Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Why Attacking ‘Liberals’ in Place of ‘Socialists’ Isn’t Working

In my post last week, I explained the phenomenon of “framing” the news through such terms as “sarvanut” (refusal to serve) and “anarchistim” (…..). Now I’ll take that to the very core of Israeli politics and discuss perhaps the most momentous “frame” shift in Israel’s political history.

From the very start, the Socialist camp led by MAPAI along with others such as Achdut Haavodah, MAPAM, and even the ultra-Orthodox Poalei Agudat Yisrael, ran the country through its governing coalition that ruled from 1948-1977. Although this coalition did yeoman’s work in leading a very weak, fledgling state through war and severe economic distress, it also “earned” (legitimately or not) the animosity of masses of immigrants who arrived from Middle Eastern countries far and wide, feeling heavily discriminated against by the Ashkenazi (European origin) Socialist establishment. It was this animus that led to the Socialist camp’s ultimate downfall 1977, overtaken by the Likud and its religious party brethren. They have ruled Israel since then, except for a few, relatively brief hiatuses (1992-1995; 1999-2001; 2021-2022). Conversely, by the turn of the century, the Labor Party (a conglomeration of several, former Socialist parties) had started its precipitous electoral descent (2015 being a one-off exception). Today, it is completely on the way out as a viable party, with the latest polls showing it garnering a mere 1.5% should elections be held now (it needs 3.25% just to pass the threshold for Knesset membership).

In such a situation, what could the Likud do to maintain internal group solidarity against “the Other,” when that Other (Socialism) no longer constitutes a viable electoral threat? The easy answer is to change the frame of reference: the Other is no longer a “Socialist” but rather a “Liberal”. This becomes all the easier to do when the Likud’s coalition partners are the (ultra-nationalist) religious parties and the (non-Zionist) ultra-Orthodox parties – all of whom at base hold a deep, socially conservative ethos. The opposite of “conservative” is “liberal” – ergo the latter have now become the “Other” camp.

This is the source of the latest Judicial Reform program – a conservative backlash against what the Right perceives as an overly “Liberal” Supreme Court. However, what they didn’t take into account is the fact that “Liberalism” is not a parallel frame for “Socialism.” Put simply, not every anti-Socialist is anti-Liberal. Indeed, the opposite might be the case!
The proof of that is perhaps the greatest irony in this whole narrative. Jabotinsky, the founder of Herut (the Likud’s forerunner), viewed himself as quintessentially “Liberal,” in opposition to the dominant Socialist camp led by Ben-Gurion’s MAPAI. In other words (figuratively and literally!) the Likud has made a 180-degree about-face since its liberal, Herut origins! This explains in large part why most of the central stalwarts belonging to the “old” Likud have turned their backs on their now non-liberal party over the past twenty years: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Roni Milo, Meir Sheetreet, Dan Meridor, Reuven Rivlin, Limor Livnat, Tzipi Livni, Gideon Saar, and perhaps most telling of all: Benny Begin, the son of the Likud’s undisputed leader – Menachem Begin. Beyond PM Netanyahu’s longstanding unwillingness to countenance anyone within his party who could possibly threaten his leadership, it is this ideological “reframing” of what the Likud stands for, that accounts for their departure and the ensuing rise of a completely different sort of politician, populist to the core: Tali Gottlieb, Dudi Amsalem, Galit Distel-Atbaryan, May Golan and several other, highly vociferous extremists.

Even “worse” from the Likud’s standpoint is the fact that a very large number of their former anti-Socialist supporters have made it into Israel’s middle class (call them the “Third Israel”), with higher education and some understanding of the benefits of a liberal order, protecting their hard-won success from the depredations of government over-reach. These are the quite numerous Edot Hamizrach (usually, third generation in Israel) who have joined the anti-Judicial Reform protests – most of them accounting for the Likud’s steep drop in the polls as they move to the political center (the parties of Gantz and Lapid).

In short, not every “frame” succeeds. When they don’t, it’s because of clear dissonance between the frame and the reality. Condemning “Israeli Socialism” worked; but attacking Liberalism is a frame of a different order. Israel’s Right-wing might be running out of frames to keep itself united (“Likud” means “Unity”). The potential result: a political realignment no less far-reaching than what occurred back in 1977.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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