Israel politics: 40 years to 'the revolution'

The Right has been in power for most years since the Likud won its first election... So why do many on the Right complain that they still don’t run the country?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster depicting the late prime minister Menachem Begin, upon his arrival at the Likud party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv in 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster depicting the late prime minister Menachem Begin, upon his arrival at the Likud party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv in 2010
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Ladies and gentlemen, revolution,” legendary anchorman Haim Yavin famously said of the May 17, 1977, election that brought Menachem Begin and the Likud the premiership and Israel its first government that wasn’t led by the socialist Mapai Party or its successor the Labor Party.
But was it, really? The Likud has spent about three-fourths of the subsequent 40 years in power, and yet the Right is constantly complaining that it doesn’t truly run the country. Google “the Right doesn’t know how to govern” in Hebrew, and you’ll get over 86,000 results, with articles from a variety of publications including the phrase over the years.
Earlier this year, Erez Tadmor, one of the founders of the right-wing Im Tirzu organization and a former speechwriter for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even published a book titled (in Hebrew) “Why do you vote Right and get Left?” The book’s central thesis is that the civil servants and cultural elites remained left-wing even after the change in elected officials, and that they have so much power that they even “tamed” right-wingers.
The blame for that, Tadmor points out, lies squarely on the shoulders of Begin, who left all of the Mapainik bureaucrats in place, undermining his ability to enact his policies with the argument that shocked then-Likud MKs that “governments come and go, but the civil servant remains.”
The second reason Tadmor points to is that the Supreme Court was given too much power. And, Tadmor reminds readers, the Likud allowed it to happen, with 11 of its MKs voting in favor of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which gave the court the de facto ability to cancel laws the Knesset passed.
These laments have been heard many times from the Likud’s, and more recently from Bayit Yehudi’s, benches in the Knesset over the years. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin began speaking out against judicial activism as Likud activists, and continued in the Knesset, with Shaked moving to Bayit Yehudi.
Continuing the Likud’s tradition of appealing to Sephardi voters in the periphery, Culture Minister Miri Regev – who is fond of reminding Israelis that she’s Miri Siboni from Kiryat Gat – has railed against the European elites in her ministry’s purview, diverting funds from the Philharmonic to the Andalusian Orchestra and making quotable comments about not reading Chekhov.
But this raises the question: If the Right has been in charge for so long, at what point is it its own fault if it hasn’t figured out how to use its political power, and not the fault of the judicial, cultural and media elites? Yisrael Medad, a Jerusalem Post media critic who was a parliamentary aide in the rightof- Likud Tehiya Party while Begin was prime minister and afterward, said the obstacles right-wing politicians faced are real. It wasn’t just Begin’s unwillingness to replace the bureaucracy, it was “30 years of entrenchment of left-of-center people in all levels of executive and administrative positions.”
“Up until 1977, people affiliated with the [Likud forebear] Herut movement weren’t in any way considered for jobs that would have an impact on running the country,” he explained. “There weren’t people who could set policy.... If Begin wanted to appoint a diplomat, he didn’t have anyone who wasn’t even three tiers down from the top in the Foreign Ministry, not because they were less smart than Mapai, but because they had no experience. There was no one around.”
As for the cultural aspect, Medad sees the media, judiciary and parts of the civil service having a relationship in which they support one another: “The media and intellectuals give each other prizes and they invite the judges.... It becomes a whole sacred territory you’re not allowed to step into, because as soon as you do, you’re hurting democracy....
Rhetoric in trying to defend the system has become very catastrophic.”
POLITICIANS ON the Right are understandably hesitant to say they don’t actually know how to run the country, but quite a few of them had things to say about the subject in recent weeks. Some argued that while the Right traditionally didn’t know how to enact its policies, they are changing that.
Two weeks ago, Netanyahu gave nearly an hourlong talk at a Menachem Begin Heritage Center event marking 40 years since the “revolution.”
Begin Center director-general Herzl Makov mentioned in his introduction for Netanyahu that there is a “feeling of bitterness....
People on the Right say the Right doesn’t know how to govern. How do we explain this?” The punditry focused on the fact that Netanyahu barely mentioned Begin, citing bad blood between his father, Benzion Netanyahu, and the former prime minister. But the speech really seemed to be a very long rebuttal of Makov’s idea – much of it was the prime minister’s usual stump speech and list of his achievements. Beyond that, Netanyahu said the Likud’s rise to power was certainly revolutionary.
“It was much more than a political event,” he said. “[The 1977 election] was the tip of the iceberg, with changes in many areas... the economy, foreign relations and security, social matters.... The difference is clearly real.”
While Netanyahu admitted that in matters of security there was relative continuity from Mapai to Likud – at least back in the ’70s – he focused on the economy, freeing up the markets and Begin’s programs to lift people out of poverty, as the true, deep change.
Likud director of international relations Eli Hazan made a similar argument, saying that Begin brought a social revolution.
“Why are development towns still attached to the Likud 40 years later? Because the Likud took care of them,” Hazan said, citing his own family as an example of the phenomenon. “In 1970, [Yitzhak] Shamir opened branches of [Likud predecessor] Gahal around the country, giving a place to people Mapai wouldn’t accept. After 1977, poor factory workers who couldn’t get ahead because they weren’t in Mapai could become managers.... Begin brought an atmosphere that we’re all equal.
“Today, more groups are taking part in society....
There are more Mizrahi Jews in every sector of Israeli society, except in the High Court and academia, where the Left is still in charge. You see it in the army, in the economy.
You don’t ask where someone’s parents came from in a job interview,” Hazan said, but admitted that it’s not only the “revolution” that caused it, it’s also increased social cohesion between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews.
Whether the Right is really in charge is “a question of percentage,” Hazan explained.
“People have the impression that the Right is not in charge at all, but the number of settlers has multiplied many times over.”
Plus, Hazan argued that increased transparency over the years means that any government will look less competent than it did 40-50 years ago.
Medad posited that the current government is on the path to implementing right-wing policies, but urged Bayit Yehudi ministers to “quiet down,” warning that some ministers’ ambitions to be prime minister may destroy united right-wing efforts.
“Because of the personal competition, you’re using a coalition agreement to build a base to become the next prime minister, not for the benefit of the country, and that undermines your own ability to carry out policies,” Medad explained.
Acting Communications Minister Tzachi Hanegbi shrugged off the complaints about the Right’s ineptitude.
After bringing up happy memories of getting a day off from his IDF service to congratulate his mother, Geula Cohen, for being reelected to the Knesset, Hangebi said the Likud’s rise was indeed revolutionary in economics and diplomacy; and even in the area of security, Begin and former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir were more proactive.
“The complaints are because some people in the Likud always feel like they’re the victim and they’re neglected, that we haven’t done enough,” Hanegbi sighed. “Also, the media are still run by people who are critical of the Right, which makes sense because the Right is in charge, and it’s the media’s job to criticize the government.”
Hanegbi took a Begin-like stance on civil servants and judges, saying simply, “These institutions aren’t supposed to reflect the results of elections.”
Similarly, MK Tzipi Livni, of the Zionist Union and its principal component, the Labor Party, seemed to argue that the Right not governing, despite being elected, is a good thing.
Despite being on the Left today, Livni is Likud royalty, with parents who were prominent fighters in the Irgun. Livni said she remembered, and she heard from her parents about, the days when the Likud was a “rejected minority” whose members had no political power and great difficulty getting jobs in the very centralized market, and because of that, the Likud needs to be more accepting of its opponents.
“The texts we hear today that ‘We’re the majority, we’ll decide,’ are disconcerting. That is not the revolution of ’77. That’s not Begin’s democracy,” Livni said at the event at the Begin Center.
Another position on the Left is that not only does the Right have no legitimate reason to complain, but its complaint is a manipulation.
“There’s reality, and then there’s what they say. In reality, they are in charge,” Zionist Union faction chairwoman Merav Michaeli said of the Right, arguing that the country is suffering the consequences of the Right implementing its policies.
“The Right is doing all it can to continue our presence in Judea and Samaria. In the socioeconomic area it increased gaps in the country.... It starved higher education and undermined the equality in knowledge and enlightenment. Privatizing things and starving the government create a lack of trust in the state and its institutions... which eats away at it.”
But the reason for the complaints, Michaeli argued, is that they help the Right stay in power.
“This is how they continue playing the victim.
They’re changing the rules. It used to be that you could be very political and not politically correct, until you’re in charge. When you’re in charge, it’s a different ballgame; you’re the government, you’re responsible for the common good. That was before Netanyahu,” she said. “Netanyahu is in charge but acts like a victim... allowing him to continue to gain sympathy, and there’s someone else to blame for the destructive results of his actions.... At most they say the problems are because, 40 years ago, Mapai discriminated against them, but when the Right really is in charge, it’ll change.”
“It’s amazing that it works,” Michaeli added.
SHAKED BUYS that the Right didn’t know how to rule for 40 years. However, she is optimistic that the Right is finally ascendant.
“There were a lot of unity governments, and it’s enough that there’s one [not-right-wing] party that gets in the way, like [Labor led by Ehud] Barak in Netanyahu’s government in 2009, that they can’t implement a right-wing agenda,” Shaked explained. “In the last government, Livni had the Justice portfolio, so they couldn’t do anything. [After the 2015 election] is the first time there’s a totally rightwing coalition, and the first time the justice minister had a right-wing majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.”
What Shaked didn’t mention is that she’s the one who ensured that majority when it comes to judicial selection, something that anti-activist justice ministers of recent years, such as Yaakov Neeman and Daniel Friedmann, did not do. She made a political deal with the Israel Bar Association, and helped get right-wing Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov get voted in as the opposition representative on the committee. He retained his spot even after the party joined the coalition, because the opposition seat is a tradition, not the law.
“There’s a big change in the last two years,” Shaked said, but made sure to add: “Still, the judiciary has to represent everyone and not be political in one direction.... I am working to create that balance.”
As for the complaint about civil servants, Shaked said she and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of Bayit Yehudi, have made it a priority to install people who “are the best professionally, and will also implement our policies as best as possible.
“I think, with this government, the Right is really in charge,” she stated. “It’s not all or nothing. It’s a process that takes time.”