Israel: The Divisions of ‘Unity’

Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres; drawing by David Levine

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.


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…

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