Middle Israel: The degeneration of the Begin revolution

The less Likud leaders believed in the power of ideas, the more they became addicted to the idea of power

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
On the face of it, the scandals involving our defense minister, finance minister and president have nothing to do with each other - one is underqualified, the second allegedly greedy and the third excessively lustful. In fact, despite representing three different parties, all are products of a revolution that dawned three decades ago, then degenerated and is now ending. It was the Menachem Begin revolution. The spring of 1977 first became memorable thanks to Maccabi Tel Aviv's unprecedented capture of the European basketball championship, and to Yitzhak Rabin's resignation from the premiership - incidentally that same night - following the revelation of his wife's violation of foreign-currency regulations. Several weeks later, those events emerged as mere early tremors of the big one - Labor's ouster by Begin after 29 years as opposition leader. The basketball team, unlike Labor's Hapoel, was associated with the Right, and its victory, in which the entire country basked, reflected a new mainstream legitimacy that once could not be taken for granted. Rabin's resignation symbolized Labor's moral deterioration, as it followed a slew of corruption revelations, most notably Bank of Israel governor-designate Asher Yadlin's embezzlement verdict. Begin's victory, however, represented much more than a backlash to this or that scandal, or the fading of ancient acrimony. It was a revolution. THE BEGIN revolution was first of all social, as it embraced all those Labor had marginalized, from the haredim, who became pivotal coalition partners, to the non-Ashkenazi masses, whose representatives increasingly populated all corridors of power, from municipalities, consulates and religious councils to ministries, utilities and state-company boards, not to mention the Knesset. It took Labor leaders time to understand the power of this revolution, if not for any other reason than simply because it was news to them that they had hurt anyone, let alone entire populations. Now they too tried to join the trend, searching for attractive, "authentic" non-Ashkenazim of their own. That is how in 1988 Shimon Peres turned Amir Peretz, Sderot's little-known mayor, into a lawmaker. It was part of a zeitgeist dominated by an unofficial affirmative action, part of the same trend that inserted a Lilliputian diplomat like David Levy into Abba Eban's shoes, and installed a vulgarian like Yoram Marciano as Labor whip. Fortunately, such poor choices were rare. Others, from Meir Sheetrit at the Treasury and Shlomo Ben-Ami at the Foreign Ministry to Yitzhak Navon at the presidency and Moshe Nissim at the Justice Ministry reached senior office on their merit. Whether or not it was deliberate, the fact is that prior to the Begin revolution Israel was run pretty much exclusively by Ashkenazim. Now ethnicity is no longer relevant. With self-made non-Ashkenazim like Yitzhak Tshuva and Haim Saban dominating the energy and telecom industries, and with the IDF having had, since the Begin revolution, four non-Ashkenazi chiefs of General Staff, there is no longer a sizable swing-vote fueled by ethnic considerations. Today no one even notices that, say, Yossi Bachar, the Treasury director-general who executed the Netanyahu reforms, is Sephardi; he was hired due to his abilities, and judged regardless of his origins. That is a lot more than can be said of either President Moshe Katsav or Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose rise to political prominence was part of the Begin revolution's misinterpretation and degeneration. THE BEGIN revolution, besides its social side, had its ideological side, and here - from both the Right's and the Left's viewpoints - the decadence began with Begin himself. In producing the Camp David Accords, Begin not only legitimized the land-for-peace formula which had been anathema to him, but also the abandonment of settlements, which was abominable to many Labor leaders, as former farmers raised on a Russian-inspired attachment to reclaimed soil. Begin's subsequent carpeting of the West Bank with suburbs changed none of this; the public had lost its admiration for the very act of settlement, which came to be seen less as Zionism and more as part of Orthodox observance. Ariel Sharon's subsequent abandonment of settlements for non-peace was, from the Right's viewpoint, but an extension of this momentum. Meanwhile, on the economy, Likud leaders often preferred - until Netanyahu's takeover of the Finance Ministry - populism to their pre-'77 capitalistic commitment. It too was a form of ideological betrayal. The more this ideological striptease evolved, the less the Likud demanded of its followers. Unlike David Ben-Gurion, whose idea of moving people was to personally inhabit a shack in the middle of the Negev, Likud leaders eyed property in cushy Savyon, Shoham, Mevaseret and Jerusalem's German Colony. As such they were in no position to demand sacrifices from the public, and from there the road was short to complete corruption; the less Likud leaders believed in the power of ideas, the more they became addicted to the idea of power. That is how they also took the party's central committee, which Begin used innocently to popularize the political process, and turned it into a colossal Tammany Hall that forgot its original purpose as an ideological compass and became instead a public-sector employment agency. The same thing happened, in the aftermath of the Begin revolution, to Labor's central committee. WHATEVER THEIR misdeeds, this is the ecosystem in which Katsav, Peretz, Avraham Hirchson and thousands of hacks had grazed and flourished for years. Whether or not they hitchhiked on Kadima is immaterial; they all added up to a zeitgeist, one that disparaged conviction and scorned merit, that to-hell-with-anything attitude that culminated in Olmert's hiring of a finance minister, defense minister, Prime Minister's Office director-general (Ra'anan Dinur) and two more senior aides (Oved Yehezkel and Shula Zaken) who had not one day of higher education. Now, with the Begin revolution as spent as the Labor era that preceded it, Israeli politics is begging for an era of ideological restoration. Netanyahu already has begun, in his economic reforms, to refashion the Likud as Israel's conservative party; Ami Ayalon and Avishay Braverman will restore Labor's social-democratic roots; and Tzipi Livni may salvage Kadima as a centrist alternative to both. The three's debates may prove less eloquent, original or inspiring than the Federalist Papers, but they will still be prettier than where we have arrived.