The exit of Gideon Sa’ar and the formation of a new party with defectors from the Likud has the potential for a redefinition of the ideological camps on the political map.
Creating a political home for Likud Revisionist idealists who founded the party (Sa’ar is not one of them) is urgent. The dramatic distance of today’s Likud Party from Jabotinsky’s and the Revisionist movement’s values was succinctly expressed by coalition chairman Miki Zohar, when he stated that he is motivated by power, pride and money. It is impossible to ignore the chasm separating Zohar’s words from the five compassionate values expressed by Jabotinsky – provision of food, abode, clothing, education and healthcare – in respect to the responsibility of the state to its citizens.
For a person who was raised according to the values of the Labor movement, this change completes for me and other graduates of the Labor movement the process we went through, which ironically brings us together ideologically with the “princes,” the old aristocracy of the Revisionist movement.
I considered this while attending a demonstration in Balfour recently. There I met up with Knesset member Eli Avidar, a former colleague of mine in the Foreign Ministry. Eli and I first met as students at the Hebrew University, and he is the first member of Beitar I met in my life.
OVER THE years, a change evolved in the two central factions of the Zionist movement, which brought them ideologically to a similar place. This is the realization that their original ideologies contradict modern liberal values.
I recall an example of this during president Shimon Peres’s visit to Cyprus, when I served as his political adviser. He met with the head of the socialist parliament, who asked Peres, “Now that you’ve switched from being a politician to being president, are you still a socialist?”
Peres replied that he knows of no person whose heart is not on the left side of his body. He explained that, in his eyes, socialism must adapt from being a rigid economic doctrine to one that embodies compassion for the weaker groups in society and integrates them into the economy in a manner that does not contradict the economic necessity for a free market.
In this context, a defining moment was reflected in a response of Dan Meridor, one of the Revisionist princes, during an interview with Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, following his failure in the Likud primaries for the 19th Knesset elections. Barnea asked what he thought were the reasons for his failure. Meridor replied that many of the Likud members whom he approached for support retorted that since he supported the two-state solution, they would not vote for him. When Meridor replied that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also supported the two-state solution in his Bar-Ilan speech, they replied, “Yes, but you mean it!”
Beyond the disparity reflected in this statement regarding Netanyahu’s unreliability, Meridor’s explanation expressed the chasm that formed between the values of the Revisionist “princes”/old aristocracy like himself – Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, Ronnie Bar-On and even the current president of Israel. They understood that the State of Israel had already fulfilled Jabotinsky’s vision of power, and that today the proverbial iron curtain could yield to political compromises to better serve the needs of the country.
Contrary to these liberal attitudes that bring together those who were raised both in the Labor and in the Revisionist movements, the current Likud Party is characterized by anti-liberal populists. The Likud today has established an association between Steve Bannon’s school of ideological populism in the US, Yoram Hazony and Gadi Taub in Israel – the expression of which can be seen in the Orbán regime in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines and in the route Trump attempted to take America – alongside Netanyahu’s cynical opportunism, including his yea-sayers who attempt to wrest him from judgment day.
In Netanyahu’s Likud, the reigning ideological approach is the one led in Israel by research institutes such as Mida and Kohelet. This approach was dubbed by Fareed Zakaria as that of “illiberal democracy” in which democracy is interpreted as majoritarianism. This is a system in which those who have won a temporary majority can rule without checks, balances and constraints, without separation of authorities, without gatekeepers, without a professional, opinionated public sector and without rights to minorities.
This approach serves the need to portray the charges against Netanyahu as a conspiracy steered by the old elites, a deep state which attempts to distort the will of the elector. This tactic puts pressure on the professional legal system and also on the financial system, sanctioning Likud ministers to rob the public coffers for their own political interests.
It does not appear that Sa’ar’s party will be a home for liberals. Although he rightly challenges the Likud’s corruption and personality cult, he unfortunately does not dispute the equally dangerous nationalism.
The party that is yet to be formed should embody the battle for the future of Israeli democracy, the struggle between liberals and populists. Nationalism that leads to one nation-state, essentially an apartheid state, does not reflect modern liberal values.
The liberal former Likudniks should be our partners in this struggle, as losing would be simply surrendering the Zionist vision that united all those who signed the Declaration of Independence from both the Labor and the Revisionist movements.
(This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on January 4th 2021)