(photo credit: )
Likud activists should be forgiven for denying this, but yesterday their hard-won, seemingly shatterproof and increasingly abusive hegemony of Israeli politics has effectively come to its end.
The party that Sharon abandoned yesterday rose to power in 1977, a mere three years after he established it by merging several parties whose main common denominator was not the nationalist, economic, and religious conservatism they shared, but their hatred - each for its own reason - of Labor. Yet hatred quickly proved no substitute for plans, and Labor's spirit continued for years to haunt Likud's governance.
First, the Likud left intact the bureaucracy it had inherited from Labor. Then it took a page from its archrival's platform, and struck a land-for-peace deal with Egypt. And finally, when Shimon Peres combated hyperinflation by liberalizing the economy in ways the Likud had for years advocated, the party adopted a populist stance that pandered to the working-class.
Throughout those years the Likud repeatedly defeated Labor at the ballots, but always by points. And so, when it finally won by a knockout, in February 2003, garnering 40 Knesset seats compared with Labor's 19, Likud members felt they were finally entering the political promised land of indefinite dominance. Aware that the voters held Labor accountable for this decade's Palestinian violence, and that Sharon was credited with confronting it, Likudniks thought they would produce the country's navigators, representatives and power brokers, much the way Mapai did during the Ben-Gurion era.
They could hardly have been more conceited.
Mapai's hegemony lasted as long as it had because its members accepted their leader's pragmatism, and its hacks checked their own opportunism. Ben-Gurion's party respected the ideological compromise he made in accepting the partition principle, and at the same time spent decades creating kibbutzim, moshavim, a health care system, Bank Hapoalim, companies like Solel Boneh and Koor, and cultural institutions like the Am Oved publishing house.
While at it they also installed their people wherever power was, from municipalities to embassies. Still, as long they were building the country and managing its affairs prudently, most people didn't mind them. Only in '77, after Labor had failed to avert a war and when its corruption became exposed, did it lose power.
The Likud's flirt with hegemony was much shorter. In that party, the leader's embrace of pragmatism proved disagreeable to too many members, while the hacks' thirst for political spoils proved unquenchable.
After initially successfully heralding ambitious reforms in myriad fields from the pension industry to the educational system, in a way that made Sharon's leadership and Likud's rule increasingly resemble Mapai's hegemony, Sharon challenged his party wit the disengagement plan the way Ben-Gurion challenged his followers by adopting the partition principle in 1937, and declaring statehood in May '48. While Sharon, once the high priest of territorial integrity crossed the Rubicon that separated between fanaticism and pragmatism, his party stayed behind.
While at it, the party also demonstrated a lack of a debating culture. The confrontation of Sharon's controversial policies was usually done by hollering, whistling and fist-waving, and that too by the party whose members - and leaders - seldom personally bothered moving to live beyond the Green Line. Even more awkwardly, Binyamin Netanyahu embarked on his Thatcherist reforms without ever consulting the party, whose voters apparently remain attentive to the kind of populism that made their representative oppose the much milder Peres reforms of '85.
While the notion of ideological introspection remained for the Likud something between an exotic curiosity and a boxing match, its members continued in earnest to wrestle with each other for anything and everything from bureaucratic positions and assorted directorships to municipal tenders and diplomatic appointments. The scramble was conducted unabashedly, in broad daylight and in frequent disregard of professional standards.
And so, within three years of its sweeping defeat of Labor, the Likud's public image increasingly resembled that of its historic nemesis -- Mapai. Now the Likud Central Committee was perceived as the hated circus of pork barrel politics, the chief enemy of public fairness, accomplishment and merit.
Ultimately, the Likud emerged as a meeting place for ideological diehards from here, and cynical job-seekers from there. And so, between the idealists and the opportunists there was no longer room for the pragmatists. People like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, or Knesset Committee Chairman Roni Bar-On were ground thin while trying to reconcile party ideals with international realities.
Whether Sharon's new party emerges as the centrist force that ruled Israel in its first decades, remains to be seen. What does not remain to be seen is that the Likud chance to assume that role has been squandered. The Sages said that some win and some lose entire worlds in one moment. Likud's moment arrived in February '03, only to vanish by November '05.