For the first 29 years of Israel’s existence, one party – predecessors of the Labor party – dominated the young country’s politics and a narrow range of political ideologies ruled its governing coalitions. In 1977 that all changed.
On May 17, 1977, the Likud ousted the long-dominant Alignment bloc for the first time. In doing so, Israel’s first non-leftist prime minister, Menachem Begin, forever changed the face and dynamics of Israeli democracy. Whereas the Likud and its predecessor Herut had played a constant opposition role in the first three decades of the state, from that day on, the Israeli political system would be subject to true electoral competition and its governments’ ideologies began moving back and forth in future elections.
Although the Likud’s ideological roots were and continue to be tied to the ideology of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, the party’s 1977 election victory was the result of a much wider revolt against the ruling political elites of the Labor party, specifically its ethnic makeup. With immigration having changed the face of the country since its establishment in 1948, by the late 1970s, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews from Arab and eastern countries comprised a majority of the country’s Jewish population. The Labor Party’s predecessors who had been in power until that time, an elite political class groomed by David Ben-Gurion, were predominantly Ashkenazi Jews.
Having lacked representation that addressed their specific interests and facing significant discrimination since their arrival in the country in its first two decades, Mizrahi and Oriental Jews flocked to the Likud in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With its political campaigns targeting socio-economic grievances specific to those communities, by the Likud’s second election victory in 1981, Oriental Jews composed 70 percent of the party’s votes, which ensured it a second term in power.
In his 1977 victory speech, Begin described the election results as “a turning point in the history of the Jewish people.” Likud-led governments in the coming years would indeed change the country and its future, bearing responsibility for three highly significant developments.
The first event was Menachem Begin reaching a peace treaty with Egypt. Although many of the events leading up to the treaty can be chalked off as circumstantial and more related to timing than the personality and ideology of Israel’s leadership, others point to Begin’s harder line with the Arab states having presented a unique opportunity. A common anecdote in Israeli politics is that because of its hard line, only the ideological Right is capable of making peace with the country’s neighbors, although Yitzhak Rabin’s peace deal with Jordan punched some holes in that theory.
The second event was the decision to invade Lebanon in 1978. A day before the invasion, following the deadliest terror attack ever to take place in Israel, Begin invoked his Jabotinsky-inspired hardline and unapologetic attitudes regarding security. Addressing the Knesset, he foretold of his plans: “Gone forever are the days when Jewish blood could be shed with impunity.”
But the difference between the subsequent invasion of Lebanon and Israel’s previous wars was that it did not come in response to an invasion or a clear casus belli. It would later be called the first war that was not launched by necessity and was also Israel’s first war that did not lead to a clear victory.
The third development would not come for another two decades. Having been swept out of power a number of times since Begin’s dramatic upheaval of the political status quo in 1977, a Likud victory 19 years later led to a different type of dramatic change – in the country’s economic system.
Faced with economic stagnation and overwhelming inflation, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term was marked by the economic changes he made, which forever changed the country’s socialist legacy and moved the country toward a free market economy. Many of those policies and governing ideologies remain dominant in the way the country’s economy is run to this day. Some of Netanyahu’s initial moves in his first premiership were to slash social subsidies that had been a hallmark of the young state, attempts to weaken the country’s powerful unions and to privatize much of the state-owned industry that had dominated Israel’s economy since before its founding nearly 50 years earlier.
The Likud upheaval of Israeli politics in 1977 had far-reaching consequences for Israel, some positive, some negative, and the jury is still out on most of them, considering the state’s short history and changes that continue to take place. Perhaps the most significant and lasting consequence of the 1977 elections, however, was the shift in the country’s political power dynamics that introduced Israelis to a viable and capable opposition that not only opposed the dominant party’s policies and ideology, but also became an alternative.