A Short Political History of Israel

In the pre-state period, the socialist Left dominated the yishuv. They created the institutions that would form the basis of the state, and ran them according to their ideology. The Histadrut labor federation dominated the economy; its closely allied kibbutz movement was the primary producer of agricultural products, the Solel Boneh construction company built roads and buildings, and the Kupat Holim Clalit health fund was everyone’s healthcare provider. The Zim shipping line and the ports, the Tnuva dairy cooperative – most of the essential pieces of the economy were fully or partly controlled by the Histadrut, which was the heart of the Labor Party.

When Labor Party leader David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel and became its first Prime Minister, naturally his people ended up in key places in government and business. The government supported arts and culture, and naturally the artists who received grants were the right kind (I should say, the left kind) of people. Music on the state radio stations was primarily written and performed by ideologically correct artists. The Mizrachi Jews that came here after the War of Independence and through the 1960s were treated as second-class citizens by the Labor establishment, which tried to keep them out of the political and cultural life of the country (this was the case for many years – when I tried to buy music by Mizrachi artists in the early 1980s, it was still mostly found on cassettes produced by back-porch entrepreneurs).

The right-wing political opposition was kept as far away from power as possible. Efforts were made to delegitimize the Herut party, led by Menachem Begin, and even to “remove [it] from any recollection or participation in [remembrance of war dead].” The contributions of the right-wing military organizations, Etzel and Lehi, to the achievement of independence were minimized or erased from official histories. Ben Gurion would not even mention Menachem Begin’s name in the Knesset, or speak directly to him. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Etzel and the inspiration for much of the Israeli Right, died in 1940; Ben Gurion did not allow him to be buried in Israel and it was not until he left power that Jabotinsky’s remains were finally brought to Mount Herzl.

But in 1977, the world (well, at least Medinat Yisrael) turned upside down. In 1973, the Labor government had blown it big time. Regardless of the debate about precisely who was responsible for the debacle that almost ended the State of Israel, it was clear that it was time for new leadership. At the same time, Mizrachim had had enough of the paternalistic condescension and discrimination that characterized the establishment that was running the government. The people of Israel gave Begin’s Likud 43 seats, despite the fact that Begin himself had recently suffered a heart attack and did not participate in the campaign.

Since then, Israel has had right-wing leadership – or at least purportedly right-wing leadership – with the exception of a period between 1984-86 when Shimon Peres was PM in a rotation agreement as part of a unity government, 1992-96 when Yitzhak Rabin was PM, followed by Peres after his assassination; and then in 1999-2001, the term of the execrable Ehud Barak.

The Labor Party and the various small parties to its left have shrunk radically, as the Israeli public lost confidence in them following Oslo and then the Second Intifada. But to a great extent the leftish establishment in the media, the arts, academia, and the legal profession has remained dominant in those areas. And it has become more and more frantic in its desire to regain its former control of the country. In particular, it sees Binyamin Netanyahu, who has surpassed Ben Gurion as the longest-serving Prime Minister, as the personification of the enemy, a fascist enemy of democracy. But that is unfair. Netanyahu has problems, but he is not an enemy of democracy. He has become PM by winning democratic elections, or at least by putting together coalitions, something the opposition cannot do.

The Blue and White party was created by this establishment for one reason only: to remove Netanyahu. Benny Gantz was chosen as a neutral figure, somebody that would be respected as a former Chief of Staff, a person who has little baggage. His campaign was notable for its concentration on Netanyahu’s indictments and its almost total lack of other content. The party leadership does not share an ideology, and I suspect that 99% of those who voted for it understood that they were voting to depose Netanyahu – and the rest would have to take care of itself.

What has happened now, as I write, is that Blue and White did not come close to being able to obtain the needed 61 mandates to form a government, so they violated their pre-election promise to not try to form a minority government supported from the outside by votes from the anti-Zionist Arab parties. But then it turned out that they did not have the votes to do even that. So while they negotiated with the Likud to form a unity government in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns being PM, they planned to get the Knesset to pass several bills that would prevent Bibi from serving due to his indictments.

In order to do this, the Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, would have to let it happen, and Likudnik Edelstein wasn’t moving. B&W demanded that the Knesset vote to replace Edelstein with a more pliant candidate, but Edelstein refused to schedule that vote. So they turned to the Supreme Court, which issued a ruling that Edelstein must schedule the vote to replace him. Edelstein responded by resigning his position as Speaker, and in a particularly moving statement, said,

The High Court of Justice’s decision is not based on the language of the law, but on a unilateral and extreme interpretation. The decision of the High Court destroys the work of the Knesset. The High Court decision constitutes a gross and arrogant intervention of the judiciary in the affairs of the elected legislature. The High Court decision infringes on the sovereignty of the Knesset. …

As someone who has paid a heavy personal cost of years of imprisonment and hard labor for the right to live as a citizen of the State of Israel, no explanation is needed as to how much I love the State of Israel and the people of Israel. Therefore, as a democrat, as a Jewish-Zionist, as a person fighting against dark regimes, and as chair of this House, I will not allow Israel to deteriorate into anarchy. I will not lend a hand to civil war. I will act in the spirit of Menachem Begin who in June 1948, during the Altalena days, prevented civil war.

Members of Knesset, citizens of Israel, these days our people need unity, need a unity government. These days, when an epidemic threatens us from the outside and the cleavage rips us from the inside, we must all act as human beings, we must all transcend. We must all unite.

Therefore, for the State of Israel and in order to renew the state spirit in Israel, I hereby resign from my position as Speaker of the Knesset. We will pray, and even act, for better days.

Edelstein’s resignation will take effect in 48 hours. But the Knesset’s legal advisor warned him that he will be liable to a charge of contempt of court if he does not allow a vote to be called immediately. I suspect that the man who spent three years in a Siberian gulag will not change his mind.

I see the whole process that began with the investigations into Netanyahu more than three years ago, with all of the improprieties involved – the continuous media leaks from the police and prosecution, the abuse of witnesses, the recent last-minute attempts to change the law so that Netanyahu could not be even a part-time PM, the intervention of the Court – as a continuation of the struggle to subvert the will of Israeli voters, and bring the discredited Left back to power.

But the world has changed. The Labor Party and the Histadrut can’t pick the prime minister from among their activists anymore, as they did until 1977. Ben Gurion isn’t coming back. Form a unity government with Bibi and move on.

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