Guest Post: The State of The State of Israel
Contributor and honorary Hedgehog Ralph Kostant has been prolific lately. I am grateful; this blog needs a little spiffing-up. Besides, this important information, presented in a most erudite manner:
Major tremors have shaken the Israeli political scene over the past two weeks. As the Hedgehog’s blogfather, Hugh Hewitt, has noted, these developments have major significance for the United States of America, not just Israelis and Jews worldwide. For that reason, it occurred to me that the Hedgehog’s readers might find valuable an objective description of the political upheavals in Israel, and what the political landscape looked like before and after the recent Israeli political Big Bang. For no good reason other than that the readers may be interested, the names of female politicians are italicized.
Israel does not have a two-party system. Indeed, due to the facts that (a) all members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) are elected “at large,” and not from electoral districts, and (b) seats in the Knesset are allocated based on proportional representation from the election results; the role of small parties in Israeli politics is much more significant than in the United States or Europe. A party may win a Knesset seat by garnering as little as 5% of the popular vote.
Nonetheless, from the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present time, one of two parties has dominated Israeli politics. From 1948 until 1977, every Prime Minister of Israel came from the Labor Party. The Labor Party began as a European-style social democratic party with a socialist economic program. It grew out of the Labor Zionist movement, which dominated the “Third Aliyah”, the wave of modern Jewish immigration to Palestine during the pre-State Ottoman and British Mandate eras, from about 1880 until 1948. This was the party that started many of the kibbutzim and began the Histadrut (Israel’s national labor union). It dominated the Jewish Agency, which was the government in organization of the Jewish population of Palestine before 1948. It was the party of Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and, later, Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.
The other significant party grew out of the pre-State Revisionist Zionist movement, founded by Zev Jabotinsky. The Revisionists were modeled after European liberal nationalist parties. Jabotinsky pioneered the then-revolutionary concept of the fighting Jew, responsible for his own defense. Along with Joseph Trumpeldor, he was one of the organizers of the Jewish Legion, which fought as a regiment in the British Army during World War I. In the 1920s, he headed the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense militia that evolved into the Israeli Defense Forces. After the Labor-dominated leadership of the Zionist movement rejected his program of immediate establishment of a Jewish State, he broke away and formed the New Zionist Movement, whose military arm was the Irgun Tzvai Leumi. (Although Irgun Tzvai Leumi translates to People’s Army Group, which sounds Marxist, Jabotinsky believed in classical liberal economics—not what we call “Liberal” today--in other words, Adam Smith-style free-enterprise capitalism.) Jabotinsky died in 1940, but his disciple, Menachem Begin, assumed leadership of the Irgun and the Revisionist Zionists. During World War II, when the British closed Palestine to Jewish immigration even as the Nazis were exterminating the Jews of Europe, Begin led the Irgun in an armed revolt against British rule.
After Israel won its independence in 1948, Begin turned the Revisionist Movement into the Herut Party, which functioned as the main opposition party for the next 29 years. Occasionally in a crisis, such as just prior to the 1967 war, Labor would bring Herut into a National Unity government. But mostly, Begin and Herut were left out in the political cold. During the first three decades of Israel’s existence, the Labor Party, although it rarely if ever commanded a Knesset majority, formed every government in coalition with small religious and left-wing secular parties.
Then, in 1976, Ariel Sharon persuaded Begin to unite Herut with all of the other secular conservative parties, into a single party, called the Likud. In the last Israeli political earthquake, Likud swept Labor out of power in the 1977 elections. (I like to think that Begin’s victory was due in small part to the fact that I was spending a year in Israel at the time, but that could be megalomania.) For 20 of the next 28 years, a Likud-led coalition has governed Israel under the Prime Ministerships of Begin, Yitzchak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. Only Rabin, Peres and Ehud Barak have been Labor Prime Ministers since 1977. Although Peres has served in the Knesset for almost 50 years, and became Prime Minister after the assassination of Rabin and as part of a power-sharing National Unity arrangement with Shamir, he has never won an election. Pathetically, every time he has headed the Labor Party ticket, Labor has lost the election. However, even during this period of Likud domination, Likud also has never held a Knesset majority, always ruling in coalition with Labor, centrist and right-wing secular parties and religious parties.
Over the years, the once fundamental economic differences between the two parties have narrowed. Under Peres and Barak, during the post-Oslo Accord era, in a development similar to the evolution of the British Labor Party under Tony Blair, Labor dropped its socialist program and became the party of Israel’s booming high-tech capitalist sector. Likud, led by Netanyahu as Prime Minister and as Finance Minister, has also pushed privatization and investment, and the partial dismantling of the Israeli welfare state. The primary political issue has been the future of the Golan Heights, Yehuda and Shomron (aka, the West Bank) and Gaza. The Likud believed in retaining all of the territories conquered in 1967, viewing these lands as part of the Jewish patrimony. Immediately after the 1967 War, Labor embraced the “land for peace” program, which envisioned conceding most if not all of the captured territories to either Jordan or a future Palestinian State, in return for peace treaties.
During this whole time period, efforts at starting a centrist party, to capture the middle between the Labor Left and the Likud Right, repeatedly failed. However, after winning the January 2003 elections on a campaign of retaining the territories, Sharon embarked on a program of unilateral divestment of Gaza and the Northern Shomron, which culminated with the withdrawal of Israel from those areas in September of this year. That withdrawal split the Likud. Although Sharon held off an attempt by Netanyahu to oust him from the party’s leadership in a Likud Party ballot in September, he recognized that Likud was broken beyond repair.
Concurrently with the split in Likud, the trade unionist, socialist remnant within Labor stated an unexpected comeback. Amir Peretz, the head of the Histadrut (Israel’s national labor union), in a shocking turnabout in the November Labor Party primary ballot, ousted Shimon Peres from the party’s leadership. Amir Peretz is everything that the Labor Party was supposed to historically represent, but didn’t. He is a working class Israeli, of North African descent, from the development town of Sderot. Despite its socialist origins, Labor has always been the stronghold of the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) political and economic Israeli elites, and has more and more alienated the working class. Indeed, Begin’s victory in 1977 stemmed largely from his wooing of disaffected working class voters, of North African and Middle Eastern descent, away from Labor and into Likud. Now Amir Peretz stands to bring them back into Labor, on the platform of left-wing socialist welfare economics that has proven so unworkable in Europe.
Always the brilliant tactician, Ariel Sharon immediately spotted the tactical opening for a new Centrist party created by the Likud split and the leftward drift of Labor. In recent weeks, he announced his departure from Likud, and the formation of a new party, currently called Kadima (“Forward”). Its platform will presumably be continued withdrawals from some, but not all, of the territories, coupled with an economic program favoring investment and high-tech industrial development. A major centrist faction of Likud, including Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, immediately followed Sharon to the new party. In a bombshell just a few days ago, Dalia Itzik, a Minister in the last Labor government under Ehud Barak, deserted Labor for Kadima, along with Haim Ramon (a former head of the Histadrut and unsuccessful candidate for the head of the Labor Party). While Shimon Peres has not formally joined the new party, Peres has indicated that he will support Sharon for Prime Minister in the March 2006 elections. Look for Shimon Peres to eventually receive a prominent place on the Kadima ticket.
Suddenly Israel has a three-party + system. Labor has returned to its socialist roots. The remnant of Likud is its hard-core, nationalist base, most likely led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Uzi Landau or Limor Livnat. In the new center is Kadima. Pundits expect each of these parties to win between 20 and 35 seats. As in the past, and perhaps more so, the balance of power will lie with the many-splintered minor parties, the far Left, the stridently nationalist Right, the Arab parties and the religious parties, who will wield power far in excess of their numbers, because they will hold the key to formation of a coalition government.
Ralph B. Kostant