In the beginning of the ’80s of the previous century, a new age began in international politics. Indeed, in the years between 1979 and 1981, two major figures got elected as leaders of important countries, in what was nothing less than a groundbreaking change in each country.
On one hand, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was elected England’s prime minister in 1979. Thatcher brought a conservative worldview with a strong belief in the free market, a strong patriotic feeling, and a realist view of international matters.
On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 as president of the United States. It is hard to imagine today how much his election was a revolution in American consciousness. For ever since, we are used to having a candidate in every election, on the Republican side, who is seen as continuing his path and philosophy.
Reagan, too, brought a worldview that included a strong free market, a strong patriotic feeling, and a realist view of international matters.
In both cases, the people did not regret their decision. Thatcher remained Britain’s prime minister until 1990, for 11 consecutive years, the longest continuous period of office of any prime minister in the 20th century. Reagan remained president for eight years, the maximum allowed by American law, and his successor, George Bush, was elected to replace him, a sign of satisfaction with his job performance.
The success of conservative politics
In both cases, we can also see actual achievements. If, in the beginning of both of their rules, communism was a real danger to the Western world, the realism of these leaders helped them defeat this danger, as Communist Russia quickly disintegrated.
On the economic level, before Reagan, the American economy was in a state of “stagflation,” stagnation in growth and employment, combined with inflation in consumer prices. The marginal federal income tax rate was 70 percent. The inflation rate was increasing by double digits annually and averaged 12% under US president Jimmy Carter. Annual GDP growth under the previous administration had been less than 1% (0.6). National unemployment was over 10%. It was the worst American economy, in fact, since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Reagan promoted free-market economics, lowering taxes drastically, lowering government spending and advocating for deregulation. The results were immediate. His economic policies saw a reduction of inflation from 12.5% to 4.4%, and an average annual growth of real GDP of 3.44%.
Thatcher implemented similar economic policies. Inspired by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, she championed mass freedom to innovate over bureaucratic economic planning.
Thatcher cut the income tax on the highest bracket from an incredibly high 83% to 60%, while also lowering taxes for the less wealthy. She cut government spending in almost all areas except for defense and police spending.
While early on, the reforms did not affect Britain’s economy, which continued spiraling down to a recession, by 1983 the economy shaped up. In 1987 the inflation rate was as low as 4%, down from an earlier high of 21%, with the economy growing at a rate of 5%.
Most importantly for our discussion, she had a lasting impact on British policy and politics, as well as public discourse, with a British Labor Party politician, Peter Mandelson, complimenting her with the statement in 2002 that “we are all Thatcherites now.”
The Begin revolution
In Israel, as in the United States and England, in those exact same years a similar, yet different, political revolution occurred.
The “Mahapach” (shake-up in Hebrew) came when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister in 1979. Here, too, the revolution came from the Right and at the expense of the Left. The Likud, the “liberal national party,” beat the sociali st Mapai Party.
Sadly, here in Israel, despite the political revolution, it’s hard to talk about a real change in government policy. While some advancement has been made toward free-market policies, and while rightwing governments have won successive elections, the public discourse in Israel is still one that promotes social-democratic values and utopian land concessions.
Today, 35 years after that political revolution, Israel is still led by the Left’s perception. On a diplomatic level, even a right-wing prime minister from the Likud is forced to accept the Oslo framework, which was promoted by the Left, and to recognize the two-state solution.
On the economic level, even a prime minister like Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a known fan of the free market, must, in every new election, show some socialist achievements, which are not coherent with his own worldviews, in order to get reelected: from different kinds of subsidies to the expansion of government services.
Netanyahu is clearly a man with strongly liberal economic values and a deep feeling of nationalism, what Americans call a conservative worldview. He is also one of the most powerful prime ministers that Israelis have ever had. If he is unable to entrench Israel with conservative values, this underlines the difficulty of such a task.
Israel should be a more conservative country
Israel seems to be a place where conservatism flourishes. On an economic level, the ethos of the country is based on innovation. Israel is called the “Start-up Nation” and people value entrepreneurship. This should mean that free-market principles would be popular in Israel.
On a moral level, Israel is a country that traces its roots back to biblical times. As Leo Strauss, a conservative philosopher, wrote in a letter about Israel and conservatism, “Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity.”
Being an outpost of democracy surrounded by enemies that wish to destroy it should encourage Israel to move away from utopian visions and embrace a realist view of international relations.
On every single layer of conservative philosophy, the conservative movement should be growing in Israel.
Not only that, but there are also sectors of Israeli society that should be fertile ground for the growth of the conservative movement.
The revisionist movement started by Ze’ev Jabotinsky was based on values almost identical to the conservative movement: an opposition to socialism, and realism with respect to international relations.
The religious-Zionist movement, while today largely based on the Hegelian philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, still has some strong conservative tendencies. For example, Kook’s philosophy itself shows great respect for historical processes, a foundational principle in conservative thought. Religious Zionists also tend to be aligned with the Right with respect to international relations.
Finally, the Sephardi community in Israel – which on the one hand is very respectful of tradition, as conservatives are, and on the other hand was the victim of the socialist policies of Mapai and central planning that preferred the Ashkenazim to their Sephardi counterparts – should also be prone to embrace conservative philosophy.The need to invest in public discourse
If the record of conservative politics is so positive, if Israel’s current prime minister is an ideologically conservative politician, and if Israel has all the ingredients to be fertile ground for the growth of a conservative political movement, why is it that such a movement has yet to emerge?
The answer is simple: Before the conservative movement emerged in American politics, it emerged in American public discourse. Various vessels were created in order to allow for the communication of conservative thought, including newspapers such as the National Review, and figures such as Leo Strauss were influential in academia. Also, before it succeeded in winning an election, the conservative movement also lost elections led by courageous politicians who were not afraid to campaign with an ideology not yet ingrained in the American mind.
For a conservative political movement to emerge in Israel, the public discourse must first change. Incentives must be created for politicians to act conservatively. This can be done by pressure groups, and by the change of the general public discourse. Once the public discourse changes, the political world will follow.
Therefore, those who want to see a conservative movement rise in Israel, for the good of Israel, should work toward changing the public discourse to embrace free market principles, realist international relations and conservative political principles. The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman. He previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.