also a lawyer, has prepared a brief in which he charges that it is now possible, according to the ordinances of the military government, for “Israeli settlements and any other body of which the military Government approves to expropriate land quietly without having to go through the requirements of announcing their intentions or obtaining the permission of nonmilitary bodies.”6 Raja Shekhadeh’s fears may be exaggerated in view of earlier Israeli Supreme Court decisions which have impeded some land expropriation, but thousands of dunams of what the Israeli authorities call “state land”—really miri lands which were not considered in the public domain under Jordanian law—have been confiscated. Such actions have depressed the West Bank economy; about 260,000 Arabs have left between 1968 and 1980.7

Moreover, the integration of the West Bank into Israel’s political economy is proceeding swiftly. The West Bank imports more from Israel than anywhere else and in 1979 ran a trade deficit of approximately $49 million. Seventy thousand West Bank workers earn their livings in the Jewish state without trade-union protection. Meron Benvenisti, a former vice mayor of Jerusalem, has recently issued a report which charges that the economic integration of the area into Israel is approaching what it might be if the West Bank were annexed politically.

The new mayor of Hebron, Mustafa Abdul Nabi Natshe, shares Benvinisti’s apprehensions; he told me that only about 10 percent of the teachers and civil servants in the West Bank still remain on the Jordanian payroll. But the process of political repression has, in Natshe’s view, gone “from bad to worse,” and this seems to him a much more serious obstacle to future relations between Israelis and resident Palestinians who, Natshe insists, would otherwise want to push the PLO toward a political settlement. His predecessor, Faid Kawassmeh, was widely viewed as a moderate with good connections in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He secured a $10 million grant from the Saudis to improve Hebron’s municipal facilities but he was summarily deported after some terrorists attacked and killed a group of Jewish settlers in Hebron last year. Since then all political meetings have been banned, a far cry from the atmosphere immediately after the announcement of the Camp David agreement.

Even throwing rocks is now met with harsh police action. A young boy was shot and killed in a melee after he threw rocks in a refugee camp north of Hebron just three weeks ago. This is not to say the military government is without sensible fears of its own but to stress that the political tension is reaching a critical point and that the leaders of the West Bank—mayors, university teachers, lawyers, and so on—are now more committed than ever before to PLO leadership. Several of them told me that Begin’s reelection will precipitate an eventual uprising. Some of this may be bluster; but Rafik Halabi, Israeli television’s West Bank correspondent whom Sharon has tried to have fired repeatedly for reporting West Bank events in an even-handed manner,8 told me that he now meets with hostility in many places which formerly welcomed him warmly. He does not dare to enter any of the Jewish settlements.

Gush Emunim settlers meanwhile continue to expand their footholds in the West Bank, the latest in the ruin of the Avram Avinu synagogue within the Hebron casbah, and in the Beit Hadassah Hospital, where a naïve twenty-year-old woman from Brooklyn explained to me and other reporters9 how she and her fellows were “touched by the hand of God.” To build a Jewish quarter in Hebron is, true enough, no offense against civil liberty so long as the settlers are prepared to abide by the laws of the majority. But, as she quickly told me, this is not the point: “The Arabs must learn that we rule here.” And, although she claims her comrades would never fire at other Jews, one cannot help wondering if Sharon has already set the stage for civil war or for rampant vigilantism against the Arab community.

Should Sharon become Begin’s defense minister, the Arabs of the West Bank would have that young woman’s point driven home even more clearly than during the last four years. The budget and other means of Sharon’s agriculture ministry pale next to those at the disposal of the ministry of defense. Granted, many old liberals in the Likud and most of the army’s senior staff officers despise Sharon for his megalomania and also for his attempts to squeeze more money out of the defense budget by charging the General Staff with wastefulness. Begin, no doubt, would like to retain the ministry for himself, or hand it to Moshe Arens. But Sharon’s vote may now be enough to bring any new Likud coalition down, and no one doubts that he would threaten to do this in order to take over the defense ministry. Tehiya might well make Sharon’s appointment a condition for allowing Begin an initial vote of confidence.

The rejectionism of the PLO is no better than Sharon’s but it may become beside the point if the Israeli government continues to try to solve its problems by annexation when it should be facing the possibilities of partition. In five years there may be nothing more to talk about, no way to draw national boundaries between Israeli and Palestinian populations. And it would be vain to assume that Palestinian young people will meanwhile sit on their hands. Caches of arms are regularly discovered on the West Bank. Who knows how much is not detected, or how many thousands of Israeli troops it would take to put down Palestinian rioting should this become more widespread? Shimon Peres would, at least, quickly halt settlement in the heart of Arab concentrations of population and has indicated a willingness to negotiate genuine autonomy arrangements on the Gaza Strip as a first step.

Still, Begin’s misguided policies may put him on a collision course with the Reagan administration regardless of the president’s campaign denial that the West Bank settlements are illegal. Members of Reagan’s inner circle—e.g., Edwin Meese and Caspar Weinberger—are strongly committed to the defense and interests of the Arab regimes in the Gulf—particularly to Saudi Arabia, Incorporated. They are also keen to develop a network of anti-Soviet alliances in the Middle East led by Egypt, where the US already has about 4,000 military personnel and over a billion dollars in new investments. But Weinberger and George Shultz, who is also said to be respected by Reagan, have, by the way, long been involved with the Bechtel Corporation, a contracting firm that has built military bases and other facilities for the Saudis, and Weinberger is known to be intent particularly on beefing up America’s rapid deployment force, which will need even more Gulf bases.

The California corporate executives who have strongly backed Reagan are well aware of the extent to which the Sun Belt economy depends on further sales of high technology military and aviation hardware to Arab states. Will a Republican president risk ruining relations with such good clients in order to appease the family of the young woman from Brooklyn? These are, of course, bad reasons to stop Begin from continuing a policy of West Bank annexation. But most Israeli moderates I have talked to here seem in despair about the Begin government and look to the US to get tough with it. They are deeply worried that if, following this election, the West Bank is absorbed into Israel, their country’s claims to be a democratic society would be extremely difficult to defend. They are more worried that their children will die in a futile war.

Amos Elon, Israel’s leading political columnist, and many other moderate Israelis bluntly expressed the hope that American Jews will hold their peace if Reagan puts pressure on Begin to stop West Bank settlements and negotiate seriously on the Palestinian issue. Elon believes that “on the whole, the impact of American Jews on Israel has been destructive.” He might have added that, in attempting to shield Begin from American government reservations regarding annexationist policies, American Jewish leaders have only weakened their ability to join other American liberals in preventing sales of murderous arms to Arab countries: according to Leonard Fine, the editor of the liberal American Jewish magazine Moment, Max Fisher—a former chairman of the American Governors of the Jewish Agency and “arguably, the most powerful Jew in America”10—softened his opposition to the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia in order not to allow an open split to develop between the Jewish community and the Reagan administration over Middle East policy. Fisher, it seems, was reassured by Reagan’s promise to impose a “military balance” between Israel and its neighbors. Elon would rather have Reagan impose peace by stopping the integration of the West Bank into Israel before it is too late.

July 8

Letters

Reagan and the “New” Israel November 19, 1981

  1. 1

    See my report on that election in The New York Review of Books, June 23, 1977.

  2. 2

    See Yediot Aharonot, June 26, 1981.

  3. 3

    The Haifa University sociologist Shlomo Swirsky has acutely criticized the “modernization” doctrines used in Israel.

  4. 4

    It should be said that many other European Jews in Israel will not draw such facile political conclusions from recent Jewish catastrophes. The most described play this season is “Purim Party of the Son of a Dog,” adapted from Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, which attempts to deal forthrightly with the madness that the Holocaust experience has induced in some survivors.

  5. 5

    See Dayan’s new book, Breakthrough (Knopf, 1981), chapter 5.

  6. 6

    The West Bank and the Rule of Law, a study commissioned by the International Commission of Jurists, 1980, p. 108.

  7. 7

    See Adnan Abu Odeh, “Jordan and the Middle East Crises,” Foreign Policy & Defense Review, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, vol. III, No. 1, 1981, p. 11.

  8. 8

    Halabi, by the way, fears that there will be a “house cleaning” in the television news department if Begin forms a new government. The Israeli press has already charged that Begin intends to put Israeli television under the supervision of the prime minister’s office.

  9. 9

    See Anthony Lewis’s column in The New York Times, July 5.

  10. 10

    Moment, June 1981.

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