The Decline of the Labour Party in Israel

Tal Elmaliach, Hakibbutz Ha’Artzi, Mapam and the Demise of the Israeli Labor Movement, translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2020), 299 pp.
Avi Shilon, The Decline of the Left Wing in Israel: Yossi Beilin and the Politics of the Peace Process, translated from the Hebrew by Ira Moskowitz (London: I. B. Tauris, 2020), 341 pp.

ABSTRACT: The decline of the Labour Party is one of the great mysteries of Israeli politics. From achieving forty-seven seats in the 1981 election, it attained a mere seven seats in the March 2021 election. From being the leading party in the electoral firmament, it is now subservient to the whims of the center and right-wing parties. While outside factors such as globalization and deregulation led to the demise of the command economy and the embrace of capitalism, the blurring of ideology has left Labor in search of an identity. Yet the decline of the Left in general can be traced back to the very beginning of the state — to an infatuation by Mapam with all things Soviet and David Ben-Gurion’s obsession about the Lavon affair. While the Left squabbled internally and fragmented, the Right built bridges and coalesced to eventually become the permanent party of power.

These two books by Tal Elmaliach and Avi Shilon make an invaluable contribution to the relatively abrupt disappearance of long-established parties and treasured views. Elmaliach begins in 1956—the year of Israel’s collusion with the imperial powers during the Suez Campaign and of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin during the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Elmaliach’s focus is essentially on the rise and fall of Mapam and Hakibbutz Ha’artzi — a party that won nineteen seats in the first Israeli election in January 1949 and became the second-largest party after Mapai. Elmaliach’s book is important because it uses the yardstick of economic policy and challenges to party ideology to frame this history. Shilon’s account is based on the archive of Yossi Beilin — often described as Peres’s right-hand man and “the architect of the Oslo Accord.” Beilin’s odyssey relates to the period from the gradual moral and political disintegration of Labor in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 until the onset of the Islamist Al-Aqsa Intifada and the decay of the principles of Oslo under both Kadima and the Likud.
Yet these worthy books provide only a few essential pieces in this jigsaw puzzle. The decline of the Israeli Left is undoubtedly related to the decline of ideology, a malaise that has affected the Left internationally. In Israel it traversed the inspiration of nation-building to a Machiavellian wheeler-dealing that colours today’s politics. It reflects the transition from idealism to materialism, from socialism to progressive capitalism, from collectivism to individualism—and in July 1985 it marked the watershed of the economic stabilization plan to eliminate Weimar-like inflation and the onset of national bankruptcy.
However, this odyssey in a broad sense parallels the history of the Soviet Union from its halcyon days of the October Revolution until it disappeared in a morass of economic chaos and widespread disillusionment in 1991. The inability of socialist ideology to adapt is therefore an important factor in understanding the decline of the Israeli Left. Yossi Beilin and his Mashov group within Labor challenged the territorial maximalism of the veterans from Ahdut Ha’avodah, such as Yisrael Galili after 1973, while Mapam’s young guard took on the pro-Soviet line of Meir Ya’ari and Ya’akov Hazan and its advocacy of democratic centralism after 1967.

For nineteenth-century Jewish socialists, Zionism was not defined by Herzl’s bourgeois Zionism and Viennese liberalism. Indeed, they could look back to Moses Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem (1862) and Nahman Syrkin’s rebuke to Herzl in The Jewish Question and the Socialist Jewish State (1898) shortly after the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Syrkin understood Zionism in broader terms than Herzl. ‘Zionism must necessarily be wedded to socialism if it wants to be the ideal of Israel as a whole, of the Jewish workers, of the Jewish proletariat in all forms, of the middle class, of the intelligentsia and Jewish ideologists.’1
During the interwar period when Zionism was in its infancy, it was coloured by the intellectual desire for cut-and-thrust debate. All Zionist leaders had a plan for the way forward. For the early socialist Zionists ideology was central and dominant. However even for the supporters of Right-wing Zionism, ideology was also important. For example, Jabotinsky’s Revisionists split in 1933 with the emergence of Meir Grossman’s Jewish State party.
External events colored and enabled schism. The Haganah split in 1931 to form Haganah Bet because of the killing of Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed during the Tarpat disturbances of 1929. It became the forerunner of the Irgun in late 1936 due to David Ben-Gurion’s policy of havlagah, national self-restraint in the face of the Arab Revolt. The Irgun itself split in 1940 between those who wished to continuing fighting the British when they were fighting the Nazis — and those who wished to ally themselves with the British Crown in a time of crisis.2
Unlike the British Conservative Party, which has lasted chameleon-like for 300 years, the early Zionists found it difficult to discard ideology for pragmatism. Adhering to the Zionist Left, however, was predicated on the meaning of socialism. Differing interpretations produced different allegiances—and thereby the inherent possibility of schism and split. At its essence interpretation was related to ideology.
The Jewish intellectual desire to embrace brilliant ideas and seductive philosophies proved addictive. Ben-Gurion, however, attempted to bridge the gap between theory and practice. He admired Lenin but opposed Communism.3 Following the October Revolution in 1917, it was not Ber Borokhov to whom Ben-Gurion looked, but Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Ben-Gurion committed his appreciation of the Bolshevik leader to his diary that:

[Lenin’s] penetrating gaze perceives reality as through a clear prism, impeded by no formula, proverb, phrase or dogma. For this man has been blessed with the ingenious ability to look life in the eye, to articulate matters neither in concepts nor in words, but rather in the basic terms of reality.4

Ben-Gurion understood Lenin as a master tactician who never lost focus and a ruthless operator, someone who would stop at nothing to achieve his goal: “a man of iron will who would spare neither human life nor the blood of innocent babes for the sake of the revolution.” Ben-Gurion viewed Lenin as the master of expediency, citing “if you are unwilling to crawl on your stomach through the mire, you are not a revolutionary . . .” He therefore deemed Lenin as central to the success of the October Revolution compared to its brilliant polemicist, Trotsky. In Ben-Gurion’s eyes Lenin operated according to the political reality, as he saw it, and was determined not to be entrapped by the rigidity of theory.

Ben-Gurion opposed Communism from the outset—he was never seduced by confusing the building of socialism in Palestine with the national interests of the USSR. In 1920 the Fifth World Conference of Poale Zion in Vienna — the first since the end of World War I — was deeply divided as to the meaning of the October Revolution for Zionists. Should socialist Zionists adhere to the Zionist Organisation or to the Comintern? The organization thus split into two when 179 voted to join the Comintern, 178 voted not to.
Many who had remained in Russia during the war greeted the Revolution as the new dawn of civilization. This certainly reflected universalist elements within Judaism and Jewish tradition. Their belief in the here-and-now of the revolution persuaded them to embrace the Comintern. Many subsequently denounced Zionism and distanced themselves from their former selves. Ben-Gurion led the anti-Comintern faction in Poale Zion, but this did not stop him from visiting Moscow in 1923 or giving a eulogy on Lenin’s death in January 1924.
Like Mussolini, even right-wing intellectuals such as Uri Zvi Greenberg and Abba Ahimeir admired Lenin as the archetypal successful leader of a revolution.5 Before his defection to Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, Greenberg depicted the Hebrew proletariat standing on a Hebrew island, facing Moscow, as Lenin’s funeral cortege passed by. Ahimeir commented during a lecture to students in Palestine that our teacher is not Herzl or Jabotinsky, but Lenin. We reject the doctrines and philosophies of Lenin and his followers, but they were correct in their practical path. This is the path of violence, blood, and personal sacrifice.6
Lenin as far back as 1903 in his dispute with the Bund disparaged Zionism as a reactionary irrelevance.
By 1920 he had turned toward the East and toward the Arab world specifically because of the failure to spread Communism to the West. This anticolonial approach at the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku appealed to the embryonic forces of Arab nationalism.
Haim Zhitlovsky had written several articles in the 1890s in the socialist press in an attempt to persuade the international Left of the importance of nationalism. Zhitlovsky had to confront the assimilationist approach of numerous acculturated Jews.8 In his memoirs Chaim Weizmann wrote that Zhitlovsky as “both a revolutionary and a Jewish nationalist was looked upon with extreme suspicion.”9
Lenin himself possessed little idea about the day-to-day existence of the Jewish masses outside his limited experience in Russia and relied on the writings of assimilated Jews such as Alfred Naquet and Ernest Renan. He had probably never heard of Borokhov and identified Zionism solely with Herzlian General Zionism. In power some twenty years later, he still had not shifted his position. For Lenin, the solution to the Jewish problem was assimilation and disappearance. Ben-Gurion wanted the Jew to become a different type of Jew. Lenin wanted the Jew to become a different type of non-Jew. Both believed that morality should be subordinated to politics to achieve the goal. For Ben-Gurion, the question was “to what degree?”
Marxism-Leninism was becoming an ideological rival for Zionist affections. Both were a revolt against the inertia of the ghetto and the passivity of its dwellers. Yet it would be incorrect to interpret this scenario as Bolshevik versus anti-Bolshevik. There were many left-wing Zionists who found themselves in the no-man’s land between Ben-Gurion and Lenin. Some Jewish and Zionist groups believed that Lenin would allow them to join the Comintern as a Zionist wing or as an associate, but the Twenty-One Theses adopted by the second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 put an end to this.

The growing influence of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish Communists — who were often former Zionists and thereby felt that they had to be more zealous in their beliefs — instigated a gradual clampdown on Zionist groups, a closure of their institutions, and often short-term imprisonment. By the mid-1920s some Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine while others suffered repeated cycles of exile and return in the embryonic Gulag.10 Many Zionist groups and parties split into legal and illegal factions — above and below Soviet ground.11 All were eventually liquidated by 1934 during the rise of Stalinism.12
In Palestine the imagery of glowing wheatfields and the bright future of humankind held sway in the psyche of many and integrated itself into socialist Zionist aspirations. When Zionists arrived from the USSR during the mid-1920s, many had seen the reality of the society that Lenin was building and several had been the guests of Soviet prisons. They were therefore less than amused when socialist Zionists in the Yishuv continued to praise Stalin as their compatriots in Hashomer Hatzair were being arrested. Several of the disillusioned eventually crossed over to Jabotinsky’s camp during the late 1920s.13
In 1919 Poale Zion merged with elements of the non-Marxist Hapoel Hatzair to form Ahdut Ha’Avodah. Hapoel was averse to democratic centralism and control from the top. It was also skeptical that placing the means of production in the hands of parliamentary institutions and their civil servants would actually solve the fundamental problems of society. Haim Arlosoroff argued in 1919 for a non-Marxist, non-class-coloured socialism in The Socialism of the Jewish People.14 However, there were separate demonstrations by the Zionist Ahdut Ha’Avodah and the proto-Communists in the Yishuv on May Day 1921. Antagonism between them led to clashes that in turn led to attacks by Arabs on Jews. This resulted in the death of the noted writer Yosef Haim Brenner. Conversely those who opposed this merger with Hapoel Hatzair constituted the nucleus of Left Poale Zion. As Zionists they believed in a positive outlook toward the Comintern and to the Bolshevik experiment in general. They attempted “to find a compromise between the principles of proletarian Zionism and the anti-Zionist principles of the Yevsektsia.”15
Like the USSR, Zionists were building a new society. In the Yishuv in the early 1920s there were repeated attempts to merge the left wing in Palestine with Bolshevism and thereby to establish a Palestine Communist Party. However, Left Poale Zion was originally an amalgamation of Marxist Zionists and anti-Zionists. When the attempt to negotiate with the Comintern failed in 1922, Left Poale Zion split with the anti-Zionist faction, gravitating eventually toward the newly formed Palestine Communist Party. However, for the Zionist faction of Left Poale Zion its sympathy for the Bolshevik revolution remained. It was fortified by the belief that the Soviet Union would one day inevitably recognize socialist Zionism as a kindred ideology. Even so, Left Poale Zion’s odyssey during the interwar years was marked by several splits and to a return to the World Zionist Organization in 1937.
In January 1948 the Marxist Zionist party Mapam was formed. It owed its origin to Hashomer Hatzair, an amalgamation of Hashomer and Zeirei Zion to form a socialist youth movement that had been established in Galicia in 1913. Mapam’s first members had arrived during the early stages of the third aliyah (1919–23) and they were highly influenced by the ideological euphoria colouring views about the October Revolution. They founded Beitaniya and Shomriya and then coalesced its kibbutzim as Hakibbutz Ha’artzi. It also established a branch for its urban supporters, Ha-liga ha-socialistit, in 1936 and founded a daily newspaper, Al-Hamishmar, in 1943.
These components came together in the aftermath of the Shoah in 1946 to form a Workers Party, Mifleget Poalim Hashomer Hatzair be’Eretz Yisrael. Ahdut Ha’avodah had split from Mapai in 1944 and joined with Left Poale Zion to form a movement two years later. Hashomer Hatzair, Ahdut Ha’avodah, and Left Poale Zion together established Mapam during the war of independence in January 1948. Mapam therefore embellished the aspirations of Left Poale Zion of the early 1920s to occupy a position between the social democratic Mapai and the Palestine Communist Party. It was defined by its Marxist veneer, the class struggle of Jewish workers, and its approach to the national aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs. Its predecessor, Hashomer Hatzair, had previously promoted the idea of a binational state and originally opposed a state as outlined at the Biltmore Hotel conference in 1942. Its slogan was “For Zionism, Socialism and the Brotherhood of Nations!” As Elmaliach comments, it preached “an ideological gospel” (32).

Mapam’s devotion to the Soviet Union colored it in the early years of Israel’s independence. The October Revolution was its model and it reflected the world outlook of its leaders, Meir Ya’ari and Ya’akov Hazan. Their generation was framed and defined by that event and they believed that they—and not the Communists — were the Kremlin’s true representatives in Palestine.
In the wake of the Red Army’s victory over Nazism and Stalin’s support for a state of the Jews during 1948 including the import of arms from Czechoslovakia, there was genuine popular support for Mapam. Its success in becoming the second-largest party in Israel in the first election was paralleled by the advance of local Communist parties in Western Europe such as in France and Italy in the immediate postwar period.
In the period before 1939, there had actually been splits in Hashomer Hatzair due to its unwavering support for the Kremlin. In Brest-Litovsk Menahem Begin had left Hashomer Hatzair during the 1920s because his father felt that it had become too ideological. Others had broken away because of the increasing rigidity of Stalinism within Hashomer Hatzair and the show trials during the 1930s of the old Bolsheviks — many moved toward supporting Trotskyist groups.16 In Palestine during the 1930s Ha-hugim Ha-Marxistim published Bamifneh, which included articles by both Lenin and Borokhov.17
Stalin’s initial support for Israel after 1947 proved euphoric, but it also proved to be transient. The Kremlin’s incipient anti-Semitism during the Black Years (1948–53) and the many show trials, culminating in the Doctors’ Plot of January 1953, catalyzed huge fissures within Mapam.18 In contrast, Ben-Gurion and Mapai felt vindicated by its decades-long criticism of the USSR. It was the case of Mordechai Oren, a Mapam emissary, which provided the catalyst that fragmented this coalition of the Left.
Oren disappeared on a train journey from Prague to Vienna in December 1951. He was placed in solitary confinement, unceasingly interrogated without sleep, and deprived of normal food rations by his Czechoslovak captors. Furthermore, the Czechoslovak interrogators were directed by Soviet supervisors. After six months as prisoner 2132 in Prague, he confessed to his “crimes” — and then recanted. The role to which the Kremlin had assigned Oren was to be the Israeli link in the Slánský trial of mainly Jewish Communists in November 1952.19
Oren’s arrest fitted into the pattern of arrests at the end of 1951 and the beginning of 1952 that were designed to indicate that Rudolf Slánský, the party leader, and his associates were running “an anti-state and subversive centre.” Another Israeli, Shimon Orenstein, the commercial attaché at the Israeli Legation in Prague, had been arrested in November 1951.20 Both Oren and Orenstein found themselves caught up in a mythical web, constructed by Stalin, to link Titoism, Trotskyism, Zionism, and Western intelligence agencies.
The Slánský trial was designed to imitate previous show trials of Communist leaders in Eastern Europe —Dzodze Koči (Tirana, May–June 1949); László Rajk (Budapest, September 1949); Traicho Kostov (Sofia, December 1949). However, the Slánský affair was different and demonstrated profoundly anti-Jewish undertones. A majority of the defendants were Jews who were often distant from their Jewishness and opposed to Zionism. Rude Pravo, the daily of the Communist Party, remarked: “Before the court in Pancraz prison sat 11 Jewish cosmopolitans, people without a shred of honour, without character, without country, people who desire one thing only — career, business and money.”21 Otto Fischl, the deputy minister of finance, was introduced to the courtroom as “a bourgeois nationalist, son of a rich merchant and collaborator with the Nazis.” He said that he was an accomplice of Slánský and admitted being a member of a ring of “Anglo-US imperialists and their agents in Israel, headed by Ben-Gurion, whose actions were aimed at enriching the Jewish bourgeoisie.”22 The task of the trial was to lay the foundations for the Doctors’ Plot in 1953 in which many Jewish physicians would be accused of attempting to poison the leaders of the Kremlin. This, in turn, would lead to the arrests of many Jewish Communists in the USSR and a rumored deportation of Soviet Jews to Central Asia.
Oren was specifically accused of being a captain in British intelligence and acting as a spy and saboteur on behalf of the leading Labor MPs, Herbert Morrison and Konni Zilliacus. Oren was further charged with conspiring with Tito and Moshe Pijade. During the trial Oren testified that he “engaged in espionage in the people’s democracies” after 1945 and carried out “missions for various international centres.” He told the court that he posed “as a progressive activist, peace lover and friend of the Soviet Union.”23 Oren was sentenced to fifteen years and Orenstein to life imprisonment while several of the Jewish defendants in the Slánský trial were given the death penalty and executed. The Czechoslovak authorities demanded the recall of the Israeli envoy to Prague, Arieh Kubovy, and he duly returned to Tel Aviv.
Within Mapam the Oren affair caused ideological turmoil. At the beginning of the Knesset debate, Eliezer Peri MK said that “Mapam considers itself an inseparable part of the world revolutionary camp at whose head stands the USSR.” He rejected Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett’s denunciation of the Slánský trial and accused him of using the trial for “anti-Communist incitement.” Peri also declared Mordechai Oren ‘absolutely innocent’ and attributed the trial and sentence to “an accidental chain of tragic circumstances.”24 This was followed by vehement attacks in the Knesset by both Ben-Gurion and Menahem Begin. Mapam’s policy of defending both Oren and the Kremlin evoked scathing comment from the Israeli press. The Histadrut’s Davar depicted the Soviet Union in unflattering terms:

In the other homeland, in the realm of the Cominform, they are enslaved from the outset because there prevails intellectual, spiritual and physical totalitarianism and therefore in that place, a man will urge his own hanging, a woman will request strangulation for her husband and a son will crucify his father.25

Yet the Mapam daily, al Hamishmar spoke repeatedly about keeping the faith. Another article in Davar was entitled “On the Dualism in Mapam.” 26 27 While there was a deep division between the two parties on the Israeli Left, within Mapam itself there was a widening fissure. Meir Ya’ari and Ya’akov Hazan proclaimed Oren’s innocence, but then surrounded it by a plethora of pro-Soviet caveats. Privately Mapam enlisted the help of embryonic Eurocommunist and left-wing intellectuals such as Pietro Nenni, Lombardo Toledano, and Louis Sallant.
Intellectuals who had previously been very close to the Communist Party began to voice their disapproval. Ferenc Fejtő, the Hungarian French writer who was interested in the Jewish question in Europe had compared the Rajk trial to the Dreyfus Affair. He now wrote critical articles about the Prague trial just a few months after a majority of its defendants had been executed.28 The other major component of Mapam, Ahdut Ha’avodah, condemned Hashomer Hatzair for its stand on Oren, and its leading figures, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, wrote condemnatory articles.29
Within Mapam itself, Moshe Sneh, formerly a General Zionist and a leader of the Haganah who had moved toward the Left, applauded the Kremlin for uncovering the Doctors’ Plot. This time, the actions of the Kremlin and its die-hard supporters proved even too much for the Mapam leadership and Sneh and his Stalinist faction were expelled from the party. They initially formed Siat Smol, a short-lived Left faction. Sneh subsequently joined the Communist Party in 1954. Two other schisms occurred. One group re-established Ahdut Ha’avodah as a party and published the daily Lamerhav. Others proclaimed their independence from both Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avodah.
The Oren affair magnified the fundamental differences between Hashomer Hatzair and Ahdut Ha’avoda. In particular, it exposed their differing attitudes toward the Arab minority in Israel after 1948. Ahdut Ha’avodah initially opposed Arab membership in Mapam even though Hashomer Hatzair had established an Arab section in 1949. This stemmed from Hashomer Hatzair’s strong adherence to the idea of a bi-national state before 1947.30 Kibbutz Givat Haim split into two — one kibbutz remaining with Mapam, the other aligning itself with Mapai.


The process of de-Stalinization — “the Thaw” — under Khrushchev, the denunciations of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress, the Suez Campaign, and the invasion of Hungary persuaded the veteran leaders of Mapam to take a more critical stance on the Soviet Union, but not to completely renounce their allegiance. However, while Oren and Orenstein were eventually released from prison in Czechoslovakia and returned to Israel, their revelations helped to accentuate this huge rift within the broad Left in Israel.
The World Festival of Democratic Youth held its sixth festival in Moscow during the summer of 1957. In the thaw after Stalin’s demise, the number of countries that were allowed to attend increased dramatically. Attendees included 150 Israelis representing the kibbutz associations which were affiliated to both Mapam and Ahdut Ha’avodah. Numerous Soviet Jews took the opportunity to meet these Israelis there despite the fact that trials of Soviet Jews who had wished to leave for Israel were actually taking place during this period. The festival was, however, an eyeopener as to the reality of Soviet life for many Israelis who attended. Elmaliach quotes from a report of one of the Hakibbutz Ha’artzi delegates, Haim Shor, in which he describes “the rottenness and corruption of Soviet society, its discrimination against Jews and the harsh discipline enforced in the Soviet Communist youth movement, the Komsomol” (171–72). This political awakening of young people in different parties on the Israeli Left led to a far more critical attitude toward Moscow compared to that of their parents. It also kindled the belief that top-down parties such as Mapai and Mapam should be democratized. This later manifested itself in a move from Marxism-Leninism in Mapam to a more independent-minded Marxist thought.
The wall-to-wall sympathy for the Soviet Union by the Israeli Left and indeed the Jewish Left in the Diaspora began to fragment in real terms after Stalin’s death when the revelations of his regime began to seep out. This process of disillusionment had already been in progress due to the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and Stalin’s persecution of Soviet Jews between 1948 and 1953. During the immediate post-Stalinist period, long-term prisoners such as Yosef Berger-Barzilai now returned after decades in the gulag.31 Polish Jews who had found refuge in the USSR during World War II were now allowed to return to Poland and from there they could emigrate to Israel. There was even a trickle of Soviet Jews who were allowed to leave for Israel. All this diminished the Kremlin’s psychological and political hold on the Israeli Left. During the 1950s up to the 1965 election, the combined strength of the Israeli Left — Mapai, Mapam, Ahdut Ha’avodah, and the Communists — remained static at elections: 1955 (65), 1959 (66), 1961 (64). However, 1965 proved to a watershed year in the decline of the Israeli Left. The questioning of Soviet policies after Stalin’s death opened the eyes of many loyal Communists and fellow-travelers. Outside the Warsaw bloc, many left the party and aligned themselves with independent forces on the Left. Intellectuals discovered dissident writers such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. The Jewish question also raised its head once more. Shostakovich composed his thirteenth symphony and utilized Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem, Babi Yar, to draw attention to the invisibility of the Jewish question in the USSR. In the United Kingdom, Professor Hyman Levy was expelled from the Communist Party for his stand on Soviet Jewry. All these currents led to a split in the Israeli Communist Party.
Maki, led by Moshe Sneh and Shmuel Mikunis, took these revelations into account while Rakah, headed by Meir Wilner, and most of the party’s Arab leadership did not and retained its fidelity to any Moscow line. In the November 1965 election Rakah won three seats while Maki won only one. Due to the USSR’s anti-Zionist campaign which was often tinged with anti-Semitic innuendo and its support for Arab nationalism, Maki’s flexible Communism under Moshe Sneh began to mutate into a proto-Zionism. In his address to the Sixteenth Party Congress in October 1968, Sneh wrote:

The campaign of hate waged in a number of socialist states with the participation of a number of Communist parties, ostensibly against Zionism, but actually against the Jewish people and the State of Israel should be reproved and rebuked. The identification of Zionism with imperialism and the comparison of Zionism with racism and Nazism are insults to every Jew as a Jew.32

Mapam had opposed Ben-Gurion’s alignment with the United States as well as his desire to sell arms to West Germany.
The Israeli Left, however, also demonstrated a propensity to turn their political leaders and ideological guides into figures resembling hasidic rebbes. Thus Marxist Zionists such as Yitzhak Tabenkin of Ahdut Ha’avodah and Mapam’s Meir Ya’ari and Ya’akov Hazan, surrounded by their respectful followers, fitted into this mold. Ben-Gurion played this role for Mapai with the added glory of being the state’s founder — “the man who changed Jewish history.” This aura, in particular, influenced his younger acolytes, the “bithonistim” such as Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, and far less for those who had actually worked with him such as Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir.

The simmering resentment within Mapai boiled over due to Ben-Gurion’s stand on the Lavon affair. Pinhas Lavon as minister of defense was held responsible in 1954 for ha-esek ha-bish (literally, the bad business), the debacle that was Operation Susannah — the attempt to carry out attacks on US and UK targets in Cairo and Alexandria by an espionage ring of Israelis and Egyptian Jews in 1954 and thereby to lay the blame on Egyptian Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The amateurish Operation Susannah collapsed as soon as it began — and ended in the execution of two members of the ring and the torture and imprisonment of several Egyptian Jews. While Lavon had originally been ousted, he was subsequently exonerated as having given the order to activate the network for Operation Susannah by a further judicial inquiry. Ben-Gurion opposed any effort to rehabilitate Lavon politically, and he was consequently removed from his post as Histadrut Secretary-General in 1961. Moreover, Ben-Gurion strongly opposed any attempt by his successor, Levi Eshkol, to bring Lavon back into the Mapai leadership. Ben-Gurion’s stubborn insistence eventually provoked a schism in Mapai by his repeated demand for a new inquiry into the Lavon affair.
Mapai was thus thrown in turmoil by having to choose whether or not to side with Ben-Gurion, whose advocacy for a new inquiry was backed by the attorney general, Moshe Ben-Zeev, who had published his legal opinion that there was sufficient evidence now to doubt the findings of a 1960 Ministerial Committee, which absolved Lavon of responsibility of having given the order. In addition, Mapai’s central committee had voted overwhelmingly for an alignment with Ahdut Ha’avodah, which had always supported Lavon’s position. Ben-Gurion immediately resigned from the central committee. He had hoped that he would be able to secure the ousting of Eshkol as he had done with Sharett a decade before. Ben-Gurion had already issued a “white paper” in which he detailed his analysis of the Lavon Affair.
Although Ben-Gurion had formally resigned as prime minister in 1963, he did not go quietly into retirement at Sde Boqer. In an interview in March 1964, he commented that if Moshe Dayan had been chief of staff in 1948, then Israel’s borders would have been “different” and its military achievements “greater.”33 This inevitably sparked a storm of protest from those who led Israel’s forces — Dori, Allon, Yadin, Carmel, Laskov, Makleff, Galili. A few weeks later, Ben-Gurion argued for electoral reform on the British constituency electoral model during a meeting of Mapai leaders. He said that such electoral reform was the way forward and not an alignment with Ahdut Ha’avodah. At the annual conference of Mapai in 1965, there was a bitter clash between the supporters of Eshkol and those of Ben-Gurion who wanted to establish yet another judicial review of the Lavon affair. This provoked an angry reaction from Mapai stalwarts at the conference including a dying Moshe Sharett, who was brought in seated in a wheelchair. Sharett denounced his former leader in no uncertain terms while Foreign Minister Golda Meir made a cutting speech. Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, however, spoke out in support, but Ben-Gurion walked out of the conference. A majority of Mapai delegates were simply tired of the entire affair and supported Eshkol in a vote. The Mapai secretariat expressed full confidence in Eshkol and he was duly confirmed as the next prime minister by 179 votes to Ben-Gurion’s 103 by the party’s central committee and Knesset members.
Ben-Gurion’s supporters in the cabinet then tendered their resignations. In June 1965 Ben-Gurion threatened to set up his own list for the forthcoming national elections. He warned that if there was a split in Mapai, it would bring Menahem Begin’s Herut to power. Rafi, the Israel Workers’ List, came into existence a few weeks later with seven former MKs. It also published its own weekly journal, Mabat Hadash.
The Histadrut elections in September 1965 showed a dramatic drop in support for the Mapai-Ahdut Ha’avodah alignment with just half the vote. The decline was not simply due to the vote for Rafi at 12.1 percent, which projected itself as “the real Mapai.” It also lost votes to Menahem Begin’s Gahal, which polled 15.2 percent. Begin had reversed Jabotinsky’s policy of not running in Histadrut elections. Begin presciently remarked that this election result represented a turning point for the Right and a decline in the vote for the Left.
The Knesset election in 1965 resulted in a very poor showing for Rafi, which attained a mere 10 seats. Rafi’s sole success was the election of Teddy Kollek as mayor of Jerusalem. It proved to be a remarkable victory for Eshkol and Mapai with some 36 percent of the vote. The Mapai-Ahdut Ha’avodah alignment, Rafi and Mapam, accounted for 64 seats; the Liberals, Herut and the Independent Liberals for 34 and the religious parties for 17. Ben-Gurion’s splitting of Mapai — as he himself had implied — opened the way for the Right to attain power and for the diminution of the Left. The possible scenario of a movement from Left to Right by part of the labor movement as well as by the religious parties now became a distinct possibility.

The “princes” of the labor movement—those who wished to become prime minister — Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Chaim Herzog, and Teddy Kollek found themselves in the Rafi wilderness. While Peres had made contact with Begin’s Gahal in 1966, the idea of an alternative coalition of Herut, the Liberals, and Rafi with Ben-Gurion at the helm came to naught. However, the taboo of members of the labor movement, working with the former head of the Irgun, had been broken. It was cemented by the advent of the crisis, leading up to the outbreak of the Six-Day War. Eshkol subsequently formed a wall-to-wall coalition which included both Rafi and Gahal.
Following the Six-Day War, extensive negotiations took place to unify the Left. In 1968 the Labor Party, consisting of Mapai, Ahdut Ha’avodah, and Rafi, came into existence. The following year Mapam joined the Ma’arakh, the Labor Alignment, despite its many reservations. Elmaliach notes that this was the triumph of the “meshekists” in Mapam who placed economic interests before the purity of ideology (93–100). The kibbutz depended on the government for credit, subsidies, and general economic protection. The “Rightist tendency” in Mapam had triumphed.
Israel, however, had expanded almost four times in conquering the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights in June 1967. The status quo changed in that Israel was now in military control of these territories. The four parties that constituted the Ma’arakh had decidedly different views — from the dovish Mapam to the hawkish Rafi. Within all parties there were also internal differences. Ahdut Ha’avodah’s veteran leader, Yitzhak Tabenkin, wished to plant kibbutzim all over the West Bank whereas the party’s leading figure, Yigal Allon, wanted to divide the territory between Israel and Jordan. Rafi’s Moshe Dayan spoke about allowing the Palestinian Arabs a functional autonomy.
Golda Meir who had been brought back from retirement in 1969 after Eshkol’s death feared a Rafi breakaway to join Menahem Begin’s Gahal. All in all, the Labor Alignment was a pantomime horse with profoundly different ideological solutions to national problems. Rafi now constituted a part of government, nine out of its ten MKs returned to Labor. Only Ben-Gurion held out and 40 percent of Rafi went with him. The rump of Rafi renamed itself the State List and stood in the 1969 election. It won only four seats and Ben-Gurion retired from political life at the age of eighty-four in 1970.
In September 1973 the State List joined Herut, the Liberals, and the Free Center to form the Likud, led by Menahem Begin who was now seen as an elder statesman. It had crossed over from the Left to the Right. The development of Palestinian nationalism under the PLO, Fatah’s resort to the armed struggle, and the desire of some Labour people to retain the conquered territories strengthened the Right and weakened the Left.
The combined vote of Herut, the Liberals, the State List, and the Free Center in the Histadrut election in 1969 was 22.71 percent. Four years later in 1973 it was hardly any different at 22.69 percent.34 Yet three months later—after the Yom Kippur War—the combined Likud vote in the national election in 1973 jumped by 50 percent, compared to 1969, and it attained 39 seats. Begin had been lucky in withdrawing from government before the Yom Kippur War and thereby voters solely blamed Labor for the near defeat in the Yom Kippur War and the great loss of life. While the Left declined, the Right coalesced. The fallout from the Yom Kippur War as detailed in the Agranat Commission’s inquiry caused the resignations of both Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. Yitzhak Rabin, who appeared to be outside the factional squabbling within Labor, was elected prime minister despite being a member of Ahdut Ha’avodah, over Rafi’s Shimon Peres.
The Rabin-Peres feud, not least over the settlement drive, took its toll on Labor. The Rabin years were peppered with scandals over corruption and rumours of corruption. Opinion polls indicated that corrupt practices had become an issue in voting intentions. When an enterprising Ha’aretz journalist confirmed the existence of an illegal bank account — no. 4698553 at the National Bank’s Washington Dupont Circle branch — which belonged to Leah Rabin, the prime minister tendered his resignation. Labor voters too were decidedly dispirited at Labor’s moral decline. Yigal Yadin seized this opportunity and thereby established the Democratic Movement for Change, which split the Labor vote and allowed Menahem Begin’s Likud to come through the electoral middle. The Left, which had guided the Zionist movement ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, had been defeated and displaced by the Right. Menahem Begin’s movement had won only fourteen seats in 1949, but through an astute policy of coalition and a fair share of good luck had expanded Herut, the political continuation of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, to form the Likud and to take power in 1977. In addition, the move of fragments of the Left to the Right was symbolically represented when Rafi’s Moshe Dayan accepted Begin’s invitation in 1977 to become foreign minister in a Likud-led government.

While the subservience to the USSR and a strict adherence to ideology were dominant, Elmaliach argues that these factors were not the only ones that led to a decline of the Left. Elmaliach interestingly suggests that the amelioration of life generally through an improved economic situation was also important. He comments that “in the case of Mapam and Ha’kibbutz Ha’Artzi there was a dialectical inter-relationship between their socio-economic development and their political and ideological crisis” (9). He explores the notion that the seeds of the switch to neoliberalism in July 1985 were actually planted long before. The road to a modified US-style progressive capitalism, as laid down by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, gradually wore down its socialist opponents as the economic situation in Israel improved during the 1950s.
Ben-Gurion’s alignment with the United States at the height of late Stalinism — as opposed to Sharett’s desire for a nonaligned position between the superpowers — brought in its wake the Americanization of Israel and subsequently a “New Deal”–type capitalism, according to Elmaliach. State socialism was gradually transformed into state capitalism. In addition, the kibbutzim gradually became less independent and increasingly relied on government subsidies to survive. This arrangement only worked as long as Labor was in power.
Originally the kibbutz was seen as a moral rejuvenation of a people plagued by the imperfections of the Diaspora. The pioneering phase of Marxist Zionism, for example, saw its adherents in Ha’kibbutz Ha’Artzi willing to accept an average area of 4.5 square meters per person with one toilet to be shared with another twenty people. However, as Israel became a stabilized society after this halcyon period, even kibbutzniks wanted a higher standard of living.
By the mid-1950s, Israel had achieved a slow improvement in its economic situation — this began to transform life and to alter aspirations. Electric kettles, transistor radios, and refrigerators became necessities and were no longer luxuries. There were demands for shorter hours and better living conditions amid a plethora of workers’ strikes. Elmaliach notes that the annual salary rose from 3,277 IL in 1956 to 5,304 IL in 1963. While there were 80,000 living in kibbutzim in the 1950s, the economic surge catalyzed a gradual transition of a collective of ascetic Marxists to “a pioneering bourgeoisie.” The advance of technology decreased profitability of kibbutzim during the 1960s. The industrialization of kibbutzim by Pinhas Sapir was a product of this changing situation. It also meant that workers became bosses. In 1966 kibbutz industries employed 4,130 outside workers, but only 2,850 kibbutz workers. The need for new workers was often augmented by new immigrants to Israel. A new professional class gradually emerged in Israel that worked in the public sector.
Industrialization and access to higher education subsequently brought about a loosening of social control and norms in the kibbutz, implemented by figures such as Ya’ari and Hazan. Individualism began to replace collectivism. In the kibbutz, Elmaliach notes, a class of technocrats arose—the “meshekists” who often placed the pursuing of economic interests before ideology. These professionals found their place in society by running co-operatives outside the kibbutz such as Tnuva, Hamashbir Hamerkazi, and the Egg and Poultry Board. But crucially they historically performed the role of guide into the wider free market.
After the Six-Day War, the number of kibbutz factories increased from 157 in 1969 to 232 in 1973. On the back of the conquest of the oil fields in Sinai and cheap Arab labour from the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s economy boomed. Exports grew by 20 percent in 1968. Industrial output increased by 15 percent per year between 1968 and 1972. Wages rose at an average of 12.3 percent per year. There was now a greater investment in Israel’s military industries and the genesis of the electronics breakthrough.35
There was thus an insatiable appetite for the comforts of life on the model of Western Europe and the United States — television, telephones, cars, washing machines. While the kibbutz movements affiliated to Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avodah followed Sapir’s directive, Mapam’s Hakibbutz Ha’Artzi refused to do so. Mapam also interpreted mamlakhtiyut — Ben-Gurion’s strengthening of state power—differently from Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avodah. Elmaliach comments:

Mapam supported “consociational mamlakhtiyut,” the parallel operational of multiple sources of power. . . . In such a situation, Mapam and its kibbutz movement would retain, within the state-building process their roles as mediators between their publics and state institutions. Ben-Gurion, for his part, sought “majoritarian mamlakhtiyut.” (22)

Mapam’s representation in the Knesset began to decrease in parallel with these changing public aspirations. United with Ahdut Ha’avodah, Mapam attained nineteen seats in 1949 and fifteen in 1951. After the break with Ahdut Ha’avodah, it secured nine seats in the 1955 election, which declined to four by 1977 when Likud achieved its breakthrough victory. Mapam began to realize that it posed no real threat to Mapai as an ideological rival from the mid-1950s, whereas Menahem Begin understood the possibilities for the Israeli Right to take power at approximately the same time. Herut moved from fourteen seats in 1949 to the forty-five of the Likud and Shlomzion in 1977. Mapai’s economic bubble burst with the military draw that was the Yom Kippur War. The Arab oil boycott precipitated a huge decline in economic growth. Manufacturing decreased and basic food necessities increased in price. The kibbutzim were faced with inflation, devaluation, and austerity promulgated by the new Rabin government. Hallowed red lines were crossed. Diplomatic isolation and a plummeting economic situation laid the foundations for a clandestine visit by Shimon Peres in November 1974 to South Africa in an attempt to sell Chalet missiles to the apartheid regime. In April 1976 the South African prime minister John Vorster visited Israel—he was a member of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag and was interned during World War II.36

During the 1950s and after, there had been groups of younger people within ID:p0470
the broad labor movement who had wished to change things. As Elmaliach records, Hame’orer (the Awakener), Shurat Hamitnavdim (the Circle of Volunteers), and Min Hayesod (from the Foundation) all attempted to oppose the ruling party hierarchy that ruled with a rod of iron. Even journalists for party newspapers such as al Hamishmar felt obliged to tow the party line in their reports—at the service of the party first before the calling of their profession.
The appearance of the New Left internationally during the 1960s was due fundamentally to the transition from one generation to another — each with its own political culture that was framed by the times and the events that was most meaningful to that generation. For the Old Left, it was the founding of the Soviet Union, the struggle against fascism, the Shoah, and the miraculous rise of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel after two millennia. The New Left came of age during an era of decolonization and the gradual closure of the imperial era. In Israel many Diaspora Jews who came to Israel after the Six-Day War carried with them the ideas and values of the New Left. They had often been participants in political activities on campuses in western Europe and in the United States. At university, they had often campaigned for the democratization of such institutions and on a broader level for a more accountable government. This clashed with the rigid top-down ethos of democratic centralism and the authority of the leader-figure.
There was an awareness among the coming generation of Mizrahim that they had been treated as second-class citizens by Ashkenazi socialists in the 1950s for whom their religious and cultural traditions had meant little. Golda Meir’s labeling the Black Panthers as “not nice boys” in the early 1970s illustrated the clash between the old Ashkenazi generation and the new Mizrahi one.
The conquest of the West Bank and the settlement drive — albeit from Labor’s security settlements to Religious Zionism’s ideological ones — was the rallying cause for many younger members of the Israeli New Left. The settlements were seen as a stumbling block placed in the path of a two-state solution. The more radical elements of the Israeli Left viewed them as a colonialist enterprise, mimicking those of the imperial powers in the past.
In the Diaspora young Jews who were imbued by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War began to support the right of national self-determination of the Palestinians within a two-state solution. In 1970 the World Union of Jewish Students, which was meeting in conference in Arad, passed a resolution that argued that recognition of the Palestinians was a logical consequence of Zionist ideology.
The Soviet Union no longer appeared to be the lodestar to which Israeli socialists should turn their heads. Following Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s regime in 1956, the crushing of the uprising in Hungary in the same year, and the elimination of “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia in 1968, many younger Israeli leftists began to view the USSR as a bastion of repression, led by old men. Solzhenitsyn’s books, the trial of Daniel and Sinyavsky, and Sakharov’s advocacy of human rights all began to communicate to the Israeli Left — as did the first protests by Soviet Jews for the right to emigrate. Dissidents, Jewish refuseniks, and memoirs of long years in the Gulag Archipelago became the broad term of reference for the new generation with regard to the Soviet Union.
New causes arose for a new Israeli generation on the Left — human rights, the Palestinians, feminism, gay rights, religious coercion. And these were reflected not by the old parties such as Labor and Mapam, led and guided by the founders, but by newer parties and movements — Siah, Tehelet Adom, Moked and figures such as Hanoch Levin, Dan Ben-Amotz, Arik Einstein, and Amos Kenan. Shulamit Aloni broke with Labor to form Ratz, the civil rights movement, while Amnon Rubinstein formed Shinui.
Mapam’s problems had been bubbling under since it entered government in the 1950s. The price of influence often meant compromise, contradiction, and being uncomfortable ideologically. The bitter internal debate within Mapam was whether or not to be allied with Mapai in government. When the Labor Party was established in 1968, there was virtually no mention of “socialism.” All these problems came to the surface when a new generation was ready to take over the reins of leadership within the party.
Within Mapam itself after 1967, the party’s Young Guard began to advocate a more open, independent approach and to ally themselves with other groups on the Israel Left. While the aging elders of Mapam worried about the infiltration of groups such as the Black Panthers and Matzpen, 20 percent of Hakibbutzim Ha’Artzi voted for other parties during the 1970s. Mapam’s Young Guard looked outward, not to Moscow, but to the New Left in Europe. Even so, al Hamishmar attacked Herbert Marcuse and condemned an invitation to Daniel Cohn-Bendit to speak at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel.
While it was becoming self-evident that the Palestinian Arabs had begun to regard themselves as a national entity, distinct from other Arab nations, it was not only Menahem Begin who asked, “Who are the Palestinians?,” but also Golda Meir. While the New Left internationally was endorsing decoloni- zation, sections of Mapai argued in support of the settlements on the West Bank from a Labor Zionist perspective.
It became clear that the founders — David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Tabenkin, Meir Ya’ari, and Ya’akov Hazan — did not understand the changes on the Left after 1967. Yet there were sharp divisions within the newly formed Labor Alignment in the immediate aftermath of the war. The adherents of Rafi on the Right were pitched against Mapam on the Left. Dayan and Peres were opposed by Sapir and Eban while Golda Meir attempted to play the political ringmaster. During the later period of the Rabin-Peres rivalry during the 1970s when new settlements such as Sebastia became a political football in the game between the two sides, left-wing protests against the establishment of new settlements became a regular occurrence in the West Bank. Meir Ariel warned against the danger of the Jewish presence in the territories in writing a response to Naomi Shemer’s song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” in the euphoria after June 1967. He called his song “Jerusalem of Iron.” The Tzavta theatre, which ostensibly was controlled by Mapam, became an attraction for both the cultural intelligentsia and young people in general. The Tzavta gave a platform to other struggles that were being conducted outside the borders of Israel — to Pete Seeger (the Vietnam War); Ladislav Mnacko (the Prague Spring), and Zygmunt Baumann (the Polish protests).
The near catastrophe of the Yom Kippur War had been the first real breach in the Labor wall. At the protests after the failure of leadership during the war, its central leader, Motti Ashkenazi, commented that “for decades, the historic Mapai leadership, the leading political elite, had ignored public opinion and the acute problems of developing Israeli society.” Ashkenazi’s words built on the smoldering resentment especially by the Mizrahim that Mapai and the Histadrut were little more than part and parcel of the Ashkenazi middle-class elite.
The Wadi Salib protests in July 1959 were accompanied by the torching of Mapai offices in different parts of the country. There was a gradual drift away from Mapai, Mapam, and Ahdut Ha’avodah by disillusioned Mizrahi voters. In the 1969 election 30 percent of Mizrahim voted for Gahal. This figure had more than doubled in the Likud Party’s favor after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Moreover, although Jews had been prominent within the Egyptian and Iraqi Communist parties, the European Enlightenment and the October Revolution had made little headway within traditionalist Jewish communi- ties. Menahem Begin spent a considerable amount of time in cultivating the Mizrahi community.
The debacle of the Yom Kippur War proved therefore to be to the advantage, not of the emerging New Left or figures such as Motti Ashkenazi, but of the Old Right which was fortuitously out of power in the early 1970s. In December 1973 the tremendous advance of the Likud was due to the defection of the Mizrahim, the left-behinds and the undereducated, the religious Zionists, and sections of the labor movement itself. Menahem Begin, the old Irgun leader, was seen as the new broom to sweep clean Labor’s Augean stables.

The aftermath of the Yom Kippur War was the watershed that led to the uneven decline of Labor’s fortunes. In 1973 the Alignment with Ratz and Moked won almost 45 percent despite the war. In 2021 Labor and Meretz won 10.66 percent of the vote. Avi Shilon’s book relates the story of this decline through the eyes of Yossi Beilin after 1973. The debacle of the Yom Kippur war made him lose his trust in God and turn away from a religious lifestyle, but also to lose faith in the political establishment. Beilin ironically joined Labor as it began to tread a slow disintegrating path. Despite the perceptions in 1973, Labor seemed then to be capable of reform once the old guard had been put out to pasture. It was, however, a period also of internecine fighting over the succession and influence. In hindsight, the political reality turned out to be that both Labor and Beilin were in search of an identity. Beilin who then worked for Dvar Hashavua was hired by Peres as his spokesperson. Both were interested in culture and literature—and both moved toward a dovish position. According to Shilon, Peres was already arguing in private by 1981 that Israel should engage in dialogue with the PLO. Beilin himself was a founder of the Mashov group of the like-minded Labor Young Guard.
In electoral terms, Beilin cultivated dissenting figures such as David Levy and argued for a realignment with the Liberalim — the section of the Likud that had formerly constituted the General Zionists. He opposed the rotation agreement with the Likud in 1984 and tried to persuade Peres to pull out of it once his premiership was perceived as successful. Beilin logically supported the Economic Stabilization Plan in 1985, which was designed to combat hyperinflation and potential bankruptcy. The ratio of debt to GDP was thought to be 220 percent. The United States under President Reagan offered a $1.5-billion grant, but only if the Israeli economy underwent a root and branch overhaul.37
The embrace of global capitalism and the end of the command economy reduced inflation from 450 percent to 20 percent within a year, and the budget deficit disappeared. However, the economic role of the kibbutzim was severely reduced, while the Histadrut’s economic empire vanished without trace. Unlike the Soviet Union, Israel adapted and Labor followed the path of other social democratic parties in the West.
The nail in Labor’s economic coffin was finally struck with the ascendency of Netanyahu to power in 1996 and then as finance minister under Sharon. As someone who was close ideologically to the US Republican party and the neo-conservatives, Netanyahu successfully pressed ahead with privatization and the dismantling of the broad structure of Labor’s economic and political assets. At the same time, Beilin developed back channels with Palestinians and Jordanians and acted as Peres’s aide in the meetings with King Hussein, culminating in the ill-fated London Agreement in April 1987. Beilin also attempted to dilute the strong relationship with South Africa. In addition to the moral argument, the West had started to move against the apartheid regime in the late 1970s and large numbers of South African Jews had begun to leave the country after the Soweto uprising. Beilin clearly noted the writing on the wall and viewed the new states of Black Africa in terms of an updated doctrine of the periphery. Shilon devotes several interesting pages to this question (99–103).
Beilin’s work for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians reached its apogee in the Oslo Accords. However, what is clear from the election results is that the liberal-Left position of Labor and Meretz was undermined by the suicide bombing campaign by Palestinian Islamists. Over 44 percent voted for these parties in 1992, only 34 percent in 1996, and 27.9 percent in 1999. The euphoria over Oslo had evaporated and parties such as Labor that had fervently embraced peace and reconciliation were seen as increasingly irrelevant. In addition, Labor was perceived as continually in search of an identity. Despite Beilin’s activism in proposing plans such as the Geneva Initiative and then leading Meretz, he left politics in October 2008 at the age of sixty.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada and the periodic clashes with Hamas in Gaza ushered in a new phase in which Likud’s leaders, first under Sharon and then under Netanyahu, were seen as saviors, espousing solid security policies. This superseded any concerns about an enhanced settlement drive on the West Bank or Netanyahu’s moral compass in public office. Labor and Meretz under a succession of leaders could only garner between 15 and 20 percent of the vote between 2003 and 2013.
The Left’s failure was essentially due to Netanyahu’s success as presenting himself as “Mr. Security” to the Israeli public in the face of Islamist suicide bombers as well as his ability to ensure that not a single right-wing vote was lost due to a failure to transcend the electoral representation threshold of 3.75 percent. He was therefore able to cement an aggregation of diverse far right groups, including Kahanists, within a group of electable parties. This meant a series of far right–center right coalitions for the decade after 2009. A realignment of Isaac Herzog’s Labor with Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah—an offshoot of Likud’s liberal wing — achieved over 22 percent with Meretz in the 2015 election. This vote fell back to a lowly 8–10 percent in subsequent elections. Labor’s core vote had shrunk dramatically. It was therefore forced to forge an electoral alliance with both the Center and the Center-Right in order to emerge as the largest party. The first attempt was reflected in Rafi’s attempt to forge an alliance with the Liberalim within Gahal in 1966.
The subsequent split in the Likud in 2004 to form Kadima was to some extent a schism between the disciples of Ben-Gurion and those of Jabotinsky. Sharon had started life as a Mapainik and a follower of Ben-Gurion’s realpolitik. In 1969 he made an approach to Begin and began to follow a right-wing trajectory. This ended in his appointment as foreign minister in 1998 and he became a caretaker leader of the Likud in 1999. The outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada brought him unexpectedly to power in 2001 at the age of seventy-two. His belief in realpolitik and not ideology attracted figures such as Peres — formerly also of Ben-Gurion’s Rafi — to his standard. Kadima thereby came into existence as a center-right party that attracted votes from many former Labor supporters.
The formation of Kahol Lavan, led by another military man, Benny Gantz, at the end of 2018 also proved detrimental to the Labor Party. This centrist party displaced Labor in forming an electoral alliance with other centrist parties such as Yesh Atid and Telem. Such centrist parties such as Kadima, Yesh Atid, and Kahol Lavan became the preferred nucleus around which to orbit in order to counteract Netanyahu’s alliance of the far Right. There were even rumors about a merger between Labor and Kahol Lavan in April 2020.38 In the 2021 election Labor attained seven seats and Meretz six, while Yesh Atid secured 17 and Kahol Lavan eight. It indicated Labor’s dramatic decline from 47 seats in 1981. Its role now was as a junior partner to centrist parties in an effort to pose any form of opposition to the Likud. In addition to external factors, Labor declined because of the general demise of ideology. It was therefore not unexpected that both Labor and Meretz were able to sit in a coalition of eight diverse parties led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, in 2021-2022, which included several far-right parties. For Labor and all the other parties, personal and political opposition to Netanyahu and a seat in government proved a stronger impetus than ideology.

  1. Marie Syrkin, Nahman Syrkin: Socialist Zionist: A Biographical Memoir and Selected Writings (New York: Herzl Press, 1961), 257–59.
  2. Joseph Heller, The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror, 1940–1949 (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 77–85.
  3. Yosef Gorny, “Ben-Gurion’s Attitude towards Communism,” Kesher 36 (2007): 49–55.
  4. David Ben-Gurion, Yoman [diary], vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defence, 1971), 201; English translation in Israel Kolatt, “Image and Reality,” in David Ben-Gurion: Politics and Leadership in Israel, ed. Ronald W. Zweig (London: Frank Cass, 1991), 18.
  5. Abba Ahimeir, “Rome and Jerusalem,” Ha’am, May 8, 1931.
  6. Kalman Katznelson, “Ha-Dugma: Lenin,” in Berit Ha-Biryonim: The First Anti-British Organisation, ed. Yosef Achimeir and Shmuel Shatski (Tel Aviv: Nicanim, 1978), 130.
  7. V. I. Lenin, Iskra no. 51, October 22, 1903.
  8. See I. Khisin (Haim Zhitlovsky), A Jew to Jews (London: The London Fund for Revolutionary Publication, 1892).
  9. Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), 50–51.
  10. 10. Ziva Galili and Boris Morozov, Exiled to Palestine: The Emigration of Zionist Convicts from the Soviet Union 1924–1934 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 22; Ya’akov Goren, Ha-’Imut Ha-kove’a: Ben Tenu’at Ha’avodah la –Tenu’ah Ha-revizonyistit be-Erets Yisrael, 1925–1931 (Tel Aviv: Ef‘al, Yad Tabenkin, 1986), 16–17.
  11. See Arieh Tsentsiper, B’Ma’avak l’Geula (Tel Aviv: Devar, 1956).
  12. Binyamin West, B’Derekh l’Geula (Tel Aviv: Tarbut ve’Hinukh, 1971), 226–49.
  13. Colin Shindler, The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 69–74.
  14. Shlomo Avineri, Haim Arlosoroff (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 9.
  15. Peretz Merhav, The Israeli Left: History, Problems, Documents (San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1980), 62.
  16. Shmuel Dotan, Adumim: Hamiflagah hakommunistit b’Eretz Yisrael (Tel Aviv: Shabna Hasofer, 1991), 241–48.
  17. Bamifneh, 1934, Yad Ya’ari Archives, Israel.
  18. See Yehoshua Gilboa, The Black Years of Soviet Jewry (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971); Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Doctors’ Plot (New York: Perennial, 2003).
  19. See Mordechai Oren, Reshimot Asir Perag (Tel Aviv: Merchavia, 1958).
  20. See Shimon Orenstein, Alilat Prague (Tel Aviv: Am Hasefer, 1968).
  21. Rude Pravo, November 30, 1952.
  22. Eugene Loebl, Sentenced and Tried: The Stalinist Purges in Czechoslovakia (London: Paul Elek, 1969), 205.
  23. Meir Kotic, The Prague Trial (London: Cornwall Books, 1987), 89.
  24. Ibid.,182–83.
  25. Davar, November 27, 1952.
  26. Al Hamishmar, December 12, 1952.
  27. Davar, December 2, 1952.
  28. Ferenc Fejtő, “The Prague Trial,” Esprit no. 3 (March 1953); no. 4 (April 1953).
  29. Kotic, The Prague Trial, 193;
  30. Davar, December 7, 1952.
  31. Aviva Halamish, “Loyalties in Conflict: Mapam’s Vacillating Stance on the Military Government, 1955–1966 Historical and Political Analysis,” Israel Studies Forum 25, no. 2 (Autumn 2010).
  32. See Joseph Berger, Shipwreck of a Generation (London: Harvill, 1971).
  33. Moshe Sneh, Theses for the Sixteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Israel, Information Bulletin 9 (Maki [HaMiflagah HaKommunistit HaIsraelit, Communist Party of Israel]: Tel Aviv) October 1968.
  34. HaBoqer, March 6, 1964.
  35. Colin Shindler, Israel, Likud, and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995), 73.
  36. Meirav Arlosoroff, “July 1, 1985: The Day Israeli Capitalism Was Born,” Ha’aretz, July 3, 2015. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (New York: Pantheon, 2010).
  37. Arlosoroff, Ha’aretz, July 3, 2015.
  38. Jerusalem Post, April 6, 2020.

Bustan: The Middle East Book Review Vol.13 No.1 2022


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