This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.
The party faithful who gathered in Tel Aviv on April 14 for a pre-Passover toast heard Binyamin Netanyahu announce that he would amplify Israel’s security-and-peace principles at a joint session of the US Congress next month. Surveying the crowd from the podium, the prime minister no doubt took comfort from a recent survey showing that 76 percent of Likud members opposed annexing all of Judea and Samaria. Yet he would also have known that 10,000 party recruits had been newly signed up by uncompromising settler leaders. How, then, to keep the Likud (“Union”) together, and in the center of Israel’s political mainstream?
In bridging the gap between ideological purism and political realism, the needs of security and the quest for peace, Netanyahu follows in the footsteps of the party’s founder Menachem Begin.
This much and more become clear in a new collection of essays on the evolution of Israel’s Right, From the Altalena to the Present Day
(Hebrew), edited by the political scientist Abraham Diskin.
Begin formed the Herut (“Freedom”) party – the antecedent of Likud – on
May 14, 1948, the day the state was declared. This in itself marked a
victory of pragmatism over zeal. Historically, as Herzl Makov, chairman
of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, points out in the book’s preface,
competing underground factions – like, for instance, Begin’s pre-state
Irgun and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah – have gone on fighting each other
long after the struggle for liberation is won. Yet even after the
Haganah fired upon and sank the Irgun arms ship Altalena off Tel Aviv on
June 6, 1948, Begin was determined that among Zionists, at least, there
would be no civil war.
From that day forward, he committed his movement to occupy the center-right position within Israel’s parliamentary democracy.
From the first, the deck was stacked against him. Ben- Gurion’s Mapai
faction, a major element in the labor movement that dominated both the
quasi-governmental Jewish Agency and the Histadrut workers federation,
captured a 46-seat plurality in the first Knesset elections in January
1949; Herut won a total of 14 mandates. This radical imbalance remained
essentially unchanged until 1977.
As for Ben-Gurion himself, not only did he rule out any political
reconciliation between the Begin-led camp and his own Laborites; he
pledged to ostracize Herut forever by keeping it out of any Labor-led
coalition government. So deep did his personal animosity run that in
Knesset debates he would refer to Begin only as “the man sitting next to
Dr. Yohanan Bader.”
Paradoxically, this campaign to blacklist him only further spurred
Begin’s resolve to keep Herut in the political mainstream. In doing so,
he had to overcome the opposition of the Revisionist party, which
claimed to be the true standard-bearer of the Zionist Right and the most
faithful to the ideology of the Right’s founding father and presiding
genius, Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). Ultimately, though, the
Revisionists, like the even smaller Freedom Fighters for Israel (Lehi),
would be absorbed into Herut.
The quarantine into which Ben-Gurion had placed Begin started to
disintegrate as early as 1954 as a result of the political fallout from a
botched Israeli intelligence operation in Egypt known as the Lavon
A decade later, with the Laborites bickering among themselves and
Ben-Gurion himself out of power, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol permitted
Jabotinsky’s remains to be brought to Israel and interred on Mount
Herzl, not far from the gravesite of Herzl himself.
In 1965, Begin orchestrated an alignment with the centrist Liberal party
to form Gahal (“Herut-Liberal Bloc”), which garnered 26 mandates in
that year’s elections. It was the entry of Gahal into the Labor-led
national-unity government just before the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day
war that permanently broke Begin free from his political isolation. As a
cabinet minister without portfolio, he rejoiced over the IDF’s
liberation of Judea and Samaria.
In due course, however, Begin quit the government, now headed by Golda
Meir, to protest its initial acceptance of a 1969 American plan that
would have brought the Soviet Union into peace negotiations on the side
of the Arabs. Four years later, after the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur
war, with Labor’s authority increasingly called into question, Begin
joined forces with Ariel Sharon to mastermind the birth of the Likud out
of Gahal and several smaller factions. His political savvy was
vindicated in 1977 with the Likud’s smashing electoral victory,
overturning Labor’s decades-long monopoly on power.
To accomplish this feat, Begin had pulled together settlers, security
hawks, predominantly Ashkenazi proponents of a free-market economy, and
working-class Sephardim tethered to the welfare state. He reinforced
this amalgamation in 1981 by solidifying Orthodox backing for a second
term. The glue that held it all together was the electorate’s overriding
distrust of Arab intentions. But that did not translate into a
corresponding rigidity on Begin’s part. The prime minister, writes his
former cabinet secretary Arye Naor in From the Altalena to the Present
Day, was determined to stay in step with Israel’s (shifting) political
center, even if that required jettisoning down-theline ideological
purism. His maneuvering did not come without costs. In 1979, his former
comrade-in-arms Shmuel Katz left the government over Begin’s willingness
to trade Sinai land in return for peace with Egypt; Geulah Cohen,
another old colleague, broke away to help form the Tehiya party.
A seeming anomaly in this pattern was Begin’s 1981 decision to have the
Knesset suddenly annex the Golan Heights. But this may have been less
the result of hardline principle than of pique at the Reagan
administration, then in the process of selling advanced military weapons
to Saudi Arabia while threatening to embargo military aid to Israel
over its destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Begin resigned the premiership in the aftermath of the botched 1982
campaign in Lebanon, but the story of his years in power is the story of
all subsequent Likud prime ministers. Under Yitzhak Shamir, Likud
demonstrated far greater ideological steadfastness than under Begin, but
even Shamir could not avoid being dragged by US pressure to the 1991
Madrid talks, aimed at achieving a permanent resolution of the
Palestinian issue. In the mid-90s, in his own first administration,
Netanyahu not only failed to renounce Israel’s commitments to the
fatally flawed 1993 Oslo Accords but carried out a partial pullback from
the West Bank city of Hebron. In 2003, in the midst of the second
intifada, Ariel Sharon campaigned as a “Leader for Peace” and accepted
the US-backed Roadmap that foresaw the eventual establishment of a
Palestinian state. In 2005, when the party rank-and-file repeatedly
voted against Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza unilaterally, he
defected to form Kadima.
Netanyahu has now been back in power for two years, once again juggling
the demands of his right-wing coalition against those of Israel’s fickle
international allies. If From the Altalena to the Present Day is any
guide, he will continue to navigate the Likud toward the political
center – where most voters are – by espousing strength through security
along with pliability on the diplomatic front. Like his predecessors, he
will strive to bridge the gap between purism and the pragmatic needs of
This moment, our moment, promises to be as difficult and as hazardous as
any faced by any prime minister of Israel since the state’s inception.The writer is a former Jerusalem Post
editorial page editor, and is now contributing editor to Jewish Ideas
Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com), where this article was first published
and is reprinted with permission.
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