History: How it really was!

Israel’s most important elections

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, lunches with Ezer Weizman and Menachem Begin at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on December 11, 1967 (photo credit: ILAN BRUNER/GPO)
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, lunches with Ezer Weizman and Menachem Begin at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on December 11, 1967
(photo credit: ILAN BRUNER/GPO)
Propel your mind back 70 years. The Yishuv, as the pre-State Jewish community was called, had just fought a bloody war. Through the open gates of the small country poured an influx of refugees from European displaced persons camps and from the British internment compounds in Cyprus. Armistice talks with Egypt were about to begin. Israel, bloodied and bowed under this overload, had won the war. 
After World War I staggering changes occurred. These included over three decades of rising antisemitism in Europe; economic pressure on Jews especially in Eastern Europe; religious persecution in the USSR; the rise of Hitler and the adoption of Nazi anti-Jewish measures by Mussolini in Italy. These had thrust an immense burden of struggle and an immeasurable pall of fear on the entire Jewish people. It was perhaps more keenly felt in Jewish Palestine than elsewhere beyond Europe’s borders.
By the time World War II ended almost every home in Eretz Israel had lost close family, often entire families. The War of Independence left over 6,000 Israeli families bereft of a loved one. There were 15,000 wounded.
To this grim backdrop must be added food rationing, and in Jerusalem, water rationing. Nevertheless, newsreels of that period show spontaneous outbursts of joy when, for example, the jubilant, almost ecstatic reaction to the UN decision in November 1947 to create a Jewish State.
Until January 1949, Israel was governed by a Provisional Government, which was to be replaced by an elected Constituent Assembly. The elections were held on January 25; voter turnout was 86.9 percent. The fact that close to nine out of 10 eligible voters exercised the right for the first time in a Jewish state, demonstrates how aware the people were of this historic event.
A few days after the Assembly gathered, it passed a law making it Israel’s first Knesset. The reverberation of the word Knesset is profound. Almost all Orthodox and traditional Jews have been brought up reading the Mishnaic tractate Avot, known usually as The Teachings of the Fathers, every summer. In the very first sentence the term appears: Men of the Great Assembly (Knesset Hagedolah). Thus, Knesset was a word ingrained in the great percentage of the population then, even the secular, that had benefitted from a traditional Jewish education. Using the word was a verbal leap across 2,300 years, and choosing the number 120 for Knesset membership, mirrors that Great Knesset of old.
I arrived in Israel only at the end 1952, but the echoes of this excitement can be seen in the following incidents. In 1949, a new emissary from our youth movement was due to come to Canada. He wrote a letter to us in his then rudimentary English. From memory I quote: “We have our own State. We have our own parliament. It is called the Knesset.” We laughed because obviously we knew that. Now, in retrospect, I realize that he was saying how important it was for Jews and especially for Israelis to have our own parliament.
Once I got to Jerusalem, I went to the Knesset then housed in a refurbished biscuit factory on King George Ave., corner of Hillel St., and asked an MK I knew to arrange a pass for me. I thought that the paper, Hebrew with the state insignia on it, so important an expression of Jewish sovereignty that I mailed it to my father so he would hold in his hand a tangible expression of “our own state.”
All of this is to make absolutely clear that the elections of 1949 were the most important Israel has held – the first and most historic. 
To this conclusion, I owe a debt of gratitude to an old friend and colleague, Prof. Meron (Ronnie) Medzini, who is a Sabra, while I only came here in 1952. As a youngster, the election left an imprint on him that I missed in Canada, where we take (often boring) elections for granted. 
I believe the second most important elections were held in 1965. In mid-1963, founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion resigned. Levi Eshkol was the obvious next-in-line and entered office as head of a successor government based on the Mapai labor party with 45 out of 120 seats. They were trailed by the predecessor of Likud (Gahal, headed by Menahem Begin) with 26 seats. 
These elections were another defining moment in Israel’s history. Ben-Gurion had been in office since the founding of the state, and had been leader of the quasi-Jewish government, the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization since 1935. For 38 years he had been the undisputed leader of the Yishuv and of the state. Even when he took a break from his offices as both prime minister and minister of defense to retire to Sde Boker and work as a farmhand, in 1954-55, his successors’ hands were tied by the ultimate power Ben-Gurion wielded from Sde Boker. 
Ben-Gurion resigned in June 1963, and was automatically and naturally replaced by Levi Eshkol, his longtime pillar of strength. After leaving office, Ben-Gurion turned harshly against Eshkol over an issue too complex to outline in full here (how to determine the responsibility for ordering a disastrous intelligence operation in Egypt about ten years earlier).
As the months elapsed the struggle between the two old comrades led to open warfare. The party, the labor movement in general, and then the nation had to choose between the two.
Eshkol won the battle both in labor, and in the national elections held in November 1965. At the time, while working for Eshkol, I saw the issue as a personal one between the two. Only later did I understand how crucial a defining moment the elections were. In effect, they created the precedent of an orderly transition of power as in any real democracy. 
It was this precedent that proved itself when the leadership of the country moved from the center-left to the Begin-led right. This was the “upset” of 1977, in effect ending over 40 years of labor leadership of the Yishuv and the state,
These last 42 years have seen occasional transfers of power to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, leading Labor, and to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as centrist defectors from the Likud. However, essentially it was Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu, who set their stamp on Israel as an expanding power, building settlements in Judea and Samara (aka West Bank), and privatizing state enterprises.
Netanyahu has served 13 years as prime minister and is now supported by a more extreme right than ever before. Whether that coalition will hold after the April 9 elections, or whether parts of it defect to the centrist Blue and White will determine the government that will lead the country into the future.
What is particularly interesting this time is the heavy stamp of the US president. Trump’s support of Netanyahu shatters all precedents. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, visited the Western Wall (a first for a holder of that office) together with the prime minister. Trump has, in effect recognized Israel’s control of the Golan, and rumor has it he may let Jonathan Pollard make aliyah – all of this a few weeks before the elections.
The present election campaign may very well be momentously significant for Israel’s future. It already shows that by being the dirtiest ever. The Likud in its various forms has had the benefits of governing for decades. It is fighting for its hold on power, and Netanyahu for his record and his name. Can the opposition gain enough steam to change history? The results will probably be a cliffhanger the day before and maybe even the day after the elections…. 
Avraham Avi-hai, who has a PhD in political science, is an old hand at viewing Israel elections, with professional experience ranging from journalism to government and leadership in the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization.