What challenges shake the foundations of the modern Zionist project?

Dan Meridor reflects on his momentous career

Dan Meridor (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dan Meridor
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“I lived most of my life in this home,” Dan Meridor – President of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) – tells me, as we sit drinking coffee in his Rehavia kitchen. “My grandfather – my mother’s father – bought it when he came here from Vienna in 1935.”
The apartment is one of several that the Meridor family own in the building on a quiet street in this leafy and pleasant Jerusalem neighborhood. Meridor’s mother Raanana, a 98-year-old retired professor of classics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lives in another.
There is nothing to indicate, as you walk past this unpretentious house, that it has served as the base for one of the more remarkable careers on record in Israeli public life. A particular detail that seemed to me to characterize something of the nature of this unusual man and his family is the intercom at the entrance. One might expect, at the very least, a finely painted or engraved card detailing something of the status of the inhabitants. A former deputy prime minister, after all, who served as finance minister and justice minister is resident here. There is none of that. Instead, on a scrap of paper taped next to the intercom, is written in biro in scrawled Hebrew script: Dan and Liora Meridor in the way that students who rent accommodation in Rehavia tend to record their presence.
Status, display, the trappings of power or influence are not of interest to Dan Meridor and his family.
This modesty, however, should not be permitted to deceive. For four decades, Dan Meridor, now 73, has dwelled at or close to the inner sanctum of Israeli policymaking at the highest and most sensitive levels. His career encompasses membership in two tangentially overlapping but distinctive elites: the first is the leadership group of the Herut movement and Revisionist Zionism – from which the current ruling Likud Party emerged, and specifically the ‘Fighting Family’ – those who took part in the underground war against Britain in the 1940s and their descendants.
The second is a more inchoate and less tangible gathering – consisting of those officials and former officials, politicians and former politicians, generals and former generals, who collectively form what might be called Israel’s national security and policy establishment. People who, having worked at the very highest levels of policy, never really retire – but remain through formal and informal channels close to the heart of affairs in Israel.
This ultimate insider status notwithstanding, Meridor is today deeply concerned about the direction of public life in Israel. Indeed, he cautions, that the country is currently embarked on a course that, unless diverted, could mean the historic defeat of the Zionist project in modernity.
Menachem Begin at Mimouna celebrations in Jerusalem, 1979
Entering public life, Begin’s cabinet secretary
Meridor, on his father’s side, is the scion of an Eastern European Jewish family deeply rooted in the Zionist trend established by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His father, Eliyahu Meridor, commanded the Irgun Tsvai Leumi (National Military Organization) in Jerusalem and played a prominent role in its successful insurgency against the British Mandatory authorities in the 1930s and ’40s, going on to serve as a Knesset member for Menachem Begin’s Herut Party, before dying at the age of 52.
Recalling his childhood in Rehavia, Dan Meridor displays none of the bitter memories sometimes encountered among veterans of this movement, remembering the days of Labor domination in Israel. These are not the Revisionist refugees depicted by Amos Oz recalling his childhood in the Kerem Avraham neighborhood of Jerusalem in A Tale of Love and Darkness – excluded from advancement, forced into constricted lives by their affiliation with the “wrong” party. Rather, the Meridors seem from the start to have successfully combined membership of Jerusalem’s academic and legal elite with a staunch commitment to the Herut movement.
“On Tisha Be’Av, we would go to Mount Zion,” Meridor recalls, “and read Eicha (Lamentations) with candles in a dark hall. We would meet people there – the poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg and others – and then you would really feel ‘how does the city sit solitary.’ A hundred meters from the Old City, we always knew that it is ours and that it is in the hands of others.”
Meridor fought as a tank commander in the 1967 and 1973 wars, studied law and became a lawyer in Jerusalem. He was first called to public service by then-prime minister Begin, who invited him to take up the role of cabinet secretary in the second Likud government formed in 1981.
“I was cabinet secretary from April 1982 with Begin until he resigned, and then with Shamir, who asked me to stay,” Meridor tells me, “and I saw Begin at his best.” The final stages of the implementation of Israel’s peace deal with Egypt were being carried out at that time. Meridor was also cabinet secretary during Operation Peace for Galilee – the First Lebanon War – in 1982.
“We couldn’t tolerate any more the launching of rockets by Fatah, which controlled southern Lebanon. But it was meant to be a very short operation – 36 hours, 48 hours – and limited to 40 km.”
“I’m quite convinced that the defense minister [Ariel Sharon] had a master plan. The cabinet did not agree to go all the way… we were spoonfed – well, we can stop here but then our soldiers will be in danger, so maybe it’s better to take another hilltop, and so on. It developed, and as Begin said once to [longtime MK] David Levy – ‘I knew everything – either beforehand, or afterwards.’”
“Painful as it was, it was an operation that succeeded,” Meridor notes, referencing the removal of the PLO, and the flourishing in Israel’s North in subsequent years. “But the price was very heavy [in terms of deaths of soldiers], and Begin took the price very seriously. At the beginning he used to write a letter to all the parents and I think he saw himself as responsible. He understood maybe what Sharon and Raful [Rafael Eitan] had done to him. But he never said it in public because he didn’t want to shift responsibility. First among equals – but that’s the whole difference – and he resigned.”
Meridor dismisses claims made about Begin’s functioning in and subsequent to this period. He sums up his long acquaintance with the Irgun leader and prime minister in the following terms: “I have seen many people in politics – and of this man’s magnitude and historic significance, I have seen no one else.’
He also notes, with pointed irony, that “comparing [Begin] to other people – without mentioning names, in August 1983, when he presented his letter of resignation, the question arose – where would Begin go? He never owned a house. So I looked for a rented place for him and he paid for it from his salary. This prime minister, who had served the country for decades, didn’t own any property at all. He had no interest in money or property. It was a different world.”
Dan Meridor speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party meeting in 2011
The Palestinian issue
Meridor’s political career continued to flourish. He served as justice minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s government from 1988-1992, then entered the opposition after Likud’s electoral defeat in that year.
Dan Meridor was an opponent of the Oslo Accords, but in characterizing his criticism of it, he chooses his words carefully; “I think the Oslo process was a mistaken attempt to get out of a situation in which we cannot continue.”
“I understood that we need to make some kind of compromise with the Palestinians – if we have the whole land, what will it be with democracy?” But he was unconvinced of the PLO’s willingness to sign an agreement marking an end to the conflict and to abandon the Right of Return.
This view was confirmed for Meridor when he attended the Camp David Summit between Israel and the PLO in July 2000. The summit in Maryland was the point at which the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships on final status issues became undeniably apparent. Meridor, who was on the refugees working group at the summit, describes it as “one of the most fascinating and discouraging experiences of my life.”
He sums up the experience: “There could have been a Palestinian state – even on Jerusalem there was a compromise offered, but for one sentence – ‘end of conflict.’ They were not ready for this. But if you have two states, Israel and Palestine, then you can’t continue afterwards to dream of mine.”
But on the Palestinian issue, Meridor’s views have gone far from the core anti-partitionist stance of the movement from which he emerged. Indeed, he regards the continuation of the current status quo between the river and the sea as a potential threat to Israel’s continued existence.
“Despite what I said, we should say that we are ready to negotiate the end deal at any time. Why? Because we have an anomaly that shall not go on forever. The situation is not normal. It’s not good for us or them. There are people there. They have no vote. The situation is justified. But it is not normal.
“There is another element – time. What will happen? Ask yourself, if there is no agreement, what will time do to us? We are creating, step by step, a one-state situation between the river and the sea – with enclaves. And I ask myself, if you have this one-state reality, what will happen if the Palestinians get smart, and say – we don’t want two states, we want to vote. Why do my neighbors in Hebron vote and I don’t? Because they’re Jews and I’m Arab? What do you call a system like that?
“Some people say the whole land is ours and they won’t vote – [MKs Ayelet] Shaked, [Naftali] Bennett, [Betzalel] Smotrich. This to me is the end of Zionism. If we don’t do anything and continue with creeping annexation, we end up in a one-state situation. This to me is the end of the Zionist dream. The notion that citizens don’t vote because of their race or nation? This is awful to me.”
Given the evident absence of a Palestinian partner for partition, Meridor proposes that Israel defines its preferred border, handing over civil responsibilities to the Palestinian Authority east of that border, while keeping the army deployed throughout the area, and not evacuating Jewish settlements by force. This, in his view, would “create a reality that leaves open the two-state possibility, while closing the door on the way to one state.’
Declining norms of governance
Meridor served as finance minister during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government from 1996 to 1999. It was at this point, he says, that he began to become concerned about Netanyahu’s practices in government.
“I saw how commitments are not honored. I said that the man is dangerous if he continues like that.”
Meridor nevertheless returned to government during Netanyahu’s second period of incumbency, serving as deputy prime minister, and minister of Intelligence from 2009 to 2013. Today, he is scathing regarding the prime minister’s conduct.
“The Likud has its genetic code. It’s not a conservative party. It’s a liberal party. Begin gave it the name Likud – a national liberal party. It’s not just words. It has significant meaning. We have two flags – individual rights, human rights, rule of law – and of course the national cause.
“This merger is our genetic code. It’s why Begin called for a constitution in the 1950s. It’s why Begin and the Likud were the greatest defenders of the Supreme Court. Bibi has changed this completely. The attitude to the court is just one example… He changed dramatically when his own case began.
“The attacks on the system, the police, the courts, calling the judges ‘leftists.’ This is unheard of. This I think is related to his own case… In the past there was respect for learning, for ‘haskala.’ When you hear Likud ministers speaking today it projects the opposite – ‘Who needs the elites? Who needs the educated people?’
“Bibi didn’t used to speak that way. But what he’s doing now has changed the Likud completely. Can you imagine Begin saying, ‘Judges are leftists until proved otherwise?’ It’s not a mistake. It’s a different party. The delicate balance between liberalism and nationalism has been completely changed. Likud today is a nationalist, half-religious party. It’s not liberal anymore. It’s a different party.
Bibi, I think, should resign – not because the law demands it, but because morality demands it. You can’t demand the presumption of innocence and then prevent the trial from taking place, which is what I believe he is trying to do. As a leader you must set an example. Democracy is about balancing power.
“They are acting all across the board – against the checks and balances. Democracy as we have known it is under threat.”
Israel in a changing Middle East
Looking at the broader region, Meridor is more optimistic, seeing the strategic trend lines as operating mainly in Israel’s favor.
“The Arab Spring was not of our making. It has to do with the weakening of the artificial state entities created by the imperial powers 100 years ago, and the awakening of religious and other identities…  So our situation is much better. Not because of us, but because of the Arab world collapsing – and Israel is a strong nation.
“Militarily – something dramatic changed in our favor. The threat of Israel being thrown into the sea does not seem realistic for the foreseeable future. This is a great victory for Zionism. Two other threats have developed – above conventional, the nuclear threat; below conventional, terror and so on.”
On the Iranian nuclear issue, Meridor, in government from 2009-2013, opposed a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, “not because it was technically impossible… because an attack on Iran when the world doesn’t agree with you is not a viable option. I was against certain ideas that developed here. I fought against them day and night,’ he remembers.
But was the idea of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in those years a serious one?
“I thought it was, otherwise I wouldn’t have fought so hard against it. But when the prime minister and the defense minister [Ehud Barak] took a stand on this... Well, I don’t want to go into all the details, but I know all the details and I know what was developing. I wasn’t sure at all that it was just a game of brinkmanship.”
He notes that Israel’s strategy to prevent the nuclearization of other regional states rests on three pillars:
• Prevention: Action to stop states from developing such weapons;
• Defense: Missile defense systems such as the Arrow; and
• Deterrence: Relating to alleged capabilities possessed by Israel in the nuclear realm.
For now at least “the Iranian nuclear threat has been contained, in a way. We must remain vigilant.”
Meridor is ambivalent regarding the Trump administration’s decision to quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“The US and Europe – Obama, by the way, though its not popular to say it – got an agreement whereby Iran reduced its capabilities considerably [according to the agreement, Iran agreed to destroy its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years]. So there was an agreement. It wasn’t perfect. They first brought the Iranians to their knees with sanctions. I think the Americans shouldn’t then have been so eager to conclude an agreement.
“But it wasn’t a bad one. It’s not the end of the story. Ten years isn’t everything. But as I told you, 10 years was what we gained from destroying the nuclear reactor in Iraq. In 1991, they were on the verge of a new nuclear project.”
“Trump walked away; I’m not sure if it was right,” he reveals. “The idea that if there is no agreement they are more contained? Well, I’m not so sure. Anyway, there needs to be an understanding that the world won’t permit a nuclear Iran. I think we are more or less in good shape. We need to be vigilant, but so far so good.”
He is encouraged by the latest diplomatic developments bringing normalization between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.
“The US has not been so successful with its allies in the region. They gave away allies such as [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak, for example. This led them to be seen by the Arabs as maybe less reliable. And we are here. So there was an opening to try and strengthen alliances with a number of Arab states. It was smart, and the government seems to have done the right thing. To draw closer to countries that are interested in stability. The entrance of Trump to the White House changed policy. They have a different idea and they were able to help a lot to bring a number of countries into the circle of cooperation and peace.”
He is not, however, concerned regarding the likely stances of a new US administration toward Israel and the region.
“[Joe] Biden is a friend of Israel. From past experience, he was one of the people we always contacted in the Senate. His views were very much with us. I don’t think there will be a problem. I don’t see a reason to be afraid or anxious regarding what the new administration will do. We’ll wait and see. [Biden] has a lot of work to do. To remedy America from the last four years in terms of respect for the norms of society. To tell the truth, these have been compromised in recent years. Certain boundaries have been crossed. It will not be so easy to go back.”
Meridor also stresses the need for Israel to maintain bipartisan support in the US.
“We have broad and deep support in both parties and we have always tried to keep a good consensus. What happened with Trump, in my view, was that there was too much of an embrace of Trump within the American arena, as though the Democrats are against us, and the good guys are the Republicans. But there are good guys both here and there. We mustn’t allow a development whereby we are perceived to be against the Democratic Party. We have shared values with them, as with the others.”
SO FOR this scion of the “Fighting Family,” the walls and the external relations of the structure to which he and his family and thousands of others have devoted their lives seem largely secure and in good shape. The foundations, meanwhile, and the nature and preferences of those currently managing the project, are in urgent need of attention.
A fashionable view regarding Meridor and those like him in Israel today would be that they represent a type of cultured propriety hopelessly at odds with the nature and direction of Israeli society. The old houses, the unshowy but not-for-sale devotion, even the acceptance of paradox and complexity, might indeed be seen to belong to an earlier period.
If it is so, and if there will be no place for national liberals, gentleman-patriots of Dan Meridor’s type in the years to come, this will be unlikely to redound to the benefit of Israel.