Israel: The Threat from the Right

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

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

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

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

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

Jabotinsky’s romantic nationalism and brooding sense of Jewry’s doom in Europe (he died in 1940) blended, not always harmoniously, with his abiding admiration for Western modernization and liberalism. The latter aspect of his thought (he had even pressed for the…

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