The rise of Likud – how Israel’s right-wing went mainstream & carried forth the legacy of Jabotinsky

Likud is a right-wing party that has dominated Israeli politics from the 1970s to today. The Likud has traditionally supported the idea of strong borders within Israel, even if it has not always clearly defined the state’s borders. Although it has refused to recognize Palestinian sovereignty, the Likud has always been willing to negotiate and compromise, despite being wary — in part due to need, given Jewish history being a story of surviving the worst odds.

The beginning
The Likud Party (meaning consolidation) began as a coalition of nationalistic parties in 1973; just before elections to form the 8th Knesset, and it included Herut, the Liberal Party, the Free Center, the National List, and the Labor Movement for Greater Israel.

Many factors played a role in its inception. Likud was born to Revision Zionism, the ideology of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, considered the godfather of this party. No discussion of Likud’s history can be made without mentioning his name.

While Jabotinsky was an uncompromising nationalist, he was also a secular, old-school classic liberal. He constantly disagreed with the other founding fathers, who were more left-leaning. Israel’s four Likud prime ministers — Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu – were staunch followers of Jabotinsky’s ideology and his influence across the board is far-reaching. By 2015 nearly every major party from far-right to center-left was headed by a former Likudnik. These included Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu), Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), and Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah).

In 1973, the Yom Kippur war broke out. Failure of Israeli intelligence to anticipate such a large-scale invasion by a coalition of Arab-Muslim armies was a game-changer. Despite the conflict ending with a narrow victory, it showed that the Jewish state could not afford to be complacent. Although they eventually won, it renewed the fear of annihilation. Thus setting the stage for the more ‘hawkish’ Likud to soar in popularity.

Likud’s 1977 election victory marked the first time that a right-wing government was elected in modern Israel. Under Menachem Begin’s leadership, the party broke the three-decade dominance of the left-wing Labor Party.

In September 17, 1978, as the Lebanese civil war raged on its northern border, PM Begin signed a historic peace agreement with Egypt, the first Arab country to recognize the Jewish state. Also under Begin, settlements in Judea and Samaria (known to the world as the West Bank) flourished. His government also introduced the Jerusalem law, which formalized the status of Jerusalem as the capital.

Jabotinsky knew that whence negotiating with Arabs, one had to showcase a platform of strength. Still, he never advocated torture.

Carrying on his legacy, one of the first commands Begin issued to Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, was to avoid torture. Begin believed that such conduct was incompatible with Jewish ethic and conduct. He often reminisced his time in Soviet prison, where he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the gulags.

Jabotinsky’s personal secretary and historian, Benzion Netanyahu (father of PM Benjamin Netanyahu) also cited the example of the Ottoman Empire’s use of gallows when dealing with their Arab subjects.

“The Arabs were so badly beaten, they didn’t dare revolt. Naturally, I don’t recommend the use of hangings as a ashow of force like the Turks did, I just want to show that the only thing that might move the Arabs from the rejectionist position is force.”

Likewise, if one sees interviews of POWs from both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel treated and to this day treats prisoners comparatively better than their own, when captured by Arab armies or militants. Hamas defector, Mosab Hassan Yousef aka ‘The Green Prince’ has confirmed this.

From Shamir to Netanyahu
Begin retired in 1983. Under his successor, Yitzhak Shamir, Israel saw a mass Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews. Despite opposition from within, including religious circles questioning whether or not they were truly Jewish or capable of assimilation, he made this a reality. Today, the majority of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.

Later in the 90s, there was a mass Aliyah of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Likud under Shamir saw that Israel was able to absorb and facilitate two such drastic demographic surges. They assimilated and integrate all the refugees. While the West today struggles with many refugee surges, Israel, a smaller more strapped nation was able to integrate and assimilate many who spoke different languages and grew up in different countries and cultures. Also, Palestinians who speak the same language as other Arabs continue to live in refugee camps in many Arab countries.

The party itself remains divided between moderates and hard-liners, but one thing keeping them together is common ground and a desire to keep Jewish survival as a party priority. This has thus been the ideology that ensured Israel to not just scrape and barely survive, but instead flourish and have a high standard of living despite billions across the globe calling for its death and destruction. One cannot think of any other nation in the world that has faced so many calls to be destroyed – whether annihilated or dismantled. Likud, by that regard is the one political party that has probably faced the toughest challenge to not just survive as a party but to uphold its responsibility to keep a millennia old culture alive.

Benjamin Netanyahu (nicknamed King Bibi) was elected to lead Likud after Shamir’s retirement in 1993. Three years later, he was elected prime minister. He emerged on a platform opposing the Oslo Accords and promising provisions of greater security in the wake of escalation in militancy.

Despite ongoing provocations from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, as well as tensions with the West Bank, Netanyahu has succeeded in defending the country without becoming embroiled in full scale war.

Following a vote of no confidence, Netanyahu called for early elections in 1999 and was stumped by his former commanding officer turned political rival, Ehud Barak and temporarily retired from politics. He was succeeded by Ariel Sharon, who became its fourth party leader.

In between
Barak’s tenure was short-lived. Trying to appease the Palestinians and Hezbollah was futile. Israel learned the hard way (once again) that in order to negotiate with Arabs, one must present themselves on a platform of strength. In 2005, Sharon carried out his Gaza disengagement plan which lead to a major schism within the party. Sharon left Likud to form the Kadima party. Ultimately, his Gaza disengagement plan proved to be a disaster, just as many Likudniks predicted and Hamas rocket attacks continue to be a thorn in Israel’s side to this day.

The return of Bibi

This series of events culminated in ‘King Bibi’ returning in 2009 and he has been PM since. Bibi recently replaced David Ben Gurion to become the nation’s longest serving post-independence head of state. Under his watch, Israel enacted several beneficial reforms such as the Free Education Law for children over 3, he reformed the cellular network industry, provided tax benefits for working parents, an Israeli spacecraft landed on the moon and this put its space program on par with giants like India, China, Russia and the US – an amazing feat for a small country whose survival is always hanging on the metaphoric threads. Overall, under his tenure, Israel maintained a strong economy.

Flashback: When President Chaim Herzog visited Singapore in 1983 (he was with Labor, aligned with a Likud coalition), the Muslim countries, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia, agitated and even threatened Singapore with sanctions.

Today: Netanyahu has become the first Israeli head of state to visit the Arab-Muslim nations of Oman and Chad. Minister of Sport, Miri Regev recently visited UAE – something unthinkable a mere 2 decades ago. Israel has also made good relationships with Saudi, Bahrain and UAE, among other Arab-Muslim countries under his rule. Also, Israel is much stronger today than when Herzog was President. Relations with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi and other right-wing leaders have also worked well.

Ties with the Arab/Sunni-Muslim world have been the best in its 70 year history. Relations with the diaspora, especially American Jews on the other hand, have not been the greatest. This is because many still identify with the more liberal, Democrat party and support a ‘two-state solution.’ In fact, it’s believed that Christians in the US are more likely to support Israel than American Jews.

Likud has been in power under Bibi for over a decade, usually by making fragile coalitions resonating between centrist and right-wing coalitions. Issues with right-wing coalitions over military draft exemptions for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews have been the biggest source of contention within its ranks and its coalition partners in its recent history.

At this point Likud has 32 MKs out of 120 in the Knesset. President Reuven Rivlin has tasked Bibi’s rival Gantz with forming a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September 17 elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed, are even more slim, with the Netanyahu-led bloc of 55 along with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious factions vowing to fight on.

Israel now faces societal rifts over religion and identity. Even though mass migration from World War II to the Ethiopian and Russian Aliyahs were successful for the most part, many cultural rifts remain. To many, Israel is secular and was founded by seculars such as Jabotinsky and Theodore Herzl – and must continue to be so. They don’t want a rabbi telling them what to eat, drink, wear and do on the weekend. Many of this camp do not for the wish the state grant special privileges for Haredi Jews, who do not participate in conscription.

Likud has thus been at the forefront of maintaining the complex meshwork of societal fabric that keeps Israel surviving. From dealing with grievances from secular Jews within Israel, immigrants holding onto identities they adopted during the 2000 year diaspora, differing religious sects, non-Jewish citizens, the diaspora and the international community. Isrsel under likud has displayed as ability to compromise and endure, ensuring that the legacy of Jabotinsky lives on.

Likud’s perseverance and ability to adapt to change is the reason why it isn’t news that Israel moved to the right….long before Donald Trump was a household name.

About the Author
Avi Kumar grew up in Sri Lanka. As a member of the Tamil minority, he has a unique perspective when it comes to growing up in a war zone. From an early age in order to survive, he learned to remain silent about controversial issues when it wasn't safe to speak about them. Avi has lived in five different countries and speaks ten different languages. Fortunately, one of his ten languages is English, you wouldn't have had the slightest idea what you are reading. Avi loves wildlife photography and writing about religious and political issues with his unique perspective.
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