The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
Through the workings of a multitude of causes-external and internal, spiritual and material-Israel has survived, not without unease, for a considerable time. Problems abound in all spheres: Israel's position in the Middle East, its economic survival and the coexistence of the various discordant components of Israeli society. Yet, strange as it may seem, no effective force in Israel today feels the urgent need for radical change in policy or direction. On the contrary, one can sense a widespread suspicion that any change would be a change for the worse.
We have just passed the eleventh parliamentary election in our 36-year history. The inconclusive war in Lebanon has taken a heavy toll on Israel. Hundreds of soldiers were killed and thousands became invalids. The financial burden of the war is one of the important causes of the government deficit and the continuing rise of Israel's foreign debt, which has more than doubled in the seven years of Likud administration.
Curiously, the only Israeli who has drawn a far-reaching personal conclusion from the tragic miscarriage of Israeli plans in Lebanon and the deteriorating economic situation is Menachem Begin, prime minister from 1977 to his abrupt resignation in September 1983. All through his life he suffered from bouts of depression. Last summer he withdrew into his private apartment and disappeared from the public eye. Begin has never come forward to explain the reasons for his political demise to the people of Israel, whom he served as elected leader for six years, or to the party whose unchallenged head he had been since the foundation of the state.
The elections of July 23, 1984, were forced upon the government of Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir, a full year before the constitutional expiration of the Likud coalition's mandate in office. A small splinter party, representing predominantly Sephardi Jews, and two individual members of the legislature (Knesset) sided with the Labor opposition to cut away Shamir's parliamentary majority.
The Labor alignment emerged as the largest single party in the new Knesset, but Likud and its ideological allies scored an unexpectedly strong showing.
In light of these results, the splinter factions and Labor itself probably did Shamir and Likud a favor by forcing the premature elections. Likud's economic policies since 1977 have sapped the resources of the state, but until the autumn of 1983 the general public had only seen the benefits. Real income of wage earners and overall living standards rose considerably in the Likud years, and only when a bubble of speculation in bank stocks burst in October did the public begin to feel the brunt of Likud's wasteful policies. Apparently nine months is too short a time for the electorate to grasp the severe harm to the foundations of our society brought about by Likud's superficially attractive economics. By the summer of 1985, political analysts now argue, the message would have come through loud and clear, and Likud's share of the vote would have been much lower.
Nobody can know how the vote would have gone in July 1985, if Likud had been allowed to serve out its mandate; but there can be no doubt that in July 1984, Likud still enjoyed the returns of the goodies it had spread among the people in the years previous.
Overall, the elections just completed have brought about a weakening of Israel's two leading parties. The Labor alignment may have a parliamentary edge over Likud, but both have suffered as the smaller parties on both ideological extremes gained in strength. Both Labor and Likud will find it very difficult to form a government, either separately or in an uneasy coalition of national unity.
The collapse of Begin's second administration, his eclipse as a political leader, and the premature elections that ensued can be traced to two steps taken-or at least acquiesced to-by the prime minister himself. Both involved entrusting heavy responsibilities to controversial associates: Finance Minister Yoram Aridor was permitted to pursue an inflationary economic policy, and Ariel Sharon was named minister of defense.
When Begin took office in the summer of 1977, inflation in Israel was running at a rate of 25 percent per year and the tendency was downward. The last Labor government had succeeded in lowering the rate from more than 50 percent in 1974, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Economists had forecast an inflation of only 15 percent for 1978.
Then came Likud. Unrestrained public spending and a continuous rise in real wages and salaries marked Likud economic policy under its first finance minister, the late Simcha Ehrlich, and inflation rose to over 100 percent. Ehrlich was replaced by Yigal Hurwitz, who tried to switch to an austerity policy, but he had to resign in January 1981, after being overruled by the Cabinet in his objection to an increase in teacher's salaries.
After Hurwitz came Yoram Aridor, comparatively young, intelligent and endowed with a lighthearted recklessness. Aridor reverted to the permissive policy of the early Likud years, keeping prices of essential commodities low through ever-increasing subsidies, even as real income continued to rise. The rate of exchange of the shekel lagged behind the rate of inflation; foreign money became inexpensive for Israelis. Imported goods could be had at attractive prices and travel abroad cost Israelis less than vacations at home. No wonder that these measures kept people content. Likud's economics proved most beneficial-and possibly decisive-for Begin at the elections in July 1981.
Cash-rich Israelis began speculating on the Tel Aviv stock exchange, triggering an unprecedented and madly exaggerated boom: within just a few months in 1982, stock prices multiplied several times. Wage earners and cab drivers joined the frenzy. People sold their apartments and automobiles in order to make quick gains through speculation. Businessmen and corporations (including kibbutzim) neglected their legitimate work and employed their resources on the stock exchange. Work suffered in many firms as employees kept phoning their brokers for the latest quotations. Even serving soldiers called in from their army bases in the Golan Heights and in Lebanon.
In 1983 the overheated market collapsed. Industrial shares went down first, often by 50, 70 or 90 percent. Then, in October, came pressure on the bank stocks, the favorite form of investment for small and medium savers. Through mass publicity campaigns, Israeli banks had convinced the public that their stocks were a safe hedge against inflation, providing at the same time a high income-20-30 percent per annum in real terms. All the while the banks assiduously propped up the prices of their shares, which rose day by day more than the rate of inflation. Big new issues of bank shares were eagerly snapped up by the public. With the collapse of the industrials, people got restless and offered even bank shares for sale. To prevent their decline in value, the banks had to buy up their own stock. They imported close to a billion dollars from their subsidiaries abroad, mainly in the United States, to raise supportive funds. Eventually they could not keep it up. The shares fell by about 30 percent and would have fallen further had the government not intervened to prevent a panic. In October 1983, Aridor resigned from office under a storm of criticism.
Ariel Sharon became Israel's minister of defense on August 5, 1981. All through his military and political career, Sharon has generated controversy. He had made a name for himself from the early 1950s as a ruthless fighter against Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) partisans, and as a dashing field commander in the wars of Israel. Always popular with soldiers who served under him, his popularity carried over into politics, to the crowds in the marketplace and at mass meetings. Less popular with his fellow army commanders, he was known for a lack of discipline and for disregarding orders from superiors. He is a man of great energy and perseverance in pursuing his plans.
Another of Sharon's striking traits is his ability to project a favorable and attractive image of himself to the people at large. Somehow the setbacks in his military career, which have not been lacking, and which sometimes caused heavy casualties, did not sink into the consciousness of the public. People who have close contact with him know his aggressiveness and rudeness, and many fear his vicious tongue. To outsiders he can be a great charmer. I know of no American Jew conducted by Ariel Sharon on a tour of the West Bank who did not become a confirmed supporter of Sharon's settlement policy.
One of the weaknesses of Israeli society is the tendency to assume that high officers who have an outstanding military career behind them can be relied on for the soundness of their political judgment. Sometimes, of course, a former general can turn into a useful politician or statesman. In the case of Ariel Sharon, his great reputation as a general enabled him to win over the government, and especially Begin himself, to a policy which brought the country close to disaster.
Not for nothing had David Ben-Gurion given the military arm of the state the name Israel Defense Force. The army was to be ordered into action only when vital interests of the state or its very existence were threatened by enemy forces. It was to be used only when there was no other way out.
Ariel Sharon thought differently. For him the army was an instrument to be used at will by the Israeli government in order to achieve given political objects, for instance, a change of the political map around Israel.
From the day of his appointment, Sharon planned war in Lebanon and against Syria. His plans were not limited to securing the safety of the Israeli settlements in the Galilee by driving PLO forces out of the southern belt of Lebanon. Sharon had a bigger political goal: he wanted to achieve a peace treaty with Lebanon. For that he needed a friendly government in Beirut. Such a government could not come into being as long as the PLO, with its political and military establishment, and the Syrian army were entrenched in the capital and in control of most of the country. The war in Lebanon and against Syria was only the first stage of Sharon's Grand Design. The second stage was to be the conquest of Jordan and the resettling there of the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.
After the war started on June 6, 1982, Begin deceived the Knesset about Israel's real intentions (possibly he himself had been deceived by Sharon). The prime minister said Israel sought only to establish a security belt 40 kilometers deep along its northern border.
Very soon it became apparent that the so-called Operation Peace for Galilee, which was to have been concluded within two or three days, had become a war. Even now, after two years, it is not at an end. The one object achieved has been the expulsion of Yassir Arafat and his PLO headquarters from Beirut. But terrorism has not disappeared, and Israeli soldiers are harassed daily in southern Lebanon.
Sharon's other aim, the dislodgement of the Syrians from their positions in the Bekaa Valley, proved to be quite difficult. The Syrians fought stubbornly for every inch and inflicted considerable losses on the Israelis. In the end the Israeli army could, possibly, have achieved its goal, but at heavy cost. Yet the fighting came to an end on June 11, at the request of President Reagan. Perhaps Mr. Begin was not too sorry about this American interference. Now, two years later, the Syrians are as much in control of Lebanon as they ever were. The new Lebanese government is headed by a Syrian appointee.
In November 1982, Begin brought himself to oust Sharon as minister of defense in the uproar following a judicial inquiry commission presided over by the Chief Justice of Israel, which found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, in the suburbs of Beirut. But Sharon was retained in the government as minister without portfolio, and was a popular campaigner for Likud in the elections.
The 1984 election campaign was far more restrained and placid than the one before. The last time Israelis chose their Knesset, in 1981, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres had been shouted down when he tried to address meetings in new towns predominantly inhabited by Israelis who, themselves or their parents, had come from Islamic countries in North Africa or the Middle East, so-called Oriental Jews.
The 1981 campaign had been marked by highly effective demagoguery which appealed to basic instincts; Begin succeeded in conveying to the masses of voters of non-European origin the conviction that he understood their desires and represented their interests. By contrast, Peres became a hate-figure, personification of the myth that for decades the masses of Oriental Israelis had been exploited and discriminated against by the Labor establishment, largely of European, or Ashkenazi, origin.
In 1984 Begin's pyrotechnics were absent. The mood of the masses was less angry. Two or three former ringleaders of noisy anti-Ashkenazi protests were induced to move into the Labor camp and apologize in public for the insults inflicted on Peres three years before. This time Peres was given a polite hearing, more or less, in the new towns-all of which, incidentally, had been founded and developed by Labor administrations. The Labor leaders succumbed to a rash sense of security that the voting habits of the Oriental majority had changed from its pro-Likud orientation.
There was a more profound reason for the relative tameness of the election campaign: both Likud and Labor, for their own reasons, found it wiser not to sharpen the issues that divided them, but rather to blur them.
Likud knew very well that the war in Lebanon was the result of a political miscalculation. It was certainly no electoral asset. But nor could Labor make too much of it, for opposition leaders had actually supported the war in its initial stage. Likud and Labor agreed that the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon should be brought to an end as soon as satisfactory security arrangements for the Galilee could be worked out. Both knew that Lebanese and Syrian cooperation would be necessary to bring this about. As long as such cooperation was not forthcoming, the Israeli presence in Lebanon, costly as it might be in terms of risk to human lives as well as in material resources, could not be easily relinquished.
As to the occupied territories on the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza strip, Likud stressed its commitment to keep the whole of the Land of Israel. Labor did not disavow its readiness for a territorial compromise with Jordan as a partner, but neither did they make a strong issue of this stand. They stressed the portions they intend to retain rather than those they would give up. After 17 years of Israeli occupation, talk of readiness to abandon territory does not help win votes.
On the economy, again both Likud and Labor knew that quite radical and unpopular steps would have to be taken, yet neither wanted to get too specific. One prominent economist close to Likud said, unlike King Lear, that he knew what had to be done but preferred not to say it, in order not to spread despondency among the citizenry.
Practical political calculation was the most important reason why Labor did not hit hard on the themes of Likud chauvinism and intransigence, the irresponsibility of spattering the West Bank with tiny Jewish settlements, and the reckless and wasteful Likud economics. Labor's election technicians had come to the conclusion that the outcome would hang on some 300,000 voters-15 percent of the electorate-who had voted Likud in 1981 but who by now, facing an annual inflation rate of 400 percent, had become doubtful about their choice. They could be induced to vote for another party-but not for one that appeared to be defeatist. In order to attract those shaky Likud voters, Labor chose to present an image both solid and patriotic.
The election results proved out the theory-but not the way Labor had hoped. Likud did indeed lose votes, which were apparently divided quite evenly between the more extreme nationalist lists, such as Tehiya and the candidacy of the fanatic American rabbi Meir Kahane, and the more moderate list of Ezer Weizman. They did not go to Labor.
The result of the election is frustrating and disappointing for Labor. The newly elected Knesset is nearly evenly split into two camps, making coalition-building difficult. Fifteen party lists are represented. The two big parties-Labor and Likud-control among themselves over 70 percent of the seats. But both are weaker than they were in 1981. Likud has gone down from 48 to 41 seats (a loss of 14.5 percent). Labor lost six percent, from 47 to 44 seats. Most preelection polls had forecast a Labor lead of 10 to 15 seats over Likud; Peres had been confident that he would obtain more than 50 seats.
Although Likud lost more than twice as much as Labor, Shamir has reason for satisfaction with the result. These were the first elections without the commanding presence of Begin, for many years the only universally admired and acknowledged leader of Herut (the main component of Likud). Conversely, Shamir had been quite unknown among the general public until only a few months ago. The economic situation, especially after the crash of the bank stocks last fall, and the unending, nagging and costly involvement in Lebanon, hardly increased Likud's popularity. Against these liabilities, Likud's showing is not unimpressive.
ISRAELI ELECTION RESULTS
BLOC AND PARTY 1984 1981
VOTES SEATS VOTES SEATS
Likud (Nationalist) 661,302 41 718,762 48
Tehiya (Ultra-Nationalist) 83,037 5 44,559 3
N.R.P. (Religious-Zionist) 73,530 4 94,930 6
Shass (Orthodox-Sephardi) 63,605 4 - -
Agudah (Orthodox-Non-Zionist) 36,079 2 71,682 4
Morasha (Orthodox-Nationalist) 33,287 2 - -
Kach (Kahane-Religious-Ultra- 25,907 1 - -
Labor Alignment 724,074 44 709,075 47
Shinui (Rubinstein-Liberal) 54,747 3 29,060 2
Ratz (Aloni-Liberal) 49,698 3 27,123 1
Yahad (Weizman) 46,302 3 - -
Yigal Hurwitz 23,845 1 30,997 2
Tami (AbuHatzera) 31,103 1 44,559 3
Predominantly Arab Lists
Communist 69,815 4 65,870 4
Progressive/Democratic Change 38,012 2 - -
Others 58,978 0 100,741 0
TOTAL 2,073,321 120 1,937,358 120
It is now fashionable to blame the system of rigorously proportional representation for the indecisive results, and a change of the electoral system is being recommended as a remedy. Yet this is a moot point. It may be worthwhile to raise the minimum percentage necessary to qualify for election from one percent to three percent or four percent of the vote. Instead of 13 small lists there would, perhaps, be only six or seven lists. But nothing would change basically. On the other hand, the split of the religious vote into four small lists may actually help in forming a viable coalition. The election results show that various parts of the Israeli electorate believe very strongly in different causes that are often conflicting and belong to different universes of discourse, such as nationalism, religion, civil rights and material well-being.
The new Knesset includes two predominantly Arab lists, the Communists (four members) and a new Nationalist list (two members). Both favor a Palestinian state in the occupied territories which would be led by Yassir Arafat. Although probably 90 percent of the voters for these two lists are Arabs, two of the Communist and one of the Nationalist members are Jews. The representatives of the two lists are expected to support Labor in a coalition against Likud. Three more Arabs were elected on the lists of Likud, Labor and Shinui.
The table opposite breaks down the newly elected eleventh Knesset into major blocs: Nationalist-Religious, Labor-Liberal, Transients, and the predominantly Arab lists. The Transients are so in a double sense: they may join either of the two big blocs, and they are characterized solely by the persons who lead them. Therefore, they will probably prove ephemeral over the long term, but may be crucial in the immediate coalition-building.
So-called ethnic questions-the cultural and social divide between Ashkenazi Jews of European origin and the Sephardi, or Oriental, Jews-did not play an important role in this year's election campaign. In 1981, Begin had played up this problem effectively by claiming that, since the beginning of mass immigration from the Islamic countries in 1949, the Jews from those countries had been systematically kept down by the Ashkenazi Labor establishment, from which the power elite was recruited both in government bodies and in the General Federation of Labor (Histadrut).
The largest group of that immigration-but not the majority-had come from Morocco, where many had belonged to a socially and educationally underprivileged stratum. (Well-to-do and educated Moroccan Jews went mostly to France rather than Israel.)
Today, 30 years later, the large majority of these immigrants are productively employed-preponderantly, it must be admitted, but by no means exclusively, in the lower income brackets. An educational gap still exists, but it is narrowing from decade to decade.
Likud spokesmen, who in 1981 had loudly complained of alleged injustices inflicted on the defenseless Moroccans by the Ashkenazi apparatchiks, claimed in 1984 that the problem no longer existed. It had been solved, they claimed, by the Likud government.
The integration of the Jews from North Africa has been, on the whole, a genuine success story. Long before Begin became prime minister, many North Africans served as town councillors and mayors in the development towns. Some of them moved from there to the Knesset. In 1977, 22 Knesset members originated from Islamic countries; in 1981 their number was 27. The newly elected Knesset-according to a recent press story-consists of seven Arabs, 82 Ashkenazim and 31 Sephardim (though the terms are open to debate). Labor and Likud each have ten Sephardi members.
Official statistics do not specifically break down the voting habits of the different ethnic groups. It is generally supposed that two-thirds of Likud voters (or their parents) originated from Islamic countries. In Labor the proportion may be inverse. Yet with over half of the Jewish electorate of non-European origin, Labor could not be the largest party if non-Europeans did not vote for it in considerable numbers.
A somewhat more precise measure comes from comparison of the returns from districts heavily populated by Oriental Jews as against immigrant districts of more mixed population. According to figures recently published in the Israeli press, eight representative towns of predominantly Oriental populations gave Likud a margin of more than 2.5 to 1. In eight equivalent towns of mixed populations, the Likud vote over Labor was less than 1.2 to 1.
Parties formed along specific ethnic lines have not generally had wide appeal for the Sephardi community. Before the 1981 elections, Moroccan members of the National Religious Party broke away from the Ashkenazi establishment to go it alone under the party name Tami. Three members were elected. In the new Knesset Tami dropped to only one seat.
In the 1984 elections a new ethnic split developed, this time within Agudat Israel, the non-Zionist movement long controlled by East European Orthodox bodies. The four votes of Agudah had been vital for the survival of the Likud government, and the party leaders managed to obtain substantial funds from the government, to be distributed by the party leadership without outside accountability; most of this money is presumed to go to religious colleges (yeshivot), the characters and needs of which are not clearly defined. Over the years many Sephardi congregations had joined Agudat Israel, but they gained no proportionate influence in the party leadership. Believing they were not receiving a fair share of the funds, they broke away and founded the party Shass (Orthodox Sephardim). Surprisingly, they won four Knesset seats while the erstwhile parent body got only two. All four Shass members elected are young rabbis of North African origin who have spent their lives studying Talmud and, consequently, have no political experience. They seem to have received considerable support from non-Agudah Sephardi voters who had formerly voted Likud. The future will show whether this group will become a permanent feature in Israeli politics or whether it is merely a transient phenomenon like Tami.
The former president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon, himself Sephardi, used to say that the ethnic question in Israel is wide, but not deep; it becomes shallower from generation to generation.
The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of the religious problem in Israel. The gap between the largely secularized majority and the fervently religious and orthodox minority has become both wider and deeper in the last two decades. Its origins go far back in Zionist history.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the bulk of Jewish people lived in Eastern Europe and obeyed the precepts of Jewish orthodoxy. Only a small minority of tradition-bound East European Jewry joined the incipient Zionist movement, and they did so only after the Zionist organizations committed themselves to uphold certain basic tenets of Judaism, such as the observance of the Sabbath and the Jewish marriage laws, in the Zionist communities about to be established in Palestine. For all their secularism, the early Zionist leaders granted these concessions in hopes of making inroads among the millions of orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe, providing the Zionist movement with a mass base. This concordat, dating from the earliest days of Zionism, is the seed of the religious problem in modern Israel.
As it worked out, the concession had only a limited effect: only a small minority of religious Jews joined the Zionist movement. From them-by second remove-originated the present National Religious Party, which is represented by four members in the new Knesset. Most religious Jews not only shunned Zionism, they turned into active adversaries. Orthodox Jews believed that, in the end of days, the Jewish people would be led back to Zion, their original homeland. Their leaders regarded the Zionist endeavor as a blasphemous attempt to interfere with the inscrutable ways of Divine Providence, and they employed all of their considerable means-including excommunication-to prevent their flock from succumbing to Zionist blandishments.
They did not object to their faithful settling in Jerusalem and devoting themselves exclusively to the study of Talmud. But they prohibited every cooperation with political Zionism. The tragic conclusion of hindsight is that, had it not been for the fierce prohibitions of the leaders of Orthodox Jewry (most eventually organized in the Agudat Israel), many more Jews might have immigrated to Palestine before World War II, and would, thus, have escaped extermination by the Germans.
After the establishment of the State of Israel-and especially after the Six-Day War of 1967-everything changed. The leaders of Jewish Orthodoxy are not only great Talmudic scholars, they are also supreme pragmatists. They had lost their territorial base in Eastern Europe. Most of their faithful had been killed. But the Jewish state had become a reality and many Jews lived there. Now they came to regard it as not only legitimate but their duty to use their rights as Israeli citizens to spread true Judaism-as they understand it-and to transform Israel from a state ruled by the laws of the Knesset into a state ruled by the laws of the Talmud.
As government coalitions in Israel very often depend on a handful of votes, the power of the Agudah Knesset members became considerable. Their changed attitude did not make them or their followers Zionists, nor even Israeli patriots. They refuse, and are exempted from, otherwise universal military service. Yet they regard it as fully agreeable to God that they use every means to obtain as much money as possible from the Zionist state for the upkeep of their own institutions.
Some extreme Orthodox did become militant Israeli nationalists after the Six-Day War. The "Land of Israel," the land that God had promised, had come under Israeli rule; this war was regarded by many as a divine act of miraculous delivery from mortal danger.
Just as, a hundred years before, Orthodox leaders had regarded political Zionism as blasphemy, present-day Orthodox Nationalists regard it as religious abomination to give up any land that is part of the divine Jewish patrimony. The Orthodox of this persuasion are to be found in the Gush Emunim; they settle in Hebron and in the West Bank. In the Knesset they are part of Tehiya-even though this means cooperating with secular Nationalists like Yuval Neeman, the distinguished professor of physics, and Rafael Eytan ("Raful"), the former chief of staff in charge of the war in Lebanon. (Eytan, together with Sharon, was blamed by the judicial commission for Sabra and Shatila; like Sharon he comes in the tradition of MacArthur, Salan and Montgomery, generals best kept in political impotence by persons more controlled by reason.)
The Tehiya Party, which has increased its strength from three to five members in the new Knesset, exemplifies the well-known phenomenon that extreme nationalism often breeds more extreme nationalism. Every government in power generates disappointments, and for all of Begin's chauvinistic somersaults, he was not spared the fate of appearing to unrelenting doctrinaires-especially to some of the young-as domesticated, staid and unduly conciliatory. Many could not forgive him for signing away the Sinai in the peace treaty with Egypt. Geula Cohen and others, who had represented Likud in the ninth Knesset, broke away and founded Tehiya as a purer and unadulterated version of Herut. They found considerable response among young people, especially after being joined by "Raful" Eytan, whose views are scarcely distinguishable from Kahane's in defining what should be done to the Arabs in Israel.
The breakdown of the military vote is particularly revealing in this connection. If the votes of the general electorate had been distributed as were the votes of the serving soldiers (most of whom are, of course, first-time voters), Tehiya would have gotten not five but 14 seats in the Knesset. Had the Knesset been elected by the serving military alone, Israel would have a Likud-led majority of 64, consisting of 47 Likud, 14 Tehiya, and three for the nationalist list headed by Rabbi Kahane. Labor would have had only 41 seats, Shinui five, Ratz four.
The election results are not to be seen as an accident of circumstance. They are a fair reflection of Israel's public attitudes. The results would probably not have been very different if somebody other than Shimon Peres had led the Labor list. Although this may be the last time he leads his party in an election, Peres is the closest approximation to an authentic political leader that Labor could offer; anybody else would have looked like an imposter. Shimon Peres does not.
The following figures from three periods in Israel's history show the gradual erosion of Labor and the rise of the Nationalist-Religious bloc. (These figures refer to the average number of Knesset members in each period.)
1949-51 61.7 42.0
1961-69 57.7 46.6
1973-84 43.5 60.7
From the first to the third period (11 elections), Labor lost an average of 18.2 members, a decline of 29 percent. In terms of actual political power the decline of Labor is even sharper, for from 1949 to 1973 the religious lists had supported Labor, actively or passively. In 1977 and 1981 the religious groups joined with the nationalist parties. The Nationalist-Religious bloc has gained an average of 18.7 members from the first to the last period: a rise of 44.5 percent.
In 1949, 50.4 percent of the electorate voted Labor. In October 1969, after the Six-Day War, Labor's vote stood at 46.2 percent, and it fell in December 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, to 39.6 percent. The full punishment for the military deficiencies which had become apparent in that war, and for a string of criminal cases in which leading members of the establishment were involved, was finally inflicted by the voters on May 17, 1977, when Labor went down to 24.6 percent and, for the first time, was turned out of office by Likud, led by Menachem Begin.
The Labor Party of Israel has lost its sense of identity. Early in the century it was conceived and developed as a movement of pioneering workers. Its mission had been to convince the bands of penniless Jewish youngsters, born in a Europe that did not want them and was about to kill them, to come to the wasteland that was Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. The Zionist Labor movement imbued these young people with the belief that they could do nothing more meaningful with their lives than to lay here, under heavy personal sacrifices, the foundations of a modern agriculture and industry, of a modern society providing basic social services to all in Palestine. And when the need arose, they even built an army-as pacifist European socialists, they had not contemplated that. They also bore the main burden of providing succor for the mass immigration in the early days of the state. It was a great task, admirably performed. But it is over.
The great question is whether the people in charge of the Labor Party now will find it within themselves to rebuild their movement to answer the needs of all Israelis who value civil liberties and social justice, who object to religious coercion, and at the same time to represent the interests of the employed masses in a modern post-industrial society. The newly elected secretary general of the Histadrut, for instance, Israel Kessar, is a very intelligent and experienced man. He is not a man of yesterday, but of today, and, one can hope, of tomorrow. He is a prominent member of the Labor faction in the new Knesset.
Whichever party leadership succeeds in putting together Israel's next ruling coalition-Labor, Likud or both-will face the unwelcome task of convincing the complacent Israelis that things cannot long continue as they are, that change is not something to be feared but rather to be sought, urgently and constructively. Should Israel's leaders not rise to the challenge, it may be outside pressure that will bring the impetus for change.
In their economic policies, in the face of ever-repeated warnings, Israelis have continued to behave in a manner which, we were told, must lead to disaster-yet no catastrophe occurred, until now. The living standards of ordinary Israelis have improved. Israel is, even now, one of the very few free countries of the world with no significant unemployment.
Israelis tend to regard American economic aid, which has grown substantially over the last decade, as part of their natural wealth. Dependence on outside help does not cause misgivings. Indeed, Likud politicians have repeatedly said that American aid is not large enough in view of the great benefits to American interests from the very existence and functioning of Israel. As long as no dire need is perceived for basic change in economic policy, basic change is unlikely to come about.
The same logic seems to apply to the problems of the occupation, of relations with the Arabs. This is so even if Labor dominates the new government. At Camp David, despite the overwhelming historical event of the president of Egypt negotiating peace with Israel, no agreement would have been possible without unmistakable American pressure. The much-vaunted solution of the Palestinian question through a territorial compromise and an agreement with Jordan is a safe placebo for immobilism-and Shimon Peres should know it. It has been so since June 1967, when the late Moshe Dayan said that all he was waiting for was a telephone call from King Hussein.
King Hussein had no reason to make such a call. Moreover, King Hussein has every reason not to make the call. He cannot agree to a territorial compromise with Israel, as this would make him a traitor to the Arab cause. He has no reason to make such a compromise, because in fact he does not suffer from the situation of occupation which has existed since 1967. On the contrary, he is better off today and more respected in the world than before 1967. Were he to sign an agreement with Israel, he would inevitably become a target for an assassin's bullet. That has been the fate of every Arab ruler or leader who dared to make an agreement with Israel. The first victim was King Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah, who in 1951 was killed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the presence of his 15-year-old grandson, now king of the Hashemite domain.
No more than Hussein could Shimon Peres actually implement a territorial compromise. Were he the head of a coalition with Likud, he could not do it against Likud's will. As head of a coalition without Likud, he would need the votes of at least one religious party, and he would not get them. Besides, if it should ever come to this point, it would become apparent that there is very little enthusiasm within the Labor Party itself to give up territory. The West Bank and Gaza are not only part of the ancient Land of Israel. They were also integral parts of the territory of Palestine in which, according to the decision of the League of Nations after World War I, the Jewish National Home was to be established.
The Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories are a nuisance to Israel, but the last 17 years have shown that the situation can be kept under control. The price Israel has to pay is an increasing brutalization of life, but nobody seems to care very much. It would be different if an Algerian situation would develop in the West Bank. For the foreseeable future that does not seem very likely. But no situation is irreversible, if a compelling need for change arises.