Politics: Changing its ways

The Likud’s old guard say controversial bills defy legacy of Begin and Jabotinsky.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy: Knesset Channel)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy: Knesset Channel)
At age 38, the Likud is having an early midlife crisis. With a spate of bills on the judicial system, libel penalties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the Knesset’s agenda, the coalition’s leading party is facing accusations both from within and without of limiting individual freedoms and betraying the liberal legacies of party founder Menachem Begin and ideological forbearer Ze’ev Jabotinsky, while overemphasizing their nationalism.
“Unfortunately, the Likud is changing,” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said with a sigh on Monday, as bills on increasing the penalty for libel sixfold and regulating the Bar Association’s choice of representative to the Judicial Selection Committee were about to be brought to a vote.
Both bills passed in their first readings with coalition discipline, making them highly likely to pass in their third and final readings, but support for them within the Likud varies. The most vocal opponents of these initiatives and others – the NGO bill, the bill requiring a hearing in the Knesset for potential Supreme Court justices – are members of the Likud’s old guard. Rivlin, Minister-without-Portfolio (and son of the party’s first leader) Bennie Begin, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Government Services Minister Michael Eitan have each spoken out against at least one of the measures, which have all come from younger MKs.
“In the Likud today, many are thinking about the nationalist issue and forgetting about the liberal and the democratic component,” Rivlin explained. “Especially young, new MKs that are looking to attract votes for the next primary.”
While the exact lines of the debate are arguable – coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin has pointed out that “older” Likudniks Rivlin and Bennie Begin often vote with the “young” MKs on nationalist issues and are not proponents of judicial activism – the tension is palpable in weekly faction meetings, where MKs of all ages often whisper to reporters unpleasant, but off the record, opinions about each others’ positions.
There has been friction between the nationalist and the liberal components of the Likud’s ideology since 1973 when the Liberal Party, Menachem Begin’s Herut Party and others joined together to form one faction.
For example, Begin famously said “there are judges in Jerusalem” and accepted anti-settlement Supreme Court verdicts despite his ideology, which favored building in the West Bank. At the time, though, Begin was the party’s undisputed leader, and he set the tone and the balance for the two ideological components – liberalism and nationalism.
More than one Likud MK scoffed at Kadima, Labor and Meretz politicians’ references to the well-known quote about judges and Begin’s legacy in general.
“It’s hypocrisy for those who hated Begin to quote him and Jabotinsky all the time,” Elkin stated. “I can argue about their ideology with people from the Likud, but not with the Left that hated them.”
No matter who repeats them, “random quotes” from Begin are not applicable today, Elkin said. After all, the Supreme Court president in the 1978 Beit El case, Moshe Landau, opposed judicial activism, and predicted the current situation, in which the Knesset and the courts are clashing.
MK Tzipi Hotovely, who is often called the party’s “ideologue,” took a pragmatic stance, asking: “Who cares about Jabotinsky or Begin’s legacy? It’s weird that people are focusing on them.”
“What matters is if a bill is good or is bad,” she said.
“The bottom line is this: Even if we took Jabotinsky out of his grave, and he signed these bills, it wouldn’t automatically make them good.”
Yet MK Danny Danon, another member of the Likud’s nationalist young guard, insisted that ministers “can’t lecture me on Jabotinsky.”
As a former international leader of Betar, the youth movement started by Jabotinsky, Danon resents the attempts to tell him what “real Likud” means.
“I think our stances represent the real Likud,” Danon stated. “I’m a Betar man, I know Jabotinsky very well, and I think our mission in the Knesset is to emphasize national issues like settlement, Jerusalem and Zionist educations, without sacrificing individual freedoms.”
Danon said he doesn’t see any harm to the individual in the legislation his party is currently promoting.
Moshe Fuksman-Sha’al, a Tel Aviv University doctoral student and researcher of the Likud, has his own explanation for the ideological arguments.
“The Likud’s political DNA dictates that it behaves like the opposition, even when it is leading the country,” he explained.
According to Fuksman-Sha’al, while the Likud may be in charge politically, party members see “an unelected elite” in the media, academia and courts, all of which tend to be to the Left of the Likud.
“Even when the Likud is in charge, they don’t really have control,” he added. “These three elements stop the Likud from making its ideology a reality.”
The new bills are all a part of this process, in which the majority of Likud MKs are nationalist and emphasize settlement and oppose giving land to the Palestinians, but at the same time party leader Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu professes to favor a Palestinian State.
“This only increases the feeling of opposition, because it comes from within the Likud and leads to negative reactions,” Fuksman-Sha’al said. “Elkin, Danon and others feel connected to the Land of Israel, but they feel like they’re not in charge.”
Yet Rivlin, despite not being known as a supporter of Palestinian statehood, is confident that Netanyahu will not be swayed by the newer MKs.
“I’m happy the prime minister understands that this wave [of legislation] is not good for Israel,” he stated. “A leader needs to be strong enough to push off the wave that was created.”
“After all, there is a lot of water in the wave, but it’s made up of drops,” Rivlin quipped.
Meanwhile, the increasingly right-wing Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria regions have grown to become the largest Likud membership districts, leading MKs that are not usually seen as ideologues to try to make their voices heard. For example, MK Ofir Akunis, a close Netanyahu ally, has proposed a much-contested bill to limit foreign governments’ contributions to NGOs.
At the same time, Rivlin, Begin and Meridor’s places in the party’s ranks are safe. It is highly unlikely that they would be voted out of the Knesset, so they are able to toe a more liberal line.
Even Rivlin admitted as much, saying that “the race for a spot in the next Knesset will be tough” and that “young new MKs are competing to become famous among voters and supporters.”
Rivlin sees these bills as a battle in the “political war within the Likud over who is the leader of the right wing” so that they can curry favor with voters, but he warns against taking ideas too far to the Right.
“The moral idea of returning to our homeland and establishing Israel as a Jewish state must be attached to the idea of democracy,” he said. “Without democracy, everything will be ruined.”
“Some young members of the party don’t remember the days when the Likud was in the opposition and think we were always here, because the Likud has become the party of the people,” said the Knesset speaker, who has been an MK since 1988 and is a former party chairman.
He added: “They don’t understand, and think they’ll always be in charge so they can do whatever they want. They don’t realize that if you steal from a Cossack, it’s still theft – meaning that we were elected to lead, not to avenge.”
“Sometimes, you need maturity to understand these things,” Rivlin said.
The Knesset speaker pointed out that Jabotinsky and Begin “both suffered from the majority’s reign and fought for the opposition’s rights. When Begin reached the top, he said the tyranny of the majority would end.”
At the same time, Elkin has been carrying on a part of Jabotinsky’s and Begin’s legacies that MKs are more reluctant to discuss. All three have been accused by the opposition of being fascists.
The coalition chairman points to two reasons for the negative epithet.
“When you talk about things that are taboo, the reaction is always negative,” he said. “Jabotinsky and Begin were persecuted because they opposed the institution, and were called crazy fascists.”
Elkin has faced the same criticism from opposition MKs and op-ed columnists for promoting bills to limit two of the three institutions Fuksman-Sha’al mentioned: The Supreme Court and the media.
“The main reason Jabotinsky was called a fascist,” Elkin explained, “is that he put the nation before the individual.”
He added: “I agree and say the individual is important, but the collective is most important.”
As Elkin and Rivlin, the new Likud and the old Likud debate the merits of the controversial legislation, the question still remains: What would Jabotinsky do?