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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.”

2.

By the beginning of August, public expressions of support for “unity” had become irresistible and Peres gave in to them. So did the Israeli president, Chaim Herzog, a former Labor politician, who asked Peres to work out a reciprocal coalition with Shamir. Although they started to negotiate, the party leaders, in fact, began to work to deny each other a parliamentary majority—not because they had changed their minds about joint rule, but because it was not clear to anyone, Herzog included, which party controlled the most seats from among the splinter parties, hence which man should become prime minister. By the end of August—after innumerable bargaining sessions and back-room deals—Peres and Shamir, remarkably, each controlled blocs of exactly sixty seats. The more closely one looked, the more irreconcilable those blocs seemed.

The Labor Alignment included Mapam, which represented mainly the left-wing socialist kibbutzim and consistently supported a policy of magnanimity toward the Palestinians. Peres also allied Labor with the two civil rights lists led by Amnon Rubenstein and Shulamit Aloni, both concerned to protect secular civil life from religious control. Peres got the support of former Likud defense minister Ezer Weizman, who claimed he had returned to politics to revive the “peace process” with Egypt and Jordan. Peres was even willing to rely on the tacit parliamentary support of the Communist party, and the new Progressive List for Peace and Freedom.

For his part, Shamir made an alliance with the five Tehiya deputies, who represented the neo-“Zionist” ideology of the West Bank settlers—the belief that military force should be used ruthlessly to consolidate “Eretz Yisrael.” He won the support of all religious deputies, including four from Shas, and two even more strident messianists of the Morasha party. Only the National Religious Party leadership negotiated seriously with Labor, though its younger leaders insisted on an alliance with Likud.

Along with most other politicians, Shamir condemned the election of Kahane; but the Likud leaders, especially Sharon, were willing to count on Kahane’s vote. Indeed, Sharon kept his position in the Likud hierarchy by mobilizing the support of extreme Herut voters, though he is more committed to his own huge ambitions than to any Biblical version of Israel. During the campaign Sharon crisscrossed the country, unaccompanied by any of Likud’s managers, and drew enormous crowds chanting “Arik! Arik!” Shamir invited Sharon to join Likud’s negotiating team.

A new election seemed inevitable yet neither Peres nor Shamir saw any advantage in having one. They began to meet privately. At the beginning of September they announced that they had finally agreed on a formula for sharing power. Labor and Likud would contribute ten ministers each to an inner cabinet of twenty, which would have final authority on all matters of diplomacy and defense—though the government’s first concern would be to do something about the deteriorating economy.

Apart from the inner group, where there would be absolute parity, some thirty deputies would have ministerial rank, including three ministers from the religious parties. The government was to last fifty months; Peres would assume the prime minister’s job first, while Shamir would be deputy prime minister and foreign minister; after twenty-five months, the leaders would exchange positions.

The announcement surprised and excited Israelis. The deadlock had been frustrating, the negotiations distasteful, accompanied as they were by rumors that made the back-room dealings sound like a political auction. By this time it seemed fair, if oddly contradictory, that Labor and Likud would each retain a veto over the other’s most intransigent policies. Labor could block Likud’s demand for more West Bank settlements in places heavily populated by Palestinian Arabs, though Peres agreed to some five more settlements in places that would not, he said, impede Labor’s strategy of “territorial compromise” with Jordan. Likud could stop Peres from making concessions to Jordan, though not from inviting Hussein to negotiate “without preconditions.”

Still, Labor had won greater authority in security matters, since Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin was chosen for the defense ministry for the entire life of the government. Under Rabin would be a Likud deputy minister; but Labor’s Haim Bar-Lev would be minister of police. Correspondingly, Labor seemed preeminent in cultural affairs, since Yitzhak Navon got the ministry of education. What Likud acquired was greater control over economic policy, notwithstanding its disastrous inflation of the economy, often for its own political advantage. The finance ministry went to the liberal leader in the Likud, Yitzhak Modai, while Sharon—who criticized Shamir for conceding the position of prime minister to Peres—was appointed minister of trade and commerce. Other Likud politicians were appointed ministers of science and development, and of tourism. A new ministry of “economic planning,” with vague jurisdiction, was created for Labor’s shadow finance minister, Gad Yaacobi.

3.

In putting together the “unity” coalition, Peres and Shamir saved their political careers. Peres had been a less popular Labor politician than Rabin and Navon; now, according to the most recent polls, 40 percent of Israelis want him for prime minister, more than four times the number before the unity deal. On the other side, Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, Likud’s most powerful politician from the second Israel, have openly competed to replace Shamir. Even after the deal was announced, they demanded that further cabinet appointments be made not by Shamir, but by secret ballot in Herut; Shamir defeated them.

Yet aside from personal ambition and a fear of political deadlock, Shamir and Peres may have more in common than either has with any of the more extreme ideological parties that backed them—including the small parties that have come to seem the consciences of the bigger ones but were left out of the coalition. The zealots of Tehiya refused to enter a government with Labor. Peres, for his part, was willing to enter a coalition without Mapam, whose six members broke from the Alignment and went into opposition with Aloni and the leader of Labor’s doves, Yossi Sarid.

Before the election, Peres told Time that he wanted Israel to be “socially, like a kibbutz.” But since the 1950s, when he was Ben-Gurion’s favorite technocrat in the defense ministry, Peres has stood for values that are opposed to the old kibbutz vision. With Moshe Dayan, Peres called for market efficiency, meritocracy, urban development, and an end to the domination of collectivist ideals in Israeli society.

In 1965, at Ben-Gurion’s request, Peres and Dayan became leaders of the Rafi party, which broke away from Labor for reasons that may seem remote today but reflect ways of thinking that are still pertinent. Like Herut and the Liberal party—though not in alliance with them—the Rafi leaders wanted to challenge the deeply embedded power and state syndicalist ideology both of Histadrut and the Mapai, which had been taken over by Levi Eshkol, Pinchas Sapir, and Golda Meir. They had mounted an attack against Pinchas Lavon, the head of the Histadrut, until a scandal gave Ben-Gurion the opportunity to remove him—an action that caused a greater scandal. Rafi leaders saw in the Israel Defense Forces, and the defense bureaucracies and industries supporting them, the modernizing dynamism that was needed to assimilate hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from North Africa. They favored taking hard action toward the Arab world, along the lines of the Sinai campaign of 1956.

More recently, Peres has spoken of compromise with the Arabs. But his first goal, he has said, is maintaining the IDF’s technological edge over the hostile Arab states. He has also written enthusiastically about the coming of postindustrial society, of robotics, automation, of Israel’s potential role as a retailer of services to Europe, including software and medical care.6 To counter Mapam’s threat to leave the Alignment, Peres maintained Labor’s arithmetical parity with Likud by absorbing Ezer Weizman’s three Knesset members, and Yigal Hurwitz, the former Likud finance minister who had opposed the Camp David accords. Hurwitz had been a close associate of Dayan; and like Peres—and Yitzhak Navon and Gad Yaacobi—he had been a supporter of Rafi.

Peres has had a longstanding feud with Rabin and has tried to cultivate such Israeli writers as Yehoshua. But Peres clearly seems drawn to men with Rabin’s military background—such as Yaacobi, Chaim Bar-Lev, Mota Gur, the new minister of health, and “Abrasha” Tamir, a major general who left a high position as a strategic planner to join with Ezer Weizman and who will now direct the prime minister’s office.

Indeed, Peres’s replacement of Mapam with Rafi people and former military men suggests that his coalition with Shamir may prove a resilient one. Peres, Rabin, and Weizman all worked with Shamir during the many years he commanded a branch of the Mosad, the Israeli intelligence apparatus. Peres collaborated with Shamir’s former defense minister, Moshe Arens, to found the huge Israeli aircraft industry. Though it will cost the Israeli government another half-billion dollars, both Peres and Arens want to go ahead with development of the “Lavi” fighter. Correspondingly, Rabin and Weizman have been curiously close to Sharon, who served with them in the general staff. Modai, too, comes from the army, as does the popular Likud mayor of Tel Aviv, Shlomo Lahat. Shared backgrounds, of course, do not determine political moves. One can expect much backbiting, disagreement, and jockeying for position among all these men. But of the new government’s principal ministers only David Levy, who comes from a Sephardi development town and made a success as a building contractor, seems the product of the Likud’s grass-roots politics.

Israel’s military-industrial bureaucracy currently employs about 25 percent of the country’s industrial work force and accounts for some 16 percent of its exports.7 Labor’s top men have been at its center since the 1960s, and have much experience in common with Likud’s current leadership. Few of the latter have shared much with the Herut rank and file, who increasingly tend to be workers foremen, small businessmen, usually of Sephardi origins. The key ministers from both parties may prove more pragmatically “statist,” in the mold of Rafi, than deeply committed to any “Greater Israel” ideology.

If not for shared political and economic assumptions, how could they have come to terms so quickly on the tough monetarist policies which Modai unveiled the day after the government was sworn in? These included radical cuts of subsidies on essential commodities, the banning of luxury imports—cars, stereos, liquor—for six months, higher unemployment in the public sector, and a virtual end to government funding of new West Bank settlements.

On November 4, with the agreement of the Histadrut and the Association of Manufacturers, the government took further action to reduce the rate of inflation, currently 25 percent a month. For the next three months wages and prices will be frozen and all prices will have to be fixed in shekels, not dollars. Because the government will continue to spend beyond its means—it now employs some 35 percent of Israeli workers—inflationary pressures will build at the rate of about 10 percent a month, although their effects will not be registered until February. The Histadrut has conceded that, by then, workers will make up only about 80 percent of the erosion of their salaries caused by inflation.

Drastic as these measures would seem to Americans, they may not be harsh enough to shift workers from the government payroll to export industries that require more specialized skills. Such reputable economists as Meir Merhav of the Jerusalem Post have called for adopting the dollar as the official Israeli currency. For his part, Modai has spoken of a further 25-percent reduction in government spending, which would lead to much higher unemployment—though not as high as what adopting the dollar would bring. The government’s caution is understandable. General unemployment would lead to higher Jewish emigration and greater Arab restiveness. Nor would a more severe reduction in spending do much to balance the budget in view of the higher unemployment benefits that would have to be paid.

The unity government’s cautiousness cannot be blamed on a disagreement between Labor and Likud. Since the government was formed, the ministers who have most openly criticized Modai’s economic policy are David Levy and Moshe Katzav, Likud’s young minister of labor and social affairs—himself from the second Israel. Levy and Katzav have accused Peres of indifference to the effects of austerity on the poor, who will now be unable to afford apartments or find jobs. The criticism, no doubt, strikes Labor leaders as hypocritical. But it may insulate the Likud from the consequences of the Begin government’s recklessness, and help preserve for the Likud its image as defender of the common man.

As the austerity measures become harsher, Levy and Katzav, as well as Sharon, could pose a deep threat to Peres. “The possibility remains,” one close observer of Israeli politics told me, “that Peres will come to appear as a sort of Ramsay MacDonald. Some of the Labor politicians would have preferred to let the Likud form a narrow government and take the consequences of cleaning up the economic mess it created. Now Levy and Sharon and their followers, the hard core of the Herut party, can attempt to dissociate themselves from the policies of Modai, a Liberal, and Shamir, whom they see as a has-been, and above all Peres, who will have to accept responsibility for unemployment. Peres has saved his position for the time being and he may get credit for taking charge at a difficult moment; but he may also have played into the hands of the Herut populists: no one should underestimate their ability to mobilize angry workers against Peres’s leadership and discredit Labor.”

It remains to be seen whether Shamir is indeed a has-been. The night of the election, using the old Herut rhetoric, he denounced the Labor opposition as “defeatist.” But that denunciation might have been as mechanical as Peres’s saying he wanted Israel to be socially a kibbutz. For Shamir and Arens, building the IDF has been the culmination of Jabotinsky’s dreams—not annexation of the West Bank. It was Shamir’s government, after all, that uncovered and indicted the Jewish terrorist underground. One of Israel’s leading military correspondents, Eitan Haber of Yedioth Aharonoth, told me that the army’s general staff under Arens had become far less mired in politics than it was under Sharon and the former chief of staff—now a leader of Tehiya—Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan.

Immediately after Kahane’s election, Arens’s chief education officer in the army announced an emergency program to teach recruits about the “virtues of democracy.” “Raful,” who has been openly bigoted toward Palestinians, had ordered courses on “Zionism” and the “love of ‘Eretz Yisrael.’ ” Perhaps because of such changes, Gush Emunim, the Jewish settlers’ organization, has concluded that even with Sharon in the government there is a potential for genuine cooperation between Labor and Likud, which would result in diminished government support for West Bank settlements.

Sharon’s ministry can, and likely will, authorize many private development projects on the West Bank, where much of the land is privately owned. Still, a leader of Gush Emunim, Elyakim Ha’etzni, greeted the formation of the coalition with the announcement that his movement will revert to tactics for illegal settlement that Zionist pioneers had used under the British mandate—tactics the Gush Emunim actually used against Rabin’s government in the 1970s.

4.

One useful result of the unity government is that threats of this kind are not taken as seriously as they would be under a narrow Labor coalition. But Ha’etzni’s warning suggests how characterless Israel’s two major political parties have become and how much they are concerned to appeal to a broad Israeli public that is increasingly urban, youthful, influenced by television, tending to concentrate more on short-term economic or diplomatic gains than on grandiose ideas of extending the reach of “Zionism.” In the cities, Tehiya’s exhortations to settle in holy land are becoming as irrelevant to middle-class Israeli families—whether of Sephardi or European origin—as Mapam’s Labor Zionism of agricultural collectives and dedicated socialist schools.

The Mapam defectors from the Alignment, however, are justifiably concerned that a unity government will preserve a state of affairs that is more congenial to Likud’s most strident supporters than to Labor’s most moderate ones. Whatever may become of the ideal of Greater Israel, the fact of a greater Israel has persisted since 1967. The unity government gives no promise of fundamental change; its main immediate effect is a new atmosphere of hope that the country’s divisiveness, which the elections only confirmed, will not now lead to riots among Israelis who have the deepest sense of grievance—among West Bank settlers, say, or in poorer quarters and hinterland towns. The uncertainty about how the government’s economic policy will work has dimmed that hope somewhat. Still, Davar’s Jerusalem bureau chief Danny Rubinstein told me, Peres and Shamir will find it increasingly impolitic for either of them to be the one responsible for breaking up the coalition.

Under the Likud, Israeli Arabs have lost ground while the Orthodox Jewish rabbis and religious parties have gained. By manipulating the public education law, the former education minister, the National Religious Party leader Zevulun Hammer, set up some twenty Orthodox national schools. He revised the curriculum to encourage Orthodox thinking. Begin’s government gave greater scope for Orthodox law in civil courts, enacting laws against autopsies, for example. The unity government will keep all these changes intact. There is no prospect that civil marriage or divorce will be allowed in Israel.

The unity government leaders may agree to reform the electoral system in a way that will diminish the influence of the small religious parties. They could raise the minimum proportion of the vote necessary to enter the Knesset to, say, 4 percent, which would shut out Kahane and force all religious politicians into one camp. But a consolidated religious bloc in the Knesset would, in all likelihood, support the Likud. Navon may well call a halt to religious encroachments on secular education. But rule over 1.5 million Arabs is itself a kind of education for young Israelis and one over which he has no control.

During the campaign, I visited the development town of Yoqne’am Illit, in the Valley of Jazrael. Yoqne’am’s residents are largely North African immigrant families, who work in Haifa or in the well-to-do kibbutzim nearby, or in the ammunition factory that the state set up there. An armored infantry base is a mile away. Labor’s big rally was to take place that night with a speech by Navon, Labor’s most prominent Sephardi politician. Yoqne’am’s residents welcomed Navon enthusiastically when he was president of the state. Would they welcome him as a representative of the Labor Alignment?

Look how they humiliated Navon,” a young man said to me. “First he was president, then they made him nothing, number three.” Who, I asked, were “they”? Alignment types—“Ma’arachniks“—the Ashkenazim, the well educated, such as the members of the neighboring kibbutzim who once every four years—during an election campaign—turn out to demonstrate along the Yoqne’am roads. “Look at their demonstrations during the war,” he went on. “Their signs were always full of English. What for? To embarrass the state in front of the Americans. If you had a wife and she publicly embarrassed you, would you keep her?”

He had read the Bible. He interpreted it as prohibiting the return of any part of “Eretz Yisrael.” “They’d give up the patrimony to others, like wicked brothers. They love the Arabs more than their own.”

That night, a group from the high school came out to heckle Navon. I took a seat in the stands next to them, accompanied by an old friend who was born in a Mapai farming community nearby. My friend had had almost nothing to do with the Oriental Jewish town, though his daughter had just married an Iraqi boy she had met at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He told me that the over-valued shekel, which Likud had subsidized and with which Yoqneam’s residents had imported cars and television sets, had forced his neighbors to pull up and burn their orchards. Their crops could not be exported.

Navon came to the podium, clapping his hands to the Labor campaign jingle—a tune curiously like melodies to be found in the Sephardi liturgy. He started badly. Labor people, he said, had “opened the gates” to North African immigrants. The students took this as a provocation. “Who else would have done your dirty jobs,” a young man yelled back. Navon had doubtless heard this many times before but it seemed to rattle him nevertheless. He was talking about the events of thirty years ago, Likud had governed for seven; why did these young people believe that Labor was still “Ha’mimsad,” the establishment?

In fact, Israel’s biggest industrialists—including David Moshevitz of Elite, and Uri Bernstein of Amcor, both prominent in the Association of Manufacturers—strongly supported the Labor party in these elections. Though the Labor Alignment appointed Israel Kessar, a Sephardi, as head of the Histadrut, the managers of Histadrut-owned industry—which still accounts for some 25 percent of GNP—have done little to dispel the idea that Labor’s method of “socialist” development during the 1950s and 1960s became corrupted by patronage, by favors for “them,” and discrimination against the Sephardi immigrants. (Just as the campaign was getting under way last June, Yaacov Levison, the former chairman of Bank Hopolalim—the Histadrut’s most glamorous and profitable operation—killed himself in the middle of a Histadrut investigation into his affairs. In his suicide note Levison maintained his innocence and accused his colleagues of untold deceptions.)

Navon tried a different tack. As president, he grandly confided, he had met with Argentina’s Raúl Alfonsín and they had talked about whose country’s currency was losing value faster. “Argentinians count their money in the millions,” Navon exclaimed. To which the young woman next to me responded mockingly, “You see, this is an international phenomenon!”

A boy of about eighteen interrupted Navon. Why had he called Arabs “brothers” in a television campaign spot? Why did he love the Arabs? Navon’s face turned red. “What geniuses you are! What diplomats!” Navon shouted in our direction. “Can’t you understand simple arithmetic? Why, the very point of Labor’s Zionist program is to have as much land as possible and as few Arabs as possible!”

My friend from the Mapai farm, who was appalled by the shouting, was hearing Navon make a familiar argument—for something like the Allon Plan for “territorial compromise” with Jordan. But had these young people heard what he had heard? During his childhood, there was the struggle against fascism; during theirs, the wars of 1967 and 1973 and the struggle against Palestinian terrorism. When I talked to some of them later, Navon’s reply only seemed to confirm their belief that the West Bank should be annexed and its residents expelled. Was Kahane, I wondered, doing no more than carrying to its logical extreme what had become the conventional wisdom during the Begin years?

Begin is gone, but not the borders which Likud supporters take for granted as “realistic” and unchangeable. During the election campaign the part simply called itself the “National Camp”—“Ha’machane Ha’leumi“—and defended rule over “Judea and Samaria”; the PLO, scattered by Sharon’s war, was no longer a matter for anxiety. For most young people in Israel, the territories seem as much a part of Israel as Arab Nazareth.

Likud’s vote in the army fell by some 15 percent. But Likud, Tehiya, and Kach together got 45 percent of the vote in the army, 60 percent including the religious parties. Labor and the civil rights parties got about 39 percent. As if to corroborate the trend, a recent study by the Van Leer Jerusalem Foundation found that some 60 percent of Jewish high school students—two-thirds of whom are of Sephardi origin—were unwilling to live in the same building as Arabs, and 40 percent were unwilling even to work with an Arab.8 It is hard to see how the rightist groups will do worse with young voters once the IDF is out of Lebanon.

Young people whose families have been strongly attached to Labor are mean-while confused and demoralized. In Labor youth movements, among the sons and daughters of the left-wing academic activists—even on the kibbutzim—one hears the expression “Ani masea rosh katan“—literally, “I am carrying a small head,” that is, keeping a low profile. This helps to account for last year’s decline of volunteers for elite units and officer training in the army. If one thinks how aware young Israelis have been made of war, Greater Israel, death camps, and the Bible, it is hard to believe they would not eventually want something more stirring from national leaders than Peres’s dream of high technocracy. If the unity government were to fall apart, Sharon’s nationalism and Levy’s populism will seem more powerful attractions.

5.

Peres may still be right that Israel’s leading high-technology industries will respond to a period of strong government. The Haifa-based Elron group projects sales of $350 million this year, $100 million more than last year, and it has even set up a branch plant on Boston’s Route 128. Greater Israel’s population is about five million; its entrepreneurs have capital to invest, and they will likely benefit from the recently negotiated free-trade agreement with the United States. There are many fine universities in Israel, though recent budget cuts have cut into their ability to meet the growing demand for computer engineers.

But Peres’s plan for recovery may lack the political forces to carry it out. Likud, not Rafi, finally emerged as the party to challenge the power of the Histadrut and repudiate the old Mapai’s state socialism. Can a Labor party making itself over in the image of Rafi compete with Likud in the long run? The Likud includes not only technocrats and the older Herut nationalists, but also a young guard of leaders such as Katzav, or Meir Shitrit, the mayor of Yavne. Elections within the Likud have also brought forward Uriel Linn, an impressive young economist whose family emigrated from Morocco.

If they use their power competently, Peres, Rabin, and Navon may increase their personal prestige. If, as expected, there are new elections before the government’s term expires, Peres might be a more popular candidate running as the prime minister, which is precisely why Sharon opposed the deal. But Labor is short of new leaders who can make the case for civil rights and territorial compromise to the new Israel. Jealous of its power, the central committee of the Labor party has blocked the advance of such prominent liberal academics as Shlomo Avineri and Zeev Sternhel. Labor’s most promising Sephardi intellectual, Shlomo Ben-Ami, has become estranged from the party.

The youthful head of the Jerusalem branch of the Labor party, Uzi Baram—the son of the former head of the Jerusalem branch, Moshe Baram—told me that the decision-making apparatus should be “opened up.” Perhaps, he said, Labor should adopt an internal primary system like the Likud’s, in order to elect Knesset members from the rank and file.9

Reform is all the more necessary, other Labor insiders told me, since elections to the Histadrut general council are coming up next year. However embarrassing Labor’s connection to such powerful Histadrut corporations as Bank Hapolalim or Koor may be, they have been important in financing the party’s organization and electoral campaigns. Labor’s control of the unions, moreover, provides the party with its main base from which to sustain and possibly increase its appeal to Israeli workers. Kessar may turn out to be more effective than Navon in bringing Oriental Jewish voters back to Labor. Still, David Levy and his Likud followers will pose a strong challenge to Labor if unemployment is high. A takeover of the Histadrut by the Likud would be a strong sign that Peres’s gamble on “unity” had failed.

Would the party reform itself while its established leadership is firmly in government? This seems doubtful. Raising the minimum vote necessary for entering the Knesset will only strengthen the party bureaucrats. It will discourage the formation of smaller parties, such as the one Shulamit Aloni organized in 1973 to challenge Golda Meir. Ruling with the Likud for a while still may be the most dramatic way for the workers’ party to restore a measure of legitimacy among Israel’s have-nots.

6.

By November it seemed clear that Labor and the Likud were willing to agree on a policy of withdrawal from southern Lebanon, with UN forces having a part in the arrangements for peace keeping. How, during the coming months, will the unity government approach the question of the West Bank? Peres and Rabin clearly favor territorial compromise, but have committed themselves to achieving a consensus with the Likud. Moshe Arens, who remains influential as the head of an inner cabinet coordinating committee, has often said that he favors annexation of the West Bank only because he would rather fight for “pluralism” in Greater Israel than fight terrorism from a smaller Israel. Does this mean that he and other Likud military technocrats might be more open to a negotiation with Jordan?

I asked Arens this summer how he could square pluralism with Israeli rule over 1.5 million more Arabs. His answer, I suspect, is the one we will hear more and more often. The West Bank Arabs, he said, don’t present a problem essentially different than Israeli Arabs. “In either case, we must make it our business to be more open and pluralistic—though the effort could take a generation; they don’t want us here.”

Eventually, he said, the Israeli Arabs would have to be brought into the army. But he could not say when:

The younger generation of Arabs has undergone a process of ‘Israelization.’ The same is true around Jerusalem. They have mastered Hebrew, want to be accepted and enjoy equality before the law. But nothing much can be done during a state of war. We have started by widening the circles of opportunity for minorities such as the Druze in the army.”

Some unpleasant questions lie beneath that reasonable-sounding talk. The Druze are recruited mainly for the border patrol, which is trained to keep the larger Muslim Arab community in line. And if “Israelization” means accepting Israel as a secular, Hebrew democracy, then what about all the young Jews who seem drawn to theocratic ideas—and the near majority who say they don’t want to work with Arabs? Can Israeli Jews hope to develop a common language with Israeli Arabs so long as the country maintains an occupation of a million more Palestinians?

We are a nation still dragging our roots around with us,” he told me. “There may be more elegant laws than, say, the Law of Return, but this is still necessary so long as we provide a haven—for Russian Jews and others. We must rule out a return of territory so long as security is paramount. The Arabs would destroy us if they could. The Middle East is a dangerous place: look at what has happened to Lebanon.”

Arens agreed that Israeli action in Lebanon has hardly made the region less dangerous, that the Shi’ite population has become inflamed against the Jewish state. In view of his concern for pluralism, I asked, would he favor negotiating with Jordan over the West Bank if Hussein’s regime showed itself more flexible, liberal, attached to the West? “Absolutely!” he replied. He looked at me as if I were out of my mind.

Shimon Peres may be more sincere about the values of pluralism and is, in any case, more enthusiastic about negotiating with Jordan—though his views seemed identical to those of Arens when he served as Rabin’s defense minister between 1974 and 1977. In 1982, however, Peres supported the Reagan plan and condemned Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank for the way it stifled development of the impoverished regions in Israel itself, particularly in the Galilee. Rabin has been even more forthright since becoming defense minister. In a private meeting with Gush Emunim settlers, Rabin warned them against any form of vigilante activity. Rabin may still have to deal with more such episodes as the recent rocket attack on an Arab bus in retaliation for the killing of a Jewish couple the previous week.

Sadly, however, the distinction between Peres’s enthusiasm for an arrangement with Jordan and Arens’s skepticism about it may not have much political importance today, though it might have made a difference when Sadat went to Jerusalem. Hussein has boldly reestablished diplomatic relations with Egypt. But the Hashemite regime is dependent on the Gulf states which have already cut his $1.2 billion subsidy in half this year. To make peace with Israel, Hussein needs not only the reassurance from Israel of a freeze on settlements—which the unity government has not given him—but also some indication that Israel will permit Jordan to reestablish Arab sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem. In short, Hussein wants a virtual guarantee that peace talks, once started, will succeed.10 Peres’s Labor party is uncompromising with regard to Jerusalem. His call to Hussein to negotiate directly “without preconditions,” reminiscent of Golda Meir’s, will most likely lead to further stalemate; predictably, Hussein has already rejected it, although secret contacts with the Israelis continue.

The United States may intervene with some new plan for indirect negotiations. A senior planner at the State Department told me that the US may try to revive negotiations for an agreement on disengagement of forces between Jordan and Israel—like the one that nearly came about in 1974. Peres could probably muster a narrow Knesset majority for an interim settlement, especially if the US government made it clear that economic assistance will be coordinated with a comprehensive American Middle East policy. Some of the Liberals in the Likud—Arye Dulzin, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Menachem Savidor, the former Knesset speaker, Shlomo Lahat—have already called for a split with Herut. But like Israeli voters, the Reagan administration has been more concerned that the Israeli government solve its economic difficulties than risk any peace initiative.

That seems shortsighted. National unity certainly has advantages for Israel, and the country’s possibilities for economic growth may, in another generation, make the divisions of 1984 seem as out-of-date as Ben-Gurion’s Mapai. Yet Ben-Gurion’s plan to partition the land is not less vital for Israeli democracy than before, and the Israelis of the coming generation seem less open both to partition and to democracy than their parents were. That may prove a greater tragedy for Zionism than six wars.

  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.

  6. 6

    See Peres’s contribution to Israel Toward the 21st Century (in Hebrew; Jerusalem: The Van Leer Jerusalem Foundation, 1984).

  7. 7

    Yoram Peri and Amnon Neubach, “The Military-Industrial Complex in Israel,” published by the International Center for Middle East Peace (Tel Aviv).

  8. 8

    See Alouph Hareven’s study in Every Sixth Israeli, Hareven, ed. (Jerusalem: The Van Leer Jerusalem Foundation, 1983).

  9. 9

    Peres is known to favor a new electoral system along Scandinavian lines, by which the country would be divided into three-member constituencies. Younger people who were elected would not be so tied to the party apparat. The plan suggests Peres’s capacity for fresh thinking; but since it would antagonize the NRP, its chances of being adopted by the current Labor leadership are small.

  10. 10

    See my article, “Jordan: Looking for an Opening,” The New York Review, September 27.

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