Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Between Idealism and Pragmatism

The Likud Party faithful who gathered in Tel Aviv on April 14 for a pre-Passover holiday toast heard party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu announce that he would amplify Israel’s security and peace principles for negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs before a joint session of the U.S. Congress next month.

As he surveyed the crowd from the podium Prime Minister Netanyahu was no doubt reassured by a recent survey showing that 76 percent of Likud members opposed annexing all of Judea and Samaria. Yet he also would have known that 10,000 party recruits had newly been signed up by uncompromising settler leaders. To keep the Likud unified and in the center of Israel's political mainstream, Netanyahu's mission will be to bridge the gap between ideological purism and pragmatism, the religious settlers and centrist hawks, the needs of security and the quest for peace.

In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of party founder Menachem Begin, according to Hebrew University political scientist Abraham Diskin, editor of From the Altalena to the Present Day, a newly published political history (Hebrew) of the movement and its transition from Herut to Likud.

Menachem Begin's decision to form the Herut party (Likud's antecedent) on May 14, 1948, the day the state was declared, can be seen as a victory of pragmatism over ideological zeal. All too often when underground factions compete -- such as Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi and David Ben-Gurion's Haganah – in a liberation struggle they have gone on to fight one another after independence, as Herzl Makov, chairman the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem pointed out in the book's preface. Begin, however, was determined that there would be no Zionist civil war even after the Haganah fired upon and sank the Irgun arms ship Altalena off Tel Aviv on June 6, 1948 with Begin on board. From that dark day on, in the face of relentless campaigning by Ben-Gurion to marginalize and delegitimize the Herut party, Begin steadfastly committed the movement to the ever-shifting center-right of Israel's parliamentary democracy.

From the beginning, the political deck had been stacked against Begin. Ben-Gurion's Labor movement had dominated the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency and Histadrut workers federation so it was no surprise that his Mapai faction captured a 46 seat plurality in the first Knesset elections on January 25, 1949 against 14 mandates for Herut. Ben-Gurion then formed the country's first coalition government as his movement continued to dominate all subsequent governments until 1977.

Not only did Ben-Gurion rule out a political reconciliation between the Begin-led Jabotinsky camp and his own Laborites, the Mapai boss pledged to forever ostracize Herut by keeping it out of any Labor-led government. His animosity ran so deep that Ben-Gurion wouldn't even deign to utter Begin's name in the Knesset referring to him instead as "the man sitting next to Dr. Yohanan Bader."

Paradoxically, it was Begin's quest to surmount Ben-Gurion's blacklisting that contributed mightily to his determination to keep Herut in the political mainstream. But in crystallizing Herut's ideology, diluting Jabotinsky's ideas and replacing them with his own, Begin had also to overcome the opposition of the Revisionist Zionists party, which claimed to be the true standard-bearer of Jabotinsky's ideology. Under the leadership of Herzl Rosenblum and Aryeh Altman, Ben-Gurion had welcomed the party into the Provisional State Council, though it failed to cross the one-percent electoral threshold in the first elections and would ultimately be absorbed into Herut. The Freedom Fighters for Israel (Stern Group) also ran independently for the first Knesset garnering one seat. Only in 1973, with Yitzhak Shamir's entry into Gahal, would the remnant of Abraham Stern's followers rejoin the Jabotinsky movement under Begin.

Begin's fiery 1952 orations against Israel accepting Holocaust reparations from West Germany were portrayed by Ben-Gurion's supporters as indicative of his innate right-wing extremism. In truth, opposition to taking "blood money" from the Germans was hardly limited to the right. And in any event, Herut picked up one additional mandate in the next elections.

Ben-Gurion's political quarantine on Begin began to disintegrate in 1954 as a result of the political fallout following a botched Israeli intelligence operation in Egypt known as the Lavon Affair. With the Laborites bickering among themselves and Ben-Gurion out of power, in 1964 Prime Minister Levi Eshkol permitted Jabotinsky's remains to be brought to Israel and interred on Mount Herzl not far from the gravesite of the Zionist movement's founder. This, too, subtly contributed to Herut's legitimacy as a mainstream party. Next, Begin orchestrated an alignment with the centrist Liberal Party, which had fallen out with the Laborites over the Lavon Affair, to form Gahal which garnered 26 mandates in the 1965 elections. As a classical liberal, Begin's principled opposition to maintaining military law over Israel's Arab citizens (rescinded in1966) further chipped away at Labor's defamation of Herut.

But it was Gahal's entry into the Labor-led national unity government just before the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War that permanently shattered Begin's political isolation. He became a minister without-portfolio and in that capacity rejoiced over the IDF's liberation of Judea and Samaria. In due course, Begin quit the government, now headed by Gold Meir, to protest its acceptance of the 1969 Roger's Plan.

After the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur War, with Labor's authority to rule increasingly called into question, Begin joined forces with Ariel Sharon to orchestrate the emergence of the Likud from Gahal (and several smaller factions). Begin's sacrifice of ideology for pragmatism bore fruit in the Likud's smashing 1977 electoral victory overturned Labor's monopoly on power. Begin had pulled together settlers, security hawks, predominantly Ashkenazi proponents of a free market economy, and working class Sephardim tethered to the welfare state. It was an amalgamation that he further reinforced in 1981 during his second administration by solidifying Orthodox backing. The glue that held it all together was an overriding distrust of Arab intentions.

In government, Begin redefined Jabotinsky's line on Greater Israel, according to the Jabotinsky Institute's Prof. Arye Naor, a contributor to From the Altalena to the Present Day and Begin's former cabinet secretary. The political center in Israel had shifted and Begin was determined to attune his leadership accordingly even if it required jettisoning ideological purism. In 1979, Begin came under bitter criticism from former comrades-in-arms Shmuel Katz, a Jabotinsky biographer and movement ideologue for trading Sinai land in return for peace with Egypt and from Geula Cohen who broke away from Likud to help form Techiya. Begin's alliance with the Orthodox parties was yet a further deviation from Jabotinsky's preference for a separation of religion from politics. When Begin went to the polls in 1981 it was under the banner: "Better the Difficulties of Peace Than the Pains of War."

Some saw his decision in December 1981 to have the Knesset suddenly annex the Golan Heights as a manifestation of his Jabotinsky ideology, but the case can be made that it was more the result of Begin's justifiable pique at the Reagan administration. After all, the Syrian's had let it be known that they would not recognize Israel even if the Palestinians did; Washington was in the process of selling advanced military weapons to Saudi Arabia while threatening to embargo military aid to Israel over the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor; and the State Department had infuriatingly criticized an Israeli retaliatory raid against PLO facilities in Beirut. Begin had had enough, asking rhetorically of America: "Are we a vassal-state of yours? Are we a banana republic?"

In a nut shell, all subsequent Likud prime ministers have grappled with the same tensions between pragmatism and ideology. Under Yitzhak Shamir, Likud demonstrated far more ideological steadfastness yet even his government could not avoid being dragged under U.S. pressure to the 1991 Madrid talks which were aimed at achieving a permanent resolution of the Palestinian issue. In his first administration, Netanyahu far from renouncing Israel's commitments to the fatally flawed 1993 Oslo Accords actually carried out a partial Hebron pullback in 1997. In the midst of the second intifada, Ariel Sharon campaigned in 2003 elections as a "Leader for Peace" and in May 2003 accepted the Quartet's Road Map whose endgame was the establishment of a Palestinian state. When the Likud rank-and-file repeatedly voted not to support his unilateral Gaza disengagement plan, Sharon defected in 2005 to form Kadima.

Netanyahu has now been back in power for the past two years juggling the demands of his right-wing coalition against those of Israel's fickle international allies. If From the Altalena to the Present Day is any guide, he will continue to navigate the Likud toward the political center – where most voters are – espousing strength on security along with pliability on the diplomatic front and striving, like his predecessors, to bridge the gap between idealism and pragmatism.

-- April 18, 2011

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