THEN-ISRAELI Major General Ariel Sharon is photographed with Likud party leader Menachem Begin and Major General Avraham Yoffe in the Sinai Peninsula in 1977..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I remember clearly my first meeting with Menachem Begin. I came to ask him to join a board of sponsors for a film project, and had been invited to meet with him in his home in Tel Aviv. It was 1969.
First impressions: A very ordinary small apartment in a very ordinary three-story building, on a very ordinary Tel Aviv street. My family of five then lived in an 82 sq.m. apartment on a quiet Jerusalem dead-end street; I did of course not measure the Begin apartment, but I would be surprised if it were any larger.
Begin sat on a straight-backed chair. I sat facing him on a similar chair and his trusty Yehiel Kadishai sat on the side, between us so he could observe us both. “Mr.
Begin” is how I addressed him. I stated my business, he agreed readily, we shook hands all round, and I left.
A small, bare room, with three kitchen chairs. There was dignity and even a bit of majesty in that room. I was not happy about the majesty, a kind of grave formality, but glad that I had met the man who had run against prime minister Levi Eshkol, my chief, and had found that seriousness.
Why is this important? What triggered this column? My fellow columnist, the popular Daniel Gordis, has more than once referred to the direct line linking Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin to the Likud of today. (In Bloombergview, he recently wrote: “Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin – the founding fathers of the Likud tradition.”) Of course it is true that there is some Jabotinsky and Begin in the DNA of the Likud. But in 1948 when Begin formed the Herut party on the basis of the Etzel (Irgun Zva’i Leumi) family, many members, or almost all, were ex-Betarim, the youth movement Jabotinsky had founded.
To that DNA came admixtures over six-and-a-half decades and three generations. Added into original Herut was the bourgeois General Zionist party, which had renamed itself. It was anti-Labor, and represented middle-class voters and a few industrialists of the time. In 1960, it chose a new name: The Liberal Party.
Yes, that dirty word. That was in 1973. To this very day, dear reader, the official name is “Likud National Liberal Party.”
Into that joint Herut-Liberal election list were added at least three sundry splinter nationalist groups, and by 1988, and after 11 years in power, the Likud (Consolidation) party was founded.
Over the years, as the Likud recruited more and more members, and as local-grown leaders replaced the older leadership, the Likud became the party of the proletarian blue-collar workers, of the lower middle- class. It became more and more linked with labor union bosses, and with commercial, financial and economic figures who may have leaned Right, but always leaned first toward their personal economic interests. These interests could be – and often were – furthered by the ministers whom they backed. In the “privatization” of government-owned companies or government-held shares, economic investigative reports found incidents where cronyism was prevalent, and fortunes were gained.
Furthermore, given the Likud system of primaries, political operators brought into the party “officially” – by having membership forms filled out and dues paid – many individuals who would vote en masse for their recruiters in the primaries. Often their votes in the national elections, according to knowledgeable sources, went to other parties. Of course the Likud did not invent this system but “perfected it.”
Authentic grass-roots leaders like David Levy, from Beit She’an, and Meir Sheetrit, from Yavneh, lost place to system manipulators. The party moved so far from its Revisionist founders, its DNA became so admixed with deal-makers, that along the line it shed Moshe Arens, and – in the most recent primaries – even got rid of two of the party’s so-called “princes” – heirs to founding fathers of Herut: Dan Meridor and Benny Begin.
The betrayal of Revisionist ideology is most marked by the fact that two Likud prime ministers were investigated (though not prosecuted) for financial improprieties. Two products of Betar in Binyamina further added to the corruption sullying the party’s reputation: former finance minister Avraham Hirchson, who served a jail term, and prime minister Ehud Olmert (prison pending). Surveying the list of Israeli public officials convicted of crimes, beginning with a Likud president, brought tears of shame to my eyes.
Yehiel Kadishai and Menachem Begin, sitting on simple kitchen chairs in a bare room in a small Tel Aviv apartment, could they see the list, would not weep bitter tears. They simply would not even recognize today’s Likud. This is not the child they prayed for. Not this! The author has been a close observer of the Israel political system and government for decades. He served in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol and was for 10 years a non-party member of the Jewish Agency-WZO. In addition he has taught Israeli politics and history in Israeli and international universities. [email protected]