“Thank God who heard our pleas,” said Israel’s Prime-Minister-elect to his euphoric followers on the night of 17 May 1977, as the unthinkable became fact: Menachem Begin, Leader of the Opposition for 28 consecutive years and the loser of eight straight general elections, was elected to lead the Jewish state.
Begin’s triumph would transform Israel politically, culturally, and socially, heralding a 40-year era that may now be drawing to a close.
The departure from the previous era – three decades shaped by Labor’s ideology and establishment – was already hinted at in that victory speech. Begin’s frequent references to God and his brandishing and wearing of a skullcap as he read a chapter from Psalms, were all inconceivable gestures for his predecessors, a collection of secularists who often verged on atheism.
Begin came from a different ecosystem. A religious traditionalist and liberal nationalist, he earned fame during the 1940s as an underground leader who disparaged Labor’s diplomatic moderation and terrorised the British army after Britain blocked Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Besides rejecting Labor’s secularism and dismissing its diplomatic pragmatism, Begin also opposed the founding establishment’s socialism, championing instead economic liberalism.
In line with his traditionalism, Begin quickly turned Israel’s entire religious population into his allies: gaining support from the modern-Orthodox by coaxing their politicians to leave the Labor camp where they had been since the 1930s; and from the ultra-Orthodox by offering them senior positions in his coalition as well as wholesale exemptions from military service for the students of their Talmudic academies.
The unfolding era’s foundation – an ironclad alliance between Israel’s liberal-nationalist right and Israel’s religious communities – had thus been laid. The era’s next big imprint arrived in that year’s autumn, when Begin stunned the whole world by hosting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Jerusalem.
The peace deal which that dramatic visit produced will forever loom as a watershed in Israel’s history, because its largest neighbour and most dangerous enemy had been pacified, and because peace – until then an abstract wish – now apparently became a realistic prospect.
Then again, peace would by no means define the era Begin’s election heralded. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in response to the Palestine Liberation Organisation shelling of towns in the Galilee from there, was followed by a protracted guerrilla war that cost 1,000 Israeli lives and took 18 years to end.
It was in the months preceding that invasion that Begin blanketed the West Bank with more than 100 settlements, a massive effort for which he enlisted the organisational skills of his Defence Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon.
It was the same Begin who had struck the groundbreaking land-for-peace deal, in which he forfeited the whole Sinai Peninsula, which was larger than the land he was left with. The West Bank, he said, was different because it is the heart of the historic Land of Israel, and the cradle of Jewish history.
The West Bank, previously seen in Israel largely as a bargaining chip in a future peace negotiation, was thus redefined as part of the nationalist leadership’s territorial vision.
Socially, too, Labor’s legacy has been radically altered, as previously marginalised constituencies came to the fore. The children of Middle Eastern immigrations that arrived in the 1950s now climbed to financial, political, academic and military positions that, during the previous era, were usually held by Israelis of European backgrounds.
Realising the immigrants’ frustrations from the time when they first arrived in the Jewish state, Begin diligently wooed them during his long years in opposition, granting them and their traditionalism all the respect and warmth that they felt Labor withheld from them.
Finally, the previous era’s socialism also unravelled, making way for one of the world’s most capitalistic economies.
True, the “Likud era” did not lead to blanket political domination by the Likud. There were three Labor-led governments, and a fourth that was led by the centrist Kadima (“Forward”). However, these isolated stints actually helped mould the “Likud era” as much as the Likud governments did.
Shimon Peres’ government in the mid-1980s led Israel’s departure from socialism. The governments led by Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak the following decade tried to make peace with the Palestinians only to be met with violence – after which Labor sustained six consecutive electoral defeats.
Meanwhile, the Likud that back in 1977 was perceived as lacking administrative experience, gradually became the experienced party of government – so much so that 15 of its 30 lawmakers are either current or former ministers, as opposed to a mere four of Labor’s 24 MKs.
Likud, even its opponents now concede, has indeed learned to govern since Begin – arguably fearful of the responsibility thrust on his inexperienced shoulders – appointed veteran Labor figure Moshe Dayan as his first foreign minister.
Forty years on, Likud appears to be the ultimate in management experience.
Likud Governments crisscrossed the country with new cities, railways, and highways, shifted most water-pumping from rainfall to desalination, and also built from scratch a resource extraction industry for Israel’s newfound gas – all complex governmental tasks that many would have once assumed only Labor could do.
Such, in brief, is the face of a 40-year era that began before most Israelis were born, and whose end few expected anytime soon. Yet the Likud era may be approaching its twilight after all.
Ideologically, the Likud era has already peaked.
Mainstream voters have lost faith in the feasibility of Labor’s land-for-peace vision. However, the same electorate also backed Ariel Sharon’s retreat from Gaza, and before that when he raised the anti-terror fence, a move that to its nationalist opponents compromised their “whole Land of Israel” vision. Both public attitudes reflected the rejection of this platform by the electoral mainstream.
Indeed, 40 years after Likud’s rise to power, the ideological right – the electorate that seeks the West Bank’s annexation – is represented by less than one third of the Knesset, namely, parts of the Likud and the whole Jewish Home faction.
The other four factions in Netanyahu’s coalition, namely the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu – are all open to territorial compromise.
Moreover, many of the voters who have abandoned Labor since the collapse of the Oslo Accords still shun Likud. Instead, they have given rise to a new political centre.
This trend became apparent last decade, when a party called Shinui (“Change”) won more than a tenth of the electorate and became a pillar of Ariel Sharon’s government, with its leader, journalist Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, serving as deputy prime minister.
Today, Lapid’s son, Yair, has emerged as the leader of a new centre-left party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) which is even more popular than his father’s and also won more than a tenth of the electorate. So did the centre-right Kulanu.
These two factions represent a substantial centrist political camp which Likud has repeatedly failed to capture.
The emergence of the Israeli centre was helped by Ariel Sharon’s departure in 2005 from the Likud with a group of its ministers and lawmakers, and their establishment of a centrist alternative, Kadima (“Forward”), which, unlike Likud of the time, recognised the Palestinians’ right to statehood.
Kadima’s subsequent landslide victory, despite the incapacitated Sharon’s replacement by the less charismatic Ehud Olmert, proved that Likud’s domination of the political era was not predestined.
Even so, Likud’s grand return since then, with three electoral victories since 2009, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergence as “King Bibi” – in the words of a TIME Magazine cover in 2012 – created the impression that the Likud era is alive, well, and, apparently, eternal. It isn’t.
Ideologically, the party’s foundational idea of rejecting territorial compromise has exhausted itself. Netanyahu himself now accepts, at least abstractly, the two-state principle, and has personally torpedoed right-wing attempts to promote annexationist legislation. Likud’s original hope, to make the West Bank an integral part of the Jewish state, has given way to a broad understanding that the Jewish state cannot digest 2.5 million mostly hostile Palestinians.
Politically, Likud has lost the secular, middle-class electorate that now votes for Lapid and Kahlon. In addition, some Likud lawmakers are displaying a sense of conceit that may ultimately prove electorally poisonous. For instance, a recent outburst by two lawmakers at parents of fallen soldiers during a televised Knesset hearing was once unthinkable for Israeli politicians, least of all in the patriotic Likud.
On the personal level, there is a growing feeling in Israel that the multiple corruption investigations Netanyahu now faces may add up to the twilight of his 11-year incumbency. His failure to cultivate a successor – and his tendency to fall out with potential heirs like his former ministers Kahlon (Communications), Gideon Saar (Education), and Moshe Yaalon (Defence) – suggest that a post-Likud era may be surreptitiously approaching.
Lastly, in a free world beset by declining political establishments and electoral transformations like those that just gave rise to Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, Likud’s hegemony seems increasingly anachronistic.
Such analogies are of course tricky; Israel does not face an immigration crisis of the sort that brought down France’s major parties and it does not face an industrial crisis of the sort that fed Trump’s ascent.
Israel’s historic circumstances, ideological debates and social divides are therefore quite different from what one sees elsewhere in much of the West – but the future of its political establishment might nonetheless prove just as precarious.