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Israel: The Divisions of ‘Unity’

For Americans who have been disheartened listening to Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir speak for Israel during the past seven years, the visit of Shimon Peres in October must have been something of a relief. In Washington Peres talked of a plan for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Instead of condemning the United Nations, Peres asked for an expanded peace-keeping force of UNIFIL troops “in order to provide security for Israel’s frontiers.”1 When he spoke to the press about his country’s requests for aid, he said little about Israel’s virtues as an American strategic asset, but emphasized his government’s plans to cut Israel’s budget and imports and increase the productivity of Israeli industry.

When he met with Jewish writers and editors in New York, Peres explained how the new government would improve the “quality of life” on the West Bank and Gaza. Many of the Likud’s former restrictions in the territories would be lifted: an Arab bank would be allowed; nearly all the books that had been banned would be permitted to circulate. The pro-PLO writer Raymonda Tawil would be permitted to publish a magazine.

Peres said that Arab mayors would be appointed for the five Arab towns now run by Israeli army officers—though the mayors who had been fired or deported would not get back their posts. Peres also spoke of accommodation with Jordan, of strategic cooperation with the Hashemite regime. Israel, he said, had “changed its settlements policy.”

Though Peres speaks for a government half of which is composed of ministers from the Likud, he has not made a part of himself over in Begin’s mold. Have the principles of Ben-Gurion’s Labor movement outlasted the Likud? Just forming a “unity coalition” has given the Israeli government an ability to tackle problems that seemed beyond reach only three months ago. Does this mean that Israel can be expected to solve its deepest problem—its conflict with Palestinians and Arab states? The answers lie in the story of how the coalition came about, and how it has been working.

1.

Two weeks before the July 23 elections, when Shamir surprised Peres with an invitation to form a “national unity government,” Peres dismissed the suggestion as a publicity stunt. Shamir was then trailing badly in the polls. The Likud government had started a questionable war and had obviously mismanaged the government’s budget. Likud was running without any help from Begin himself. Shamir had been severely criticized by both major newspapers, Ma’ariv and Yedioth Aharonoth. Labor was united, well financed, and tightly organized; the long feud between Peres and Yitzhak Rabin was submerged.

Peres confidently replied to Shamir that a coalition of the major parties would undermine the parliamentary system. The very idea offended some Labor supporters. When Revisionist Zionist politicians from Jabotinsky to Begin have called for national unity, they usually meant their ideal of a militant corporate state.

The day after the elections, however, left-wing writers including A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz published a statement endorsing Shamir’s offer. What liberal convictions could not justify, Yehoshua wrote, Israeli voters had made necessary. Of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Labor won forty-four, a plurality, but only three more than the Likud won. Two dovish, “civil rights” lists had six seats, while the ultranationalist Tehiya movement won five. The rest of the seats, twenty-four, were divided among thirteen other parties—religious factions, Communists, annexationists, laissez-faire militants. That Labor did not win, Jerusalem’s mayor Teddy Kollek told me, came as a bigger shock than the losses of 1977 and 1981. The alternative to a “unity” government, Yehoshua insisted, would be growing cynicism about democratic process—a “nation torn and split.”

According to a poll in the daily Ha’aretz, 81 percent of Israeli Jews agreed that a unity government should be formed, above all to deal with the collapsing economy. The Gross National Product had not grown for two years.2 Inflation, already at 400 percent, began to climb higher after the election; foreign exchange reserves, already dangerously low, dropped by a third. There had been ninety-three strikes in 1983, causing the loss of an estimated million days of work. Investment of all kinds, even in real estate, had largely ceased; volume on the Israeli stock exchange was down to less than one-sixth of what it had been the year before. Reckoned in dollars, tax collection had dropped by 15 percent.

By the end of July, fearing economic breakdown, Israelis converted some 300 billion more shekels into 900 million US dollars. As soon as the vote was counted economists at the ministry of finance, now able to speak freely, warned that any further drop in reserves of hard currency would put in jeopardy Israel’s ability to import grain and fuel. It would also threaten the government’s ability to borrow short-term funds at favorable rates on American capital markets. Larger interest payments would, in turn, augment the foreign debt, which had already reached some $22 billion, nearly 40 percent of the government budget and a major cause of the inflation.

Shamir’s cabinet, acting as a caretaker government, proposed reductions in government spending. But the general secretary of the Histadrut labor federation broke off negotiations with Shamir’s finance minister over a new wage contract for government workers. The Histadrut would consider a wage-price freeze, the secretary announced, but he would not deal with a government that had no authority. In private, he doubted that a narrow Labor-led coalition would have any more authority than the Likud. Could any narrow coalition restrain the unions and reassure industrialists, shop-keepers, or farmers that Israeli money would be worth making?

There was also Lebanon. Contrary to the impression given in the American press, the war itself had not been unpopular. Israeli journalists had mainly turned against Ariel Sharon for the way he had fought it: nearly six hundred Israeli soldiers had been lost since 1982, and many more had joined peace groups in protest. But even after the Kahan commission forced Sharon to leave the defense ministry for his part in the Beirut massacres, some 60 percent of Israelis supported the invasion.3 If asked by the polls, they would say that the PLO was severely weakened.

The occupation of southern Lebanon was something else. Every week, several more Israeli soldiers, including reservists with wives and children, were killed or injured in routine patrols. Many fewer young Israelis than ever before were volunteering for career service or officer training.4 The occupation was costing about one million dollars a day. Israelis wondered if either party would have the courage to pull the Israel Defense Forces from advanced bases in areas dominated by Shi’ite militants. Wouldn’t a narrow Likud government fear the charge of failure, a Labor government the charge of treachery? A few months before the election some 32 percent of Israelis polled by a monthly magazine said they wanted a “government of strong leaders, not beholden to any of the political parties.”5

Liberal critics such as Yehoshua had opposed the war from the start and certainly wanted the IDF brought home. But they could take no comfort from that poll on leadership, and still less from the elections themselves. Meir Kahane’s movement, Kach, for example, drew some 26,000 votes from all segments of the population and double the national average from the army. Not only was Kahane to be a member of the Knesset, but a survey on August 3 revealed that some 15 percent of Jewish Israelis endorsed his idea that Palestinians should be deported to Arab countries and Israeli Arabs induced to emigrate.

Kahane, it could be said, won only 1.2 percent of the vote. His election gave many other right-wing politicians, including Begin, the chance to criticize him for his racism. Yet many knowledgeable Israelis I talked to wondered whether the war against the PLO in Lebanon had irretrievably spoiled relations between Jews and the 600,000 Israeli Arabs. Labor and other moderate Jewish parties campaigned in the Arab sector as never before. But for the first time since the founding of the state, a majority of Arab citizens voted for lists endorsing the establishment of a separate Palestinian state under the PLO. The Communists won four seats, and two were won by the Progressive List for Peace and Freedom, led jointly by Mohamed Mi’ari, a radical Arab lawyer, and Mati Peled, a reserve general who had met with Arafat.

Kahane’s victory also raised doubts about the sympathies of the police. When his followers stormed through the old city of Jerusalem after the election, smashing Arab shops, several border patrol officers were seen embracing them. At subsequent Kahane rallies, police kept order. When he went to open an “emigration office” in the Arab town of Umm-el-Fahm, the police surrounded him. But they arrested only rock-throwing Arabs who, along with hundreds of Jews, protested Kahane’s mischief.

The day after Kahane’s raid on the Old City, a well-known novelist who had been in the Warsaw ghetto told me that the time had come for democrats to take action. She supported Yehoshua’s call for unity and wanted the police to be taken out of the hands of Interior Minister Joseph Burg, the leader of the National Religious Party. Still, she told me, it was time to “bash the heads” of Kahane’s supporters. But who would be bashing whom? The only Jewish Israeli to die at a political rally in the past several years was from “Peace Now”; while West Bank settlers had organized and were supporting a terrorist underground.

Moreover, wasn’t the hostility between the Sephardi, “second” Israel—now the majority—and Israelis from European families such as her own as strong as ever? The campaign was more courteous than in 1981. Still, 70 percent of Sephardi voters supported the parties of the right. Only 60 percent had voted for Likud this time; the claim of the party’s supporters that it could not be stopped from gathering more and more strength among Oriental Jews was shown to be wrong. But Likud’s loss had not been Labor’s gain. Many Sephardi voters now chose the more extreme right-wing parties.

Deteriorating relations between secular and Orthodox Jews only exacerbated ethnic tensions. The largely Sephardi “Shas” religious party—the “keepers of Torah”—had won four seats. Its leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, demanded the release from prison of members of the Jewish terrorist underground, and the exclusion of women from the cabinet. Peretz even expressed warm words for Kahane, who had, meanwhile, dismissed democracy as inconsistent with Jewish Law. There were violent protests in the town of Petah Tiqwa when the Labor mayor tried to allow theaters and restaurants to open on the Sabbath.

To Yehoshua, it seemed that fringe groups of all kinds were ready to drag more moderate people into street violence—and would succeed in doing so if hard times hardened intolerant attitudes. “After the first skirmish,” he told me, “young people start fighting over the last one.”

  1. 1

    See Peres’s interview with Lally Wey-mouth, Los Angeles Times, October 14.

  2. 2

    See my article, “Can Begin Be Stopped?” The New York Review, June 2, 1983.

  3. 3

    Data is taken from Dalia Shekhori’s paper, “Public Attitudes in Israel toward the War in Lebanon,” which she presented to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, February 1984.

  4. 4

    Michael Grati, Ha’aretz, July 26, 1984.

  5. 5

    Monitin, April 1984.

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