Six Day War: What's left of Israel's Left, 55 years later?

The Six Day War that initially led the Labor Party to its biggest victory ever, actually caused its demise.

GOLDA MEIR on the dais at the Mapai-Labor Party conference with (from L) Zalman Shazar, David Ben-Gurion and Giora Yoseftal, Tel Aviv, 1959. (photo credit: HANS PINN/GPO)
GOLDA MEIR on the dais at the Mapai-Labor Party conference with (from L) Zalman Shazar, David Ben-Gurion and Giora Yoseftal, Tel Aviv, 1959.
(photo credit: HANS PINN/GPO)

Euphoria, victory’s sweet toxin, was still dizzying millions of Israelis when they handed Golda Meir the biggest landslide any Israeli leader ever won.

It was October 1969, and Israelis’ hope, confidence, and pride were at their peak. The Six Day War was a fresh memory, the world admired Israel’s resilience and courage, the economy was booming and Israelis were flocking to their new, vast realms, from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Hermon, while roaming freely the markets of Gaza, Hebron, Nablus and Jenin.

For more stories released for the 55th anniversary of the Six Day War, click here.

True, the War of Attrition was raging along the Suez Canal, but voters believed in the IDF’s invincibility and also in their politicians’ wisdom and poise. That is how the Labor Party emerged from that poll with 56 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the closest any party ever came to winning an absolute majority.

Labor’s hegemony, which harked back to pre-statehood decades, seemed ironclad and eternal. In fact though, the party that spearheaded the Jewish state’s creation was fast approaching the downfall from which, nearly half-a-century on, it has yet to emerge.

Now, with its last electoral victory nearly a quarter-of-a-century old, Labor’s following is down to less than one tenth of the public. There are many reasons for this downfall, but the most decisive emerged from the aftermath of the same Six Day War that initially handed Labor its biggest victory. The cataclysm that first seemed like a political blessing ended up a curse.

 MAPPING OUT the Yom Kippur War in the Northern Command, October 10, 1973. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) MAPPING OUT the Yom Kippur War in the Northern Command, October 10, 1973. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

THE WAR’S first debilitating result was the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Labor-led government was humbled by the surprise attack that was Israel’s own Pearl Harbor.

Militarily, the Egyptian crossing of the Sinai and the Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights, underscored by Syria’s initial conquest of Mount Hermon, were unthinkable prospects for a country that emerged from its previous war convinced of its invincibility. Yes, Israel ultimately won in 1973, but victory’s price, more than 2,600 fatalities, was seen throughout Israel as exorbitant and preventable.

Labor was blamed for presiding over a culture of conceit and arrogance inspired by victory-drunk leaders, most notably defense minister Moshe Dayan, Meir’s right-hand man, who was held responsible for the IDF’s arrival at the war unprepared. A widespread sense of bitterness produced a grassroots protest movement that sent thousands to the streets. Israel had never seen such political wrath.

Even so, political collapse was avoided. In the election that took place the month after the war, Labor lost a tenth of its voters, but still established a government. Five months later, Meir resigned and the party leadership passed, for the first time since its establishment 44 years earlier, to a Sabra: Yitzhak Rabin.

Meir and the rest of the party’s old guard hoped that Labor would now embark on a healing process; that the recent war’s trauma would be overcome by the 53-year-old hero of victory in 1967 who had nothing to do with the traumatic war of 1973, and was also a modest introvert whose bashfulness contrasted the departing era’s arrogance.

The hopes were dashed.

Rabin’s first premiership was lackluster. The economy lagged, his public appearances were uninspiring, his defense minister Shimon Peres openly challenged him, and a succession of corruption scandals made banner headlines as the election of 1977 approached.

One scandal involved Rabin’s nominee for governor of the Bank of Israel, Asher Yadlin, who was indicted for having taken kickbacks from contractors in his position as CEO of the Histadrut’s sick fund. The revelation that a suspected financial criminal nearly became head of the central bank convinced much of the swing vote that Labor’s long decades in power had corrupted it to the bone.

This impression was soon redoubled when police began probing embezzlement suspicions against Rabin’s housing minister, Avraham Ofer. A few weeks after the investigation began, Ofer shot himself in the head.

On top of these came a scandal that involved Rabin personally, when it emerged that his wife, Leah, held a bank account in Washington, at a time when it was illegal for Israelis to own foreign bank accounts.

LABOR’S CORRUPTION scandals were now widely seen as part of the political culture that fomented the Yom Kippur War – not only in the eyes of ordinary voters but also within the Labor-affiliated elite.

Concerned for the country’s future, dozens of famous academics, jurists, industrialists and retired generals formed a new party in November 1976 called Dash (acronym for Democratic Movement for Change), which was headed by world renowned archeologist and former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Yigael Yadin, and Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, the founder of Tel Aviv University’s law school.

The new party was gathering momentum in polls when the attorney-general decided to indict Leah Rabin, and her husband resigned abruptly in response.

This is how Labor, now led by Shimon Peres, arrived at the fateful election of May 17, 1977. The party’s defeat, its first ever, was swift. The 51 Knesset seats bequeathed by Golda Meir shrank to 32 seats, while Menachem Begin’s Likud rose by one tenth to 43 seats, which it quickly expanded to 45 by merging with a two-seat party fielded at the time by Ariel Sharon.

 SINGING THE national anthem at the Labor Party leadership convention, February 1977. (credit: YA’ACOV SA’AR/GPO) SINGING THE national anthem at the Labor Party leadership convention, February 1977. (credit: YA’ACOV SA’AR/GPO)

Nearly one tenth of Labor’s lost seats migrated to Likud, but the bulk went to Dash, which won a staggering 15 seats even though it had been in existence hardly half a year. Despite this size, and despite its high-caliber figures, Begin initially established a narrow coalition without Dash, but with the ultra-Orthodox and modern-Orthodox parties instead.

It was a strategic choice, and it was all about the Six Day War. Realizing observant Israelis felt alienated under Labor’s rule, Begin embraced them. Moreover, like many modern Orthodox voters, he thought the West Bank was part of the Jewish people’s biblically promised homeland, and should be made such by systematic Jewish settlement.

Begin’s strategy was declared shortly after his victory when he emerged in Elon Moreh outside Nablus and, in front of TV cameras, vowed that “there will be many more Elon Morehs.” That is when the controversy over the Six Day War’s results became the partisan collision that in due course would fuel Labor’s demise.

THE DEBATE over the territories conquered in June 1967 began shortly after the war ended. Initially, it was an internal debate within Labor.

The demand to retain the territories was voiced by an eclectic group of literati, most of them secular and many of them affiliated with Labor, including influential poets Natan Alterman and Haim Guri and novelist Moshe Shamir, as well as Rachel Yanait, widow of Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was a lifelong Labor leader.

The opposing side also emerged early, when Amos Oz – then 27, but already recognized as Israel’s most promising young novelist – called on the government to declare the territories as collateral for a future peace deal. Oz, a kibbutz member at the time, was also openly affiliated with Labor.

A political version of that attitude, conceived by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, recommended that Israel retain some underpopulated parts of the West Bank and relinquish the densely populated parts.

The Allon Plan became Labor’s policy. 

That is how, when it lost power in 1977, the West Bank had but a handful of Jewish settlements. Likud’s rise to power changed that, especially after Begin’s second election victory, in 1981, when more than 100 new settlements were built in the West Bank.

The controversy that was originally abstract now became practical, involving big budgets and a lot of people. Still, until the end of the last century, Labor held its electoral ground and managed to return to power three times after its first defeat.

Labor’s main electoral advantage during those years was the economy.

Begin’s record on that front was appalling, as Israel slid into a hyperinflation that he had no idea how to undo. Change came after Labor’s return to power in 1984, in a unity government headed by Shimon Peres. Joining forces, the two big parties launched a drastic austerity plan that soon defeated inflation, setting the Israeli economy on course to international stardom.

Labor’s role in healing the economy impressed voters, but not enough to restore it to power. Moreover, the party’s economic success came at the expense of its socialist agenda, which was compromised by the 1985 reforms’ disempowerment of the unions and cutting of social spending.

Determined to offer a new gospel, and believing that Israel’s rule over the Palestinians is untenable, Labor resolved to deliver a land-for-peace deal, whereby Jordan would effectively return to rule the West Bank. That is how the London Agreement was born in April 1987 between Jordan’s King Hussein and Labor leader Shimon Peres, at the time the foreign minister under the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir, now prime minister in the Labor-Likud rotational government.

The agreement sought to hold an international conference for the resolution of the Middle East conflict, with the understanding that its result would be Jordan’s gradual return to rule the West Bank’s Palestinians.

The plan, however, was turned down flatly by Shamir, who thought that the West Bank must remain part of the Jewish state. That deal and its cancellation happened in the spring, when the Six Day War turned 20. Hardly eight months on, the First Intifada broke out.

Four years later, Labor would defeat Likud, as Palestinian violence made a portion of the swing vote give Labor’s peace plans a chance. The Six Day War, by then 25 years old, would now dominate Labor’s strategy, shape its tactics, and decide its fate.

TACTICALLY, the Labor Party replaced Shimon Peres with the Six Day War’s big hero, Yitzhak Rabin, as its candidate for the premiership. Strategically, a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians now became its main promise. And fate would be decided by Labor’s attempt to deliver peace via the PLO.

The tactic worked.

Rabin’s candidacy appealed to the centrist vote. His domestic promises, to spike budgeting for highways and education and to reinvent healthcare, made him come across as a seasoned, strong and balanced leader with a vision, as opposed to Likud’s Shamir who came across as uninspiring and lethargic.

The 1992 election’s result, 44 seats for Labor and 32 for Likud, made Labor’s leaders conclude they had finally overcome their historic defeat in 1977, and they now returned to lead a legitimate ruling party. To consolidate this accomplishment, they struck a partnership with Shas, whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was a declared supporter of the idea of land for peace.

That is how Labor cobbled together with Shas and Meretz the coalition with which the old-new foreign minister, Shimon Peres, embarked on secret talks with Yasser Arafat.

The results of that process need no repetition. The deal was followed by Rabin’s assassination, which increased sympathy for Labor, until a series of suicide bombings as the 1996 election approached handed Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu victory over Shimon Peres.

 Prime minister Ehud Barak, US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, July 2000.  (credit: White House Photographer/GPO) Prime minister Ehud Barak, US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, July 2000. (credit: White House Photographer/GPO)

Even so, Labor stuck to its peace agenda, and the public did not fully lose trust in its chances. In 1999 Labor again crowned as its leader a celebrated military man – Ehud Barak – and he, too, handed the party a landslide, and soon turned to pick up from where his two predecessors had left off.

That is how Israel arrived at the 2000 Camp David talks, in which it offered peace in return for a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. It was there that Labor buried itself politically.

The talks’ collapse and the subsequent Palestinian violence resulted in Ariel Sharon’s trouncing of Barak in a special election by a margin of 2:1. The blow to Labor was fatal. In a 21-year retrospect, Labor lost its historical electoral base, which would now migrate to a succession of centrist parties, from Tommy Lapid’s Shinui through Ariel Sharon’s Kadima to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

Much has been said about Labor’s alienation during the state’s first three decades of the new, non-European immigrations. That’s true, but the fact is that Rabin and Barak could not have won their landslides without a critical mass of that electorate.

Moreover, in handing Labor those victories, that mainstream electorate agreed with the party that a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians would be as worthwhile as Begin’s land-for-peace deal was with Egypt. The problem, as the swing vote saw it, was that instead of land for peace they got land for war – a war that, no matter how one looks at it, was the direct result of the Six Day War, the victory that initially seemed like Labor’s blessing, but ultimately became its curse. 

The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.