Israeli Politics: Back to Normal Rael Jean Isaac


Recent polls suggest that in the coming January elections the Kadima Party will go from being the largest party in the Knesset (with 28 seats out of a total of 120) to what may well be the smallest, with a mere 2 seats. While this may seem like a revolutionary change in Israeli politics, it actually marks a return to “normal,” i.e. to the pattern familiar from Israel’s independence when three parties (or groups of parties) defined alternatives concerning the meaning and goals of the state. These parties, rooted in the pre-state period, included the Labor parties (for decades dominated by the Mapai Party), the Revisionist parties (first represented by Herut, now chiefly by the Likud) and the religious parties (with the National Religious Party initially the largest, now Shas, ethnically oriented to the Eastern community). Arab parties, challenging the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state, have in recent decades provided a fourth ideological alternative to voters

The vision of the Labor parties was described by David Ben Gurion. “My goal, long before I became Prime Minister, was the creation of a model society which could become, in the language of the Bible, ‘a light unto the nations.’” This vision involved a synthesis of Jewish nationalism with the socialist blueprints for a perfect society in vogue in nineteenth century Eastern and Central Europe. The Revisionist vision was of the Jewish state as a refuge for the Jews of the world. This was more revolutionary than it might appear for it required a transformation of traditional Jewish values. Jews had developed an aversion to power, transforming their own powerlessness into a moral principle. For the most part Revisionists hoped to create a state modeled on the pattern of the more advanced industrial and liberal Western democracies of the period. For the religious parties the ultimate goal was a Jewish community whose people lived in keeping with religious law, a State of Israel whose law was the Torah of Israel.

For the first three decades Labor was easily in the ascendant. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, with its heavy casualties and ambiguous outcome, the Likud, led by Menachem Begin (who had earlier been at the helm of Herut) came to power and thereafter power moved back and forth between Labor and Likud, with one or more of the religious parties consistently serving as coalition partners–as they have from the first Knesset.

Comments are closed.