Has it really been 40 years since Israel's political revolution?

Likud’s first electoral victory produced a new political hegemon and an epoch of social transition, national defiance and cultural revolt.

Menachem and Aliza Begin vote in the national election on May 17, 1977 (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
Menachem and Aliza Begin vote in the national election on May 17, 1977
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
Sweating, excited and eager to be heard, café sitters and passersby in proletarian Beit Shemesh converged on the dusty sidewalk table where novelist Amos Oz was scribbling their damnations of the Labor establishment they had helped drive from power.
“What did they bring my parents to Israel for?” asked one, referring to the country’s founding elite, and answered, “You didn’t have Arabs then, so you needed our parents to do your cleaning and be your servants and your laborers, and your policemen, too.
You brought our parents to be your Arabs… But you know what? We’ve brought [Menachem] Begin down on you and now you’re in for it; for a long, long time.”
A long time it has indeed been, 40 years in fact, since that dramatic night of May 17, 1977 produced a new political hegemon and an epoch rife with social transition, national defiance, and cultural revolt.
Never in its seven eventful decades has Israeli politics produced a moment quite as intense and transformative as the night when Menachem Begin, the perennial leader of the opposition and loser of eight straight general elections, handed Labor its first-ever electoral defeat.
Coining a new term in Israeli political lingo, TV news anchor Haim Yavin – Israel’s Walter Cronkite – announced the improbable landslide with a one-word headline – ‘Mahapach’ – a liturgical term that uses the root hafoch, which means “turning something upside down” and which modern Hebrew conjugates to revolution (mahapecha) and coup (haficha).
Begin’s victory was neither a violent revolution nor an unlawful coup, yet it was so breathtaking that, like so many things in Israel, it begged its own new word;, in this case, the newly minted adjective that ever since that night Israelis have been using regularly to describe a peaceful but sharp shift of power.
Initially, the shift from Labor to Likud seemed like an accident, an aberration that would surely be corrected by the next election.
It was in that atmosphere that Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, a former head of the Histadrut labor federation, quipped that night on TV, “I refuse to accept the people’s verdict.”
The way he and many others in Labor’s sprawling establishment initially read the situation, their defeat reflected not deepseated social fury and cultural pain, but passing circumstances.
The circumstances, to be sure, were indeed harsh.
Prior to the election, Labor was beset by a slew of corruption scandals, including the arrest of Bank of Israel governor-designate Asher Yadlin for embezzlement; the suicide of housing minister Avraham Ofer after police launched a bribery investigation against him; and the resignation of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin following a revelation that his wife illegally held an American bank account.
While this was happening on the legal plane, the emotional plane was clouded by the Yom Kippur War. Though it had been more than three years since the intelligence fiasco with which that war began, evidence piling up concerning the morality of Labor leaders was compounded by doubts concerning their merits.
Finally, on the political plane, Labor was challenged by a new centrist party, Dash (The Democratic Movement for Change), which brandished celebrated generals, academics, and businessmen who ultimately wrested nearly one-third of Labor’s electorate.
Yet, Likud also won the following election in 1981, even more impressively, siphoning a further 11 percent of the electorate and 48 of the Knesset’s 120 seats ‒ more than David Ben-Gurion had ever won.
BY THE time Oz arrived in Beit Shemesh the following year as he toured the country for what would become the bestseller “In the Land of Israel” – it was clear that Israel was indeed changing in ways that ran deeper than any corruption scandal, parliamentary head count or military debacle.
The epoch’s most sweeping transformation was the one those residents of Beit Shemesh craved – the emotional ‒ the deliverance of those in the geographic periphery, economic doldrums, and political backseats whom the previous order humiliated, whether by leaving them below, behind or outside.
Israel’s mostly secular and socialist founding elite marginalized, antagonized, and, in some cases, boycotted parts of the immigrant society it had worked so hard to build.
The most bluntly marginalized were the veterans of the pre-state Revisionist movement who, led by Menachem Begin, rejected Labor’s diplomatic pragmatism, from the Partition Plan to the Reparations Agreement with Germany.
Recalling the Revisionists’ creation of a rival Zionist movement, and the two movements’ clashes during the struggle against British rule, Labor barred Revisionists from public office. Though there had been exceptions, such as the Mossad’s enlistment of underground veterans including former Stern Group leader Yitzhak Shamir, Begin’s circle was ostracized and lived with a deep sense of insult and injury.
Above that layer loomed the religious Zionists. Though they repeatedly joined Labor’s coalitions, and, as such, did hold executive offices in assorted ministries, agencies, and municipalities, they were only allowed to reach so close to government’s inner core.
Despite their loyalty, Labor’s religious partners were never given any of the five senior ministries – defense, foreign affairs, finance, education or justice – and observant leaders could hardly be found in the army, police, secret services and diplomatic corps. That, too, fomented a sense of alienation.
Beyond modern-Orthodoxy lurked ultra-Orthodoxy, which did not seek public offices in the Zionist state, but felt religiously estranged from the Labor establishment because ultra-Orthodox sages, unlike modern-Orthodoxy’s rabbis, perceived Ben-Gurion and his disciples as Judaism’s enemies.
Yet towering above all of Labor’s discontents, both in terms of size and wrath, were a critical mass of the Middle Eastern immigrants of the 1950s and 60s, people like the ones Oz heard out in Beit Shemesh.
“When I was a little kid, my kindergarten teacher was white [= Ashkenazi] and her assistant was black [= Middle Eastern],” said one voice in that café to the scribbling Oz.
“In school,” he went on, “my teacher was Iraqi and the principal was Polish. On the construction site where I worked, my supervisor was some redhead from [union-owned construction conglomerate] Solel Boneh. At the clinic, the nurse is Egyptian and the doctor Ashkenazi. In the army, we Moroccans are the corporals and the officers are from the kibbutz. All my life I’ve been on the bottom and you’ve been on top.”
It was an accurate, if crude, description of the social indigestion that resulted from the rapid arrival of mostly penniless, traditional and undereducated multitudes from Muslim countries in a country led by better off,better educated, and mostly European secular Jews.
Having invested politiclaly in this disgruntled population for years, Begin represented to many among them a fellow victim of the establishment, a proud Jew who shared their religious traditionalism and impressed them with his nationalist rhetoric. Now they and their descendants emerged as an electoral wellspring that Labor would be at a loss to repatriate, to this day.
Begin understood that to generate a longterm commitment it was not enough to recruit this constituency at the ballots. He therefore cultivated young members of the new immigrations as political leaders, and, thus, inspired this population’s broader social mobility.
At the same time, the cultural heritage of the Middle Eastern immigrations now won new respect and confidence, first in the school system’s curriculum and textbooks, and then in pop, rock, film, theater and literature.
HISTORIANS WILL wonder to what extent Begin’s victory should be credited with subsequent social trends, but the fact is that in the decades following his premiership, half of the IDF’s chiefs of general staff were of Middle Eastern backgrounds; so too were four defense ministers, three foreign ministers, four finance ministers, two of the Israel Police’s last three inspectors-general, and also, proverbially, two leaders of the Labor party.
This is besides roughly one-third of lawmakers and an even higher share of mayors, as well as major businessmen such as energy and real estate tycoon Yitzhak Teshuva, banker Tzadik Bino, insurance magnate Shlomo Eliyahu, and mogul Haim Saban, all of whom were born in Muslim lands and arrived here as children.
The days when prime minister Levi Eshkol held Yiddish sing-alongs in his home and his successor Golda Meir went to Yiddish stand-ups in Tel Aviv – were over.
A new zeitgeist was afoot.
The epoch’s social revolution unfolded in tandem with the political elevation of the religious parties.
Begin lost no time placing the previously peripheral politicians at the heart of the state’s affairs, giving modern-Orthodoxy the Education Ministry and ultra-Orthodoxy the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee and later also the sensitive position of coalition chairman.
While these measures were partly circumstantial, they reflected a strategy to gather around the nationalist Right the observant public’s multiple walks – from Hasidim, anti-Hasidim and messianic Zionists to the Sephardi sages who later would join this alliance, with the establishment of Shas.
This was the structure that produced the epoch’s most famous, controversial and visible imprint – the roughly 200 Jewish settlements with which Begin blanketed the West Bank, a project that modern Orthodoxy drove, ultra-Orthodoxy allowed, secular nationalism applauded, and Likud’s working-class voters welcomed due to the cheaper housing it offered in towns like Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim.
Added up, this rainbow coalition’s mixture of nationalist, theological and social causes has dominated Israeli history since 1977. Likud’s occasional electoral setbacks during this period did not undo its epochal dominance. On the contrary, Shimon Peres’s premiership in the mid-1980s, besides having been a partnership with Likud, led Israel’s grand transition from socialism to capitalism, effectively implementing the economic side of Begin’s political platform.
Similarly, Labor’s electoral victories in 1992 and 1999 resulted in ambitious peace proposals only to be followed by the violence that made the swing vote hand Labor six consecutive electoral defeats.
Ehud Olmert’s defeat of Likud in 2006, besides having been led mainly by lifelong Likudniks like himself, was followed by fighting in Gaza and Lebanon that fueled three Likud victories and a broad consensus – now shared even by Labor leader Isaac Herzog – that peace with the Palestinians will not arrive in the foreseeable future.
At the same time, Likud’s delivery of the groundbreaking peace accord with Egypt in 1979 enhanced Begin’s role as the shaper of the era even in the improbable realm of peacemaking, where he had been perceived as a hopelessly rigid hard-liner.
Even so, the Right’s leaders still feel that crucial parts of the Israeli establishment remain beyond their control and outside their voters’ pale. These include the judiciary, themedia, academia, and the artistic scene. That is the context in which Likud and its satellites launched the current effort to redo these parts of Israel’s public domain, as well.
In the judiciary, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has just increased the number of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices; in the media, Netanyahu-donor Sheldon Adelson launched a tabloid with the express assignment of competing with the country’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth; public broadcasting is in the process of being split in two and becoming funded by the state rather than the customers; in academia, a general university was established in the West Bank town of Ariel; and in theater, film and music, Culture Minister Miri Regev has defunded assorted projects she judged anti-patriotic.
This is where Likud’s first victory has arrived in 40 years. An entirely different question is where it is headed.
On the one hand, the makings of the crises now plaguing veteran establishments from the US to France, Italy, and Spain are absent in Israel, which faces nothing like the immigration problem that has destabilized European politics, or the social-industrial crisis that has fed the rise of Donald Trump.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has not nurtured a successor, and, in fact, has fended off potential heirs such as Moshe Ya’alon, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Liberman, each of whom started off as a Netanyahu loyalist and ended up establishing a competing party of his own.
This is aside from the corruption allegations piling up around Netanyahu, the ones about which he repeatedly says, “There will be nothing because there is nothing.” While that prediction may prove true, it curiously echoes what Labor leaders said in winter 1977, shortly before they heard, in disbelief, Haim Yavin’s terse announcement on television: Mahapach!