Israel in mid-1980 was caught in the throes of a crisis whose final consequences cannot yet be foreseen. Manifestations of this crisis include a sharp decline in public support for the government, confusion about the meaning and significance of recent events, and growing uncertainty about the future. The public mood is characterized generally by depression. Quite possibly we are witnessing an important turning-point in the consciousness of many Israelis.

The military victory of June 1967 had ushered in a period of political self-confidence, public euphoria and economic expansion. The October War six years later shook that self-confidence and raised doubts about the country’s course in the minds of many Israelis. The dark mood now prevailing is the culmination of this process that began in 1973, and is deepened by a number of new factors.

Visitors to Israel during the summer could not help but be struck by the absence of widespread support or regard for the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. When, to nearly everyone’s surprise, Begin’s Likud Party had won the Knesset elections in the spring of 1977, many Israelis had hoped some change for the better was in the offing. Begin promised an end to the corruption, infighting and lackluster leadership that had characterized the Rabin government. New talent and new policies were to replace the stagnation and entrenched machinery of the Labor Party bureaucracy which had dominated Israel for decades. But these early hopes have been disappointed. Begin is today regarded as a dying old man. He appears incapable of deviating from his rigid ideas of 40 years ago and unable to control a coalition cabinet which has outdone even Labor’s terrible record of factiousness, infighting, backstabbing and leaks to the media.

Anwar al-Sadat’s decision to negotiate a separate peace with Israel late in 1977 had appeared to offer Begin a unique opportunity to secure his political position. But those who had sought to convince themselves that Begin would be Israel’s De Gaulle have been cruelly disillusioned. Begin and his colleagues were willing to withdraw from the Sinai in order to remove Egypt from the ranks of the Arab confrontation states. But, as the emptiness of their “autonomy” plan and the subsequent breakdown of the Egyptian-Israeli talks show, they have no intention of relinquishing control over the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, the past three years have seen the acceleration and broadening of policies begun under Labor governments to integrate these areas, occupied since 1967, into Israel with the aim of annexing them outright.

Elements in the government which had sought to soften Begin’s hard line to avoid undermining Sadat and alienating the US government have either left the cabinet (Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman) or have been totally discredited (Yigal Yadin and his centrist DASH party). At the same time, the policy of establishing and expanding settlements in the occupied territories, large-scale land expropriations and intensified repression have been stepped up. This has led to increased resistance from the subject Palestinian population, which is united in rejecting Begin’s “autonomy” plan and Sadat’s claim to negotiate on its behalf. In May and June incidents multiplied and the struggle intensified dramatically, with street demonstrations, shootings and other acts of violence, army attacks on schools, the imposition of curfews and collective punishments, arrests and expulsions. This cycle reached a grim height in the attempted assassination of three prominent West Bank mayors on June 2 by an underground Jewish terrorist organization.

The cabinet has seemed increasingly divided and factious during 1980. The coalition’s parliamentary majority has been dwindling for months, and Begin can now count on only a very slim majority. In public opinion polls his popularity has slipped to record lows, and it is hard to find many Israelis who would not like to see the government fall. But because Begin’s coalition partners — mainly Yadin’s DASH and the National Religious Party — know that early elections will mean defeat for them as well as the Likud, he has a reasonable chance of remaining in power until new Knesset elections must be held in November 1981.

Yadin’s party won enough Labor votes in 1977 to bring the Likud to power. But Yadin and his colleagues sacrificed every principle they once claimed in order to keep their cabinet posts, and polls indicate that DASH would virtually disappear as its former supporters revert to the Labor party. So the coalition parties hang on for dear life, hoping that somehow their prospects will improve next year. Israelis have not often experienced such a lack of confident, united leadership. It is becoming ever more obvious that the policies of the last few years have failed. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have made it unmistakably clear that they will not accept the crumbs offered them by the Camp David agreements. Begin’s settlement policy has aroused international opposition and left Israel more diplomatically isolated than ever before. Even relations with the US government are fairly tense. Perhaps most significant is the erosion of public support for the present Israeli leadership among Jewish communities abroad. Recent public statements by prominent American Jews expressing dissatisfaction with Begin’s leadership, especially his steadfast refusal to make any serious concessions on the Palestinian issue, have had a profound impact inside Israel. Jewish criticism from abroad has reinforced Israeli disaffection with the government.

Israeli journalists and political figures have pointed to the appearance of new threats to the country’s parliamentary democracy. It is now clear that one or more underground terrorist groups are prepared to take whatever measures they deem necessary to prevent this or any future government from withdrawing from the occupied territories. They constituted the armed wing of a growing fascist movement, manifested in political life by Gush Emunim, Tehiya and other groups to the right of Begin’s Likud. They attack the prime minister as a capitulationist, and might be willing to assail Israel’s parliamentary institutions in order to fulfill what they see as their divine mandate to secure and settle the entire “land of Israel.”

These ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious and openly racist groups have the support of only a minority of Israelis. No more than 10-15 percent of the Jewish population favors immediate and complete annexation. But this tendency is intensely motivated, politically dynamic, and benefits from the support of highly placed officials in the government, army and security apparatus. Israeli liberals say they fear the prospect of civil war, alluding to these groups and to such politicians as Ariel Sharon, minister of agriculture, whose contempt for civilian leadership and parliamentarism may reflect a significant attitude among his close friends in the army command. He is reported to have said at a cabinet meeting that security was more important than the constitution. Begin himself “joked” that Sharon as defense minister would surround the prime minister’s office with tanks. If a future Labor Party government were to approve territorial concessions, it is not inconceivable that such elements on the extreme right and their supporters within the army might contemplate a coup d’etat or armed resistance. Such a movement would undoubtedly be opposed by many Israelis, even many on the right who understand that it would severely damage ties with American and European Jewry and the US government. But the fact that it has even emerged as a possibility being talked about within Israel indicates the seriousness of the crisis. [1]

The uncertain political scene is compounded by a severe economic crisis. Inflation has been running at an annual rate of more than 120 percent. The Begin government, on the advice of such luminaries as Milton Friedman, has revised long-standing Labor policies that subsidized consumer goods, protected local industry, encouraged exports and controlled currency exchanges. The subsidies have been largely eliminated, new trade agreements have exposed the Israeli market to foreign competition, exports have slumped (due in part to the world recession), and many controls on currency have been lifted. These steps are part of a plan to “rationalize” the Israeli economy, raise productivity and lower the standard of living of the Israeli working class. The government has also sought to strengthen the private sector at the expense of Israel’s large and powerful public sector. Yigal Hurwitz, the finance minister, had demanded and won large cuts in government spending for social services and even for the military. For the first time in over a decade unemployment has emerged as a threat to the Israeli worker; Hurwitz and his colleagues see this as a positive step to combat inflation, eliminate overstaffing and restore profitability.

These harsh measures have not yet drastically affected the standard of living of many Israelis. Most workers organized in the Histadrut — the powerful labor organization controlled by the Labor Party — receive 75 percent compensation for cost-of-living increases. Frequent strike action has also helped bridge the gap. The 70,000 Palestinian workers from the occupied territories who are employed within pre-1967 Israel will take the brunt of the layoffs, thus cushioning the Jewish working class from the initial shock.

Nonetheless, the economic situation is likely to continue to deteriorate in the months ahead and Israelis will increasingly be squeezed by astronomical inflation, rising unemployment, and reduced government allocations for housing, education and health care. The full meaning of the Begin-Hurwitz economic program will be brought home to Israeli working people. Hardest hit will be the Palestinian and Israeli Arab workers, and the Oriental Jews who are at the bottom of Israeli Jewish society. It was this last group that voted for Begin in large numbers in 1977, when the Likud successfully exploited anti-Arab sentiment and resentment of 30 years of neglect by Labor governments. They will be compelled to reconsider their political allegiances in light of their economic interests.

The real prospect of heightened social conflict may signal a new orientation in Israeli politics. Signs of this change were evident when Oriental Jewish families occupied a piece of unused government land in Jerusalem this June. The squatters were organized by community activists, some of whom came out of the Black Panther movement of the early 1970s. They set up a tent city in protest against government neglect of the dismal housing conditions in Israel’s slums. They pointed out, to great effect, that the Begin government was spending vast sums on West Bank settlements while the needs of Israel’s working people were going unmet. After several days of negotiations, the government promised quick action and the squatters took down their tents. But an increasing number of Israelis understand that there is a choice to be made in the near future — between settlements and social needs, between land and peace, between repression of the Palestinians and the preservation of Israeli-Jewish democracy.

The immediate beneficiary of disillusionment with the Begin coalition is the Labor Party. But Labor (in an “alignment” with its junior partner of the left, MAPAM) is not an especially attractive alternative, and has come to be seen reluctantly as the lesser of two evils. Yet, if elections were held today, Labor might win a majority by itself — an unprecedented achievement in Israeli history.

The actual difference a Labor government would make remains a question. Labor instituted the settlements policy now carried to its logical extreme by Begin. Labor would probably not reverse the Likud’s economic program, although some changes would have to be made to placate the party’s trade union base. The party opposes Begin’s “autonomy” scheme and calls instead for the partition of the West Bank: Israel would keep the Jordan Valley while returning the most populous areas (the very ones Begin and the right view as most sacred and valuable) to King Hussein of Jordan, in the framework of an American-sponsored settlement. It is not clear that this plan is any more acceptable to the Palestinians or even Hussein than is Begin’s ultimatum.

Labor will undoubtedly continue to reap the benefits of the rising dissatisfaction with the Likud because a significant left movement simply does not exist which can present a credible alternative to both left and right versions of Zionism. Peace Now, which can attract tens of thousands to its rallies by appealing to widespread sentiment that Begin is not doing enough to achieve peace, continues to be extremely vague on the Palestinian issue. Lately it seems to have become an appendage of the Labor bloc in its campaign to bring down the Begin government. With the return of Labor to power, it is likely that Peace Now would, in large part, be coopted fully into the Labor Zionist fold.

Other groups on the left remain weak and isolated. It is the right which is on the offensive, as shown by its recent victory in student government elections at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Developments in the Israeli Arab community generally do not impinge on the Israeli public consciousness, except to the extent that Israelis are today more concerned about the “security risk” the Arab minority may constitute.

Such gloom about the present situation and uncertainty about the future have not been seen for many years. There is a moral malaise, a sense that the “pioneering” values that characterized the “heroic” period of Zionism have somehow been lost. Many Israelis, including even soldiers on duty, reportedly smoke hashish. In June the country was shocked by a sensational kidnapping for ransom and later murder of a Jewish child, said to be the first in Israel’s history.

Old ideals have faded, trusted solutions have failed. This has compelled a certain confrontation with reality. Today there is more awareness that Israel can no longer have both guns and butter, that better health care and schools are one price of more settlements. Ten years ago nearly all Israelis asserted that there was no such thing as a Palestinian Arab people. Today everyone recognizes the Palestinians as a key factor, and that reaching an understanding with the Palestinians is the only road to Jewish survival and wellbeing in the region. Still, only a tiny minority supports the Palestinian right to self-determination even in the form of a mini-state with limited sovereignty.

The scandals and misrule that afflicted the Rabin government shattered some illusions, and the reactionary economic policy and hard-line attitude of the Begin government have undermined others. But these changes in consciousness, while significant, are still very tenuous. and are often made for the wrong reasons. Thus many liberals oppose annexation because it would dilute the exclusively Jewish character of the Zionist state, or the Labor Party denounces Begin’s “autonomy” plan as a step on the road to a Palestinian state. Furthermore, people sometimes learn the wrong lessons from history. The conclusion most Israelis drew from the 1973 war was not that the occupation of the Arab territories ensured further warfare, but that continued occupation was essential in order to defeat Arab attacks. Similarly, Palestinian guerrilla raids and UN votes condemning Israel have so far tended to bolster public support for the government rather than lead people to question official policies.

The state of public consciousness is fluid and could change dramatically in the next few months. Should the Likud fall, a Labor government under American pressure would undoubtedly moderate Israel’s hard-line stance. But concessions that appear far-reaching to most Israelis still probably fail to meet everyone else’s acceptable minimum. Yet, even such limited concessions could conceivably incite the extreme right to battle. Or, Begin might choose to gamble on a major military adventure, perhaps against the Syrian and Palestinian forces in Lebanon. Other scenarios are also possible.

This is a transition period in Israeli history, a period of increasing popular demoralization and uncertainty in which the old Zionist consensus will be replaced by an increasing polarization. Early signs of this have already appeared in the strengthening of Zionism’s most racist, chauvinist and clericalist tendencies. But the potential also exists for a move to the left, beyond the hypocrisy and tired slogans of Labor Zionism in search of a new road.


[1] See, for example, the article by Dan Horowitz in Yediot Aharonot, June 11, 1980.

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman "Israel at a Turning Point," Middle East Report 92 (November/December 1980).

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