On a week like this, many of the questions swirling around Israeli politics have to do with the Likud.
Will Moshe Kahlon really split the Likud? Will Benjamin Netanyahu end up losing control of the Likud to someone else, like Gideon Sa’ar? And regardless of who ends up leading it, can the Likud win? There’s another question that ought to occupy us no less, however: Is the Likud still the Likud? Or, to put matters differently, would the Likud’s founder, Menachem Begin, still recognize the party he created in 1973? To be sure, it has been more than 40 years since Begin founded the Likud, and more than 30 since he left office in 1982. Israel is a very different place, as are our region and the international community. But many of the tensions in Israeli society are, despite the passage of time, not as different as one might have expected, and it’s worth noting how Begin addressed similar challenges – even if it was, of course, in a very different context.
While the Jewish Nation-State bill may or may not have been the issue that brought down this government (some believe it was actually the Sheldon Adelson bill), it was undoubtedly part of what brought matters to a boil. The bill being discussed in the Knesset aroused much of the antipathy that it did because it specifically failed to mention the word “equality” when it came to Israel’s Arabs.
It is thus worth recalling who was one of the primary opponents of applying military law to Israel’s Arab community.
Military rule over the country’s Arabs had been instituted after the War of Independence, in response to the very real concern that the only thing which distinguished many of the Arabs inside Israel as opposed to those outside was who ended up where when the fighting stopped. There was no reason to imagine that those Arabs who happened to end up on Israel’s side of the line were happy about – or would be loyal to – a newly founded Jewish state. Military rule was meant to address that.
But as the years went by, it became clear that a democracy could not have one legal system for Jewish citizens and another for Arab citizens – and military rule was lifted in November 1966. Interestingly, though, as the Knesset debated the issue a few years earlier, on February 20, 1962, it was the “right-wing” Begin who rose to speak.
It was a long address, worthy of reading in its entirety. But in this space, we can, at least, recall the way he concluded: “Why would we possibly say to the entire world that there is no equality of rights among our citizens, when in fact there is? It would add honor to the State of Israel, it would add strength to the State of Israel, it would add stability to the State of Israel, and bring international prestige to the State of Israel – if we abolish the military rule over Israel’s Arabs.”
Begin’s proposal was not to end military rule immediately, but over a period of time. And laws needed to be written to fill any vacuum created – he understood that, too. But he understood more than anything that either Israel had equal rights for all its citizens, or it did not.
If it did not, that would have been a problem of a different sort. But since it did, it made all the sense in the world to boast to the global community of our commitment to equality, to do what we could to add prestige to a country he understood the world would never love.
Begin must have been spinning in his grave “listening” to the debate over the Jewish Nation-State bill in recent weeks.
There was no mention of “equality,” no regard for the damage the bill would have done to Israel’s prestige and worse, no sense at all that the values of the party he created were anywhere in evidence.
Begin was a man committed to many principles, Jewishness prime among them. But the “rule of law” was equally important to him, and that impacted his relationship with Israel’s courts, which often ruled in ways that disappointed him. When in July 1979 the Supreme Court ruled that Elon Moreh had been built on inappropriately expropriated Arab land and demanded the settlement be moved, many of Begin’s supporters – who knew Begin supported the settlement movement – were waiting for him to push back at the court. His response, however, was shorter than brief: “There are judges in Jerusalem,” he said curtly.
The court would be heeded.
Begin’s taking in of the Vietnamese boat people as his first real act as prime minister is well-known. When US president Jimmy Carter later congratulated him on it publicly, Begin thanked Carter, but told him it was simply the Jewish thing to do. The Jews knew what it was like to have nowhere to go – they could not stand idly by and let these people die of thirst, floating on the South China Sea.
Many years later, it is clear that Israel has horribly bungled the Sudanese refugee problem. It has admitted far too many of them, large numbers of whom were not fleeing genocide, but then had no thoughtful policy for dealing with them once they were in Israel. When in 2012 then-interior minister Eli Yishai (Shas) said “they should be put into holding cells or jails and then… sent back” to the countries from which they had come, he brought no prestige to Israel, to understate matters rather radically.
But the Likud government was silent.
When, more recently, the Supreme Court struck down (twice) an amendment to the “Infiltrators Law” that would have allowed the government to hold people for three years without trial, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded that he was exploring all of his alternatives – a barely veiled threat that he would try to limit the power of the court. The era of “judges in Jerusalem” appears to have ended.
Other examples abound, but there’s no need. There was an era when the Likud, unabashedly right-wing and deeply committed to Israel’s Jewishness, was also deeply committed to the rule of law, and was wise about safeguarding Israel’s international prestige.
We do not yet know who will lead the Likud, but one thing we can hope for already: That whoever ends up holding the reins of the party does what is needed to restore the moral, ideological and legal principles which once made it great. The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul; he is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.