Likud and Labour: Israel's quarrelling twins

July 17, 1996

By Israel Shahak

According to most Israeli pollsters, the electoral power of the left (composed currently of the Labour party, Meretz and the "Arab parties") and the right, usually allied with the religious parties and comprising the rest of the political spectrum, is, as for many years, more or less equal.

The better pollsters opine that it is difficult to persuade a voter over about the age of 25 to cross from one camp to another. Since Labour and Likud head those two camps, it is important to discuss the similarities and differences between those parties, especially as they are often distorted outside Israel.

It is often forgotten that Likud and Labour are avowedly Zionist parties. What this means in terms of actual policies can be shown from the agreement concluded between Labour and Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a leader of the "moderate" religious settlers. It opens with the sentences:

"There is no dispute between the Labour movement and the National Religious movement about the right of the Jewish nation over the land of Israel and about its legal right to settle all parts of that land. The dispute, which has gone on since the Six Day War, is about the areas of that land on which new settlements should be founded as a national priority."

Zionist dogma

Indeed, those who forget that Zionism is an ideological movement with certain principles deeply held by its committed members can only blame themselves if the Zionist governments of Israel do not behave according to their expectations, or rather illusions.

The agreement specifies the policies agreed by Labour, such as: "Israeli sovereignty will be assured in the parts of Judaea and Samaria considered essential", and "the settlements not included in the area over which Israel is to have sovereignty will remain in place, being connected with Israel in all security and civilian aspects".

On May 21, Nadav Shraggay reported in Ha'aretz that religious settlers published in their magazine Nekuda that the Labour government had invested much more money to support settlements than the Shamir government. This, in my view, has always been true. While Likud shouts, Labour builds.

On the other side, it should not be forgotten that Netanyahu and even Sharon, while condemning the Oslo process in 1993-95, made it clear that the principle of autonomy was invented by Begin and supported by Shamir.

Rabin and Peres represented themselves after Oslo as more Zionist than Begin. Rabin charged that Begin, in the framework of peace with Egypt, "sold" the settlements in Sinai "which were built by Labour, and "gave away 80% of the territories conquered by us in 1967" (i.e. the Sinai). Rabin's supporters in the press quoted the terms proposed by Begin between 1978 and 1980 to the PLO and claimed, truly enough, that they were more generous than those of Oslo.

It is quite clear that except for hypocrisy, Netanyahu and Peres have, even now, similar plans for the future of the territories.

All Israeli wars, from the Sinai war of 1956 to "Grapes of Wrath", have had the support of all Zionist parties. Rabin served as an unofficial adviser to Sharon in 1982 and suggested to him that he tighten the siege of Beirut. Many of those who used the massacre at Sabra and Shatila [refugee camps in Lebanon] to try to topple Begin's government are now justifying the Qana massacre. Many other similarities, either ideological or strategic, can be added.

Nevertheless, the deep enmity existing between Likud and Labour and their respective supporters is based on real and deep differences between the two parties (and their allies), even if they are often based on emotions and not on concrete policies.

Perceptions of 'normality'

There are two deeply held positions among Likud supporters, both opposed by Labour and even more by Meretz. The first has to do with the issue of "normality". Labour longs for Israel to be a "normal" state.

The other side resents the demand and wants the Jews to remain exceptional. They should differ from the other democratic nations because the latter are composed of citizens, whereas the Jews need to remain bonded by ties of religion. It is the resentment of normality, the search for exceptionality, which unites the Israeli secular right with the religious parties.

The allies also share a common fear of the non-Jewish west and of what western influence is doing to Israeli Jews. They fear the left as being the domestic agent of "western corruptive influence".

This can be perceived in the fear of what is described as "the delusions" of the Jews corrupted by such influence, supposed masochists who don't "know life" and refuse to recognise that the non-Jewish world is governed only by the law of the jungle. Their political influence is dangerous because they advocate bad policies for the sake of pleasing the non-Jews. The close similarity of these opinions to those professed by Hamas and other Islamist zealots and by Christian fundamentalists should evoke no surprise.

In addition, there is also a tactical difference about how negotiations should be conducted. Likud voters see their party as being "for peace", but they want to achieve peace in the manner of a commercial negotiation: beginning with maximum demands and not disclosing in advance how much one is ready to concede eventually.

They intensely despise, however, those Jews who say that they base policies toward non-Jews on "moral considerations" which are "acceptable to the world", while one can see that they want their policies to be accepted mainly by the US administration. Labour's "principles" and Likud's supposedly tougher attitudes often coincide, but the phrases employed by Labour make Likud and its allies very angry.

Then there is the different social base of the two parties. While Labour, and even more so Meretz, get their votes from the better off and the middle class, the poor tend to vote for Likud. This old tendency, much more important in my view than the preference for Likud among some (not all) Mizrahi communities, reached new and unheard of heights under Rabin and Peres.

Those two prime ministers have had the support of practically all wealthy Israelis and spent almost all their free time in their company, and so were heavily influenced by their outlook. Among the richer countries of the world Israel is now second, after the US, in the degree of polarisation between rich and poor. Although the English-language press praises the flourishing Israeli economy, those wonders benefit, as in the US, only about 25% of citizens.

It is no longer true that most of the Israeli poor are Arabs. Many Soviet immigrants are even poorer. Thus, the feelings of resentment of the many working-class Jews who live near the poverty line are directed against Labour.

This distinction between the two parties includes, in my view, their treatment of the territories. Abominable and exploitative as the entire Israeli conquest regime was and is, when it was headed by Labour it was even more exploitative than when it was headed by Likud.

Levels of hypocrisy

Finally, there is the difference in the level of hypocrisy employed habitually by the two parties. Politicians in all countries tend not to be models of honest speaking. The Israeli ones, especially when they discuss foreign affairs, are among the worst. Nevertheless, it can be asserted that Labour tends to cheat more than Likud, especially about crucial subjects such as war and peace.

Three Israeli large-scale invasions — Suez, the Six Day War and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — can serve as examples, since the first two were carried out by Labour and the third by Likud.

The opening of the Suez war by Israel, then ruled by Ben-Gurion, is usually explained in the following manner: three Israeli officers were smeared with mud to look like Arabs and exhibited to the media as "dangerous saboteurs" sent by Egypt to attack Israel. Faced with this outrage, so it was said, "Israel has no choice" but to retaliate. No word, of course, then or for years afterwards, about the alliance with France and Britain.

The outbreak of the Six Day War was preceded by a huge press conference in which Moshe Dayan, after the decision to invade Egypt had already been taken, announced his peaceful desires. The war was then "justified" as resulting from "an attack by Egyptian planes" on Israel — which never happened — while it was Israeli planes which attacked the airfields of Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

In contrast, the Begin government talked freely about its intention to invade Lebanon and about its reasons for doing so, months before the invasion. "The coming war", to use a phrase common then, was duly echoed by the best commentators in the Hebrew press. Begin did not try to stage an imaginary assault on Israel, and the only direct lie in which his government indulged was about the invasion being limited "to a 40 km distance from the Israeli border".

It can be presumed that if a Likud government wants to start a war, it will give plenty of public notice about its intentions; if a Labour government wants to make war, it will vociferate about its peaceful intentions. Since, in my view, war in the Middle East (especially war initiated by Israel) is more probable than peace, as "Grapes of Wrath" has shown, it is preferable to know in advance when a war is going to happen.
[Reprinted from Middle East International, slightly abridged.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.