The Transition from Left to Right in Israel

Some Israelis privately bemoan the passing of the “Old Israel” whereby a new society—different from the ones from which they had emigrated—would be constructed. Nostalgia aside, today’s start-up nation proudly boasts innovation and entrepreneurship—values to be admired and emulated—yet the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” actually resembles that of western Europe. “Egalitarianism” is not a word to be mentioned in polite company.
The transition in Israel to a full-bloodied global capitalism occurred in the 1980s, influenced by Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Many were pleased to see the back of a Mapai-dominated command economy that practiced the economics of stagnation and an embedded byzantine bureaucracy. While Shimon Peres authored this transition in the 1980s, its underlying premise enhanced the transition from the ideological Left to the ideological Right between 1959 and 1983. Benjamin Netanyahu idealized and idolized the American model and left his opponents bereft of a plausible, ideological alternative.
A watershed in this transition occurred when Menahem Begin famously won the 1977 election as the head of Likud coalition of parties. At its inner core was the far Right Herut, which was estimated to have won only 20 out of the 43 seats that Likud had amassed. Herut by itself had only won 14 seats in the first Israeli election in 1949. Begin had shrewdly built a right-wing coalition, the Likud, based on private enterprise, promoted by the Liberals and defectors from Labor. He broadened this in government to include disillusioned and alienated Labor figures such as Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, and Yigal Yadin—and cultivated the already radicalizing next generation of the National Religious Party. As the Right coalesced, the Left

In the 1950s, Begin had rejected several overtures from Mapai in order to create a clear alternative to socialist Zionism. It drew upon other national struggles—the Polish, the Italian, the Irish—and was underpinned by passion, tradition, and incendiary rhetoric to create a polarized opposite to the prevailing political wisdom.
Begin began to cultivate the General Zionists—the Polish Jewish middle class of the fourth Aliyah—initially as non-socialists. Their political fortunes were then in the ascendency until electoral reversals and an appetite for a return to power rendered them vulnerable to the charm and blandishments of Menahem Begin.
By the 1959 election, the General Zionists were internally split between the right-wing faction that won eight seats while the Progressives attained six. In May 1961 these two factions united as the Liberals. The Progressives were deeply opposed to any alignment with Begin’s party because of Herut’s aspirations for a Greater Israel and its refusal to join the Histadrut. They
argued that “demagoguery and liberalism are a contradiction”. However, the new Liberal party improved its combined representation by only three seats in 1961. Herut remained static at 17—the same number as the Liberals. It was no resounding electoral success for the Liberals.
Begin’s approaches to them were still rebuffed. Begin persevered and responded in an article entitled “We have patience”. It was clear, however, that together Herut and the Liberals possessed 34 seats and were now within striking distance of Mapai’s 42.
Ben-Gurion understood the danger of a future right-wing coalition as far back as the early 1960s and wished to include the Liberals in a Mapai-led coalition. Levi Eshkol had even signed an agreement with the Liberals. The central committee of Mapai, however, was seduced by the prospect of a wider coalition with other socialist parties such as Ahdut Ha’avodah.

In the 1960s Mapai gradually embarked on a political freefall due to Ben-Gurion’s insistence on resurrecting the Lavon affair. This led to a split and the formation of Rafi in 1965 at the same time as the Liberals had finally entered into an electoral pact with Herut. While each party attained the same number of seats in 1961, Begin offered the Liberals disproportionately more advantageous places on a joint 1965 election list, to the detriment of Herut. Begin, however, ensured that he was in first place on the new Gahal list of Herut and Liberal candidates.
Furthermore, in contradistinction to Jabotinsky’s approach in the 1930s, Begin had persuaded Herut against strong internal opposition to join the Histadrut. Begin’s pragmatism bore witness to a vote of 100,000 for Gahal in the 1965 Histadrut election.
Yet Begin’s approach did not pay off. Gahal attained 26 seats in 1965 compared to a combined 34 for the Liberals and Herut in 1961. Even if the five seats of the breakaway Independent Liberals were taken into account, it was still several seats less than the 1961 total. The Mapai-Ahdut Ha’avodah alignment, on the other hand, received 45.
However, Rafi’s departure from Mapai had provided Begin with a new opportunity. Rafi was further to the political Right than Mapai. This ideological direction and the hunger for power persuaded Rafi’s Peres to initiate exploratory talks between Gahal and Rafi. The stage had been set for an alliance between Ben-Gurion’s adherents and Jabotinsky’s heirs.
Begin also understood that he had to rebrand himself if he wished to cultivate potential political partners and the public at large. His rhetoric became more statesmanlike and he did not react to provocations. He was careful not to mention his desire to conquer the East Bank as well as the West Bank. While he held to his ideological convictions, he understood that it would be counter-productive to offend the sensibilities of the Liberals on vexed questions such as territorial claims, religious coercion, and even a dilution of conservative economic policies. His desire to broaden his coalition and locate new partners led to rifts with long-term loyalists such as Yohanan Bader. After all, there could not be room in the lifeboat for all if an electoral victory was to be achieved. In early 1967 many in Herut who disagreed with Begin left to form a new party, the Free Centre.
The advent of the Six-Day War provided Begin with a lifeline. On its eve, Gahal, through dissension and dissent, was ready to split. Begin would be left with a rump, effectively a return to 1949. The pre-war crisis of 1967 was dragged out as Abba Eban attempted to locate a diplomatic solution. The persona and rhetoric of Eshkol was less than inspiring.
Peres proposed a coalition of Mapai, Rafi, and Gahal with the octogenarian Ben-Gurion once more as prime minister. When Mapai reacted vehemently to a return of Ben-Gurion, Gahal supported Peres’s fallback position of nominating Dayan as minister of defense. This was opposed by Golda Meir and Mapam.

The subsequent formation of a wall-to-wall coalition included both Rafi and Gahal. Begin entered government for the first time as a minister without portfolio—and visited Jabotinsky’s grave to inform him of this fact. He distanced himself from party politics and projected himself as the very model of a modern major leader. Although only in his fifties, he came to be regarded as one of the founding fathers of the state by a new generation—someone who was distant from his radicalism as a maximalist, opposed to Jabotinsky, in 1930s Poland, and his military activities in the Irgun in 1940s Mandatory Palestine.
Begin viewed the victory of 1967 as the consequence of a war of redemption. The desire not to return the conquered territories, but to colonize them instead, provided a common basis for cooperation for ideologically driven figures such as the maximalist nationalist Menahem Begin and the Marxist Yitzhak Tabenkin. The hawkishly messianic NRP young guard proved to be another partner in this realignment of political forces in Israel. Other recruits to this emerging alliance were security hawks—often members of Mapai—who argued that the retention of the West Bank provided strategic depth. All were willing to append their signatures to the Land of Israel manifesto in 1969.
Rafi in its initial reaction to the victory advocated the construction of a ring of settlements around Jerusalem with others strategically placed along the River Jordan and in the Nablus and Hebron Hills. Ben-Gurion, too, later became an enthusiast for settlement advance.
Begin’s self-appointed mission in the cabinet after 1967 was therefore to keep a watchful eye on those who would trade territory for peace. He would ensure that there would not be any withdrawal from the West Bank, which he considered to be an integral part of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, he was happy to return Sinai, which in his eyes was outside the borders of the Land. In this, he was assisted by the three “noes” of the Arab nations at Khartoum in August 1967, which decimated the hopes of those in the coalition government who were ready to return the conquered territory in the course of negotiations. In an Israel almost four times the size of its pre-1967 incarnation, few were willing to listen to warnings about the emerging demographic problem. Instead, hope was placed in the prospect of a mass arrival of Soviet Jews—and a mass departure of Palestinian Arabs.
Mapai however was able to regroup. Moreover 60% of Rafi voted to return to a new model Labor party, fashioned from Mapai and Ahdut Ha’avodah. Nine out of the ten MKs voted with their feet, leaving Ben-Gurion with the rump of Rafi—now renamed the State List. Within a short time, Mapam agreed to join the other three ostensibly labor parties in an Alignment of the Left.
By 1970 Ben-Gurion was advocating retaining the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, and Hebron. He referred to Hebron as the sister of Jerusalem and emphasized its biblical importance. Dayan argued for the economic integration of the territories into Israel and the introduction of Israeli law there. He also argued for a change in the standard Labor formulation of “secure and agreed borders”. In its place, he preferred the wording “secure and strategic borders”. Formal annexation, he argued, was unnecessary.
Dayan and Peres, Rafi’s representatives in the new Labor party, were advocates of “functional compromise” and an “open bridges” policy rather than territorial partition. Golda Meir, the new prime minister, tried to keep this pantomime horse of four very different left-wing parties facing in the same direction. She was keenly aware that the ex-Rafi right wing of Labor, could
emerge as a potential partner in a future Herut-centered coalition.
Moreover, military men now did not automatically join the parties of the Left. Both Ezer Weizman and Ariel Sharon demonstrated interest in participating in Begin’s evolving coalition.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the NRP began to fall under the influence of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his preaching to settle biblical Judea and Samaria and expand Israel’s borders towards the designated Biblical boundaries. Mehola was established by Bnei Akiva in the northern West Bank and Jordan Valley in late 1967 as a security settlement. It was named after the Biblical city of Abel-Mehola where Elijah the prophet designated Elisha Ben-Shaphat his successor. Mehola was affiliated with Hapoel HaMizrachi, which had actually voted in favor of the partition of Palestine in 1947. It symbolically personified the difference between 1948 and 1967 in the religious imagination. Real peace would only come with redemption.
Moreover, Begin began to cultivate the national-religious with a plethora of epithets emphasizing Jewish traditionalism. A product himself of European nationalist movements, he nonetheless telescoped the historical and the ahistorical in a continuum of Jewish endeavor. “Judaism and Jewish nationality were two sides of the same coin”, he proclaimed. There was no
difference between Judaic history and Jewish history.
In the 1969 election, however, Gahal simply repeated its 1965 performance and made no advance in terms of the number of seats. However, the significant change was that Ben-Gurion’s State List had effectively moved from the Left to the Right. A coalition of Gahal, the NRP, the Free Centre, and the State List would total 44 seats whereas the Labor Alignment
accounted for 56. A right-wing alternative to Labor now appeared to be a distinct possibility.
Gahal polled well in the poorer areas of cities and its Liberal component attracted middle-class voters. In local elections in 1969, Gahal won power from Labor in eight local authorities including Ashdod, Rehovot, and Rishon LeZion. In addition, there was a 20% increase in the Mizrahi vote for Gahal after the Six-Day War.
Begin was also incredibly lucky as well as being astute in achieving his goal. In 1970 the United States proposed the Rogers Plan to initiate a ceasefire in Sinai and to stop the war of attrition. It promulgated “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, which Begin interpreted as the first step in the return of territories. Begin understood that this approach could no longer be opposed from within and proposed a return to outright opposition. He therefore forced a vote within Gahal to leave
the government coalition. The Liberals strongly objected, but Begin won by a narrow majority of 117–112.
Gahal was thus out of government when the debacle of the Yom Kippur War occurred in October 1973. Begin could legitimately claim no responsibility for what had come to pass.
Even so, at the beginning of 1973, Gahal was in a parlous state with dissension rife and an aging Begin was unable to contain it. Despite his reticence, the Likud was formed from Gahal, the Free Centre, the State List, and defectors from Labor. Yet Likud as a whole did not achieve more than its component parts in the Histadrut election in 1973. Once again, Menahem Begin was saved by the unexpected outbreak of war. In the parliamentary election, held after the war, the Likud finally made a
breakthrough. Labor polled 39.2% while the Likud attained 30.2%. The Likud did particularly well in the cities. It won a majority of votes in Jerusalem and equaled Labor in Tel-Aviv. Begin reaped the rewards of his cultivation of the religious, the mizrahim, the young, the underclass, the undecided. This coincided with the sense that many Israelis felt for the need for change— and it manifested itself in the unlikely figure of Menahem Begin.
The fallout from the Yom Kippur War, the rivalry between Rabin and Peres, the conveyer belt of ministerial scandals, and the advance of Gush Emunim made any attempt to cleanse the Augean Stables of Labor an almost impossible task. Yitzhak Rabin’s attempt at renovation and renewal came to a shuddering halt when he honorably resigned following his wife’s misdemeanor in keeping an illegal, foreign bank account. This in turn was followed by the formation of the Democratic Movement for Change,
which succeeded in drawing away a large percentage of disillusioned Labor voters in 1977.
The image of the ailing Begin was given a makeover by the Dahaf Agency. For the first time in decades, he appeared tieless in an open-necked shirt, the genial grandfather of the nation. Likud was projected as honest, modern, youthful, and ready for office after nearly three stultifying decades of Mapai. Ezer Weizman later commented that his team had sold the Likud
like Coca-Cola.
History records that Begin entered office in 1977 at the ninth attempt. His political instincts and hard-nosed pragmatism had paid off. He benefitted from Mapai’s internal wrangles and Ben-Gurion’s intransigence, but he was also remarkably lucky by the turn of events. He had facilitated the turn from Left to Right, from social democracy to unabashed nationalism. While it can be argued that Begin disregarded many of Jabotinsky’s teachings, he heeded his mentor when providence favored him. A teenage Begin would undoubtedly have read Jabotinsky’s admonition in April 1932:

Each generation must be ready to take immediate action at the moment of
the grand opportunity. “Opportunity!” Dante has called it Fortuna. He tells
us she passes by rapidly and inscrutably. Her hair is long and by her hair we
must seize her. One moment too late and we can no longer grasp her.

Israel Studies (Fall 2018) vol. 32 no. 3

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