Israel Table of Contents

When Israel became independent, its founding political elite, associated mainly with Mapai, had almost three decades of experience in operating self-governing institutions under the British Mandate. The top Mapai/Labor Party leaders continued to dominate Israeli politics for another three decades. Their paramount influence for over half a century as founders, architects, and prime movers of a Jewish national homeland has had an enduring effect on their successor generation and the political scene in Israel. The elite, political culture, social structure, and social makeup of any nation entwine in complex ways and in the process shape the character and direction of a given political system. This process holds true especially in Israel, where ideological imperatives and their institutionalization have constituted an important part of the country's evolution.

The first generation of Israeli leaders came to Palestine (which they called Eretz Yisrael, or Land of Israel) mainly during the Second Aliyah between 1900 and 1920. The Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin), who constituted the majority among the Yishuv's mostly Labor Zionist political and socioeconomic elites, were impelled by Zionist ideals. The majority held to Labor Zionism, while others adhered to moderate General Zionism (sometimes called Political Zionism) or right-wing Revisionist Zionism. To the early immigrants, the themes promoted by the different Zionist movements provided powerful impulses for sociopolitical action. These pioneers were essentially Labor Zionists with an abiding faith in the rectitude of values that stressed, among other things, the establishment of a modern Jewish nation promoting mutual assistance under the principle of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," abolition of private ownership of the means of production, and the idea that human consciousness and character were conditioned by the social environment. They also held that Jewish land should be developed in a collectivist agricultural framework, that well-to-do Jews in the Diaspora should materially aid the cause of the Jewish homeland, and that the Jews of the Diaspora should seek the fullest measure of redemption by immigrating to the new Yishuv. In addition, collectivist values of East European and Central European origin, in which the founding generation had been socialized, affected the political orientation of Israel both before and after independence.

The value system of the first generation came to be exemplified first and foremost in the communal and egalitarian kibbutz and to a lesser extent in the moshav. Together these institutions accounted for less than 3 percent of the Jewish population at any given time, but they have held a special place in Israeli society as the citadel of pioneer ideology. They also gave Israel a distinctive self-image as a robust, dedicated, egalitarian, "farmer- or citizen-soldier" society. The kibbutzim also produced numbers of national leaders out of proportion to their small population; they also provided the country with some of its best soldiers and officers.

The founding generation of Israeli leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Berl Katznelson, Moshe Sharett, and later, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, in effect shaped the country's socioeconomic structures and political patterns. These people were instrumental in establishing the original Labor Zionist parties beginning in 1905, in merging them to establish Mapai in 1930, and in organizing the Histadrut and Jewish self-defense institutions, such as the Haganah, which later became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1920. These formative, nation-building organizations, along with the quasi-governmental Elected Assembly (Asefat Hanivharim), the National Council (Vaad Leumi), the WZO, and the Jewish Agency, served as the Yishuv's national institutions, shaping the character of postindependence Israel.

From its earliest days, Mapai, which had an interlocking leadership with the Histadrut, dominated Israeli public life, including the top echelons of the IDF, the WZO, and the Jewish Agency. Its legitimacy as a ruling party was seldom questioned because it was identified with the mystique of the Zionist struggle for independence, patriotism, and the successful consolidation of statehood. The essentially secular political values espoused by Mapai leaders were endorsed by most of the Jewish population. The absence of effective alternative governing elites or countervalues within the country's multiparty coalition-type government system made it difficult to challenge the Mapai-controlled political mainstream. Moreover, political patterns from the 1920s until the June 1967 War generally discouraged the rise of radical right-wing or left-wing destabilizing tendencies. This trend was rooted in the overall political dominance of Israel's Labor Party and its predecessors and the strength of the mutual restraints inherent in Israel's political subcultures.

Mainstream Israeli society is composed of persons who represent pluralistic cultural and political backgrounds. Politically, some Israeli Jews have liberal West European orientations; others were reared in more collectivist Central European and East European environments, or in authoritarian Middle Eastern political cultures. Some are religiously more traditional than others, but even among Orthodox Jews, shades of conviction vary substantially over the role of Jewish customary laws and the relationship between the state and religion. Thus, the founding generation had to develop a political system that reconciled and accommodated the varied needs of a wide range of groups.

The political system within Israel proper, excluding the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is geared to the broadest possible level of public participation. Political activities are relatively free, although authoritarian and antidemocratic tendencies were evident among some of the leaders and supporters of right-wing ultranationalist parties and factions. In the late 1980s, the impetus to "agree to disagree" within the democratic framework of conciliation began to show some weakening as a result of intense polarizing controversies over the future of the occupied territories and various disputes over issues concerning the state and religion.

By the early 1970s, Jews of Sephardic origin (popularly referred to in Israel as Oriental Jews) outnumbered their Ashkenazic counterparts as a demographic group. The older Sephardim were, in general, from politically authoritarian and religiously traditional North African and Middle Eastern societies that regarded the Central European and West European secular and social democratic political value spectrum as too modern and far-reaching as compared to their own. They were accustomed to strong authoritarian leaders rather than ideals emphasizing social democratic collectivism and popular sovereignty. Nonetheless, a sizable proportion of Sephardim joined Labor's ranks both as leaders and rank-and-file party members.

Oriental Jews came to be referred to in the 1960s as "the Second Israel"--the numerically larger but socially, culturally, economically, and politically disadvantaged half of the nation. Not all Orientals were economically deprived, but nearly all of those who were relatively poor belonged to Sephardic communities. The communal gap and attendant tensions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have naturally engaged the remedial efforts of successive governments, but results have fallen far short of Oriental expectations. The problem was partly rooted in the country's political institutions and processes. Ashkenazic dominance of sociopolitical and economic life had been firmly institutionalized before independence. Over the years, however, Sephardic representation substantially increased in the country's major political parties, and as of the 1980s, Sephardic Jews occupied leadership positions in many municipalities.

Not surprisingly, beginning in the 1950s, most Sephardim tended to vote against Mapai and its successor, Labor. Both were perceived as representing the Ashkenazic establishment, even though Sephardim were always represented among the ranks of party leaders. In the 1950s and early 1960s, while many Sephardim were impressed with Ben-Gurion's charismatic and authoritative leadership, they nevertheless tended to support Herut, the major opposition party led by Menachem Begin, whose right-wing populism and ultranationalist, anti-Arab national security posture appealed to them. Paradoxically, the socialist-inspired social welfare system, a system built by Mapai and sustained by Labor and the Labor-dominated Histadrut, benefited the Sephardim particularly. In general, the Sephardim tended to support the right-wing Gahal/Likud blocs that for years had advocated a substantial modification of the welfare system so as to decrease its socialist emphasis. In terms of long-range electoral trends, the Sephardic position did not augur well for the Labor Zionist elite of the Labor Party.

Pressure for greater political representation and power has come from the younger, Israeli-born generation of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic origins. As a group, they were less obsessed with the past than their elders. The youth have been moving toward a strong, industrialized, capitalist, Western-style, middle-class society as the national norm. Although some younger right-wing ultranationalists and right-wing religious advocates continued to be imbued with the extremist nationalism and religious messianism of their elders--as shown, for example, by their support of parties favoring annexation of the occupied territories--most of the younger generation were more secular, pragmatic, and moderate on such issues.

The concerns of secular young people went beyond the question of "Who is a Jew"--which they continuously had to confront because of right-wing religious pressures--to such critical issues as the quality of education, social status, economic conditions, and the comforts of modern life. Their primary interests have been how to make Israel more secure from external threat and how to improve the quality of life for all. Nevertheless, for many Israelis, the founding ideologies remained a ritualized part of national politics.

Urbanization and industrialization were equally potent forces of change; their adulterating effect on Israel's founding ideology has been particularly significant. They have led to new demands, new opportunities, and new stresses in social and economic life affecting all social and political strata. The older commitment to agriculture, pioneering, and collectivism has crumbled before the relentless pressure of industrialization and the bridging of the gap between urban and rural life. Collective and communal settlements have become increasingly industrialized; factories and high-technology industries have been set up; the mass media have faciliated an influx of new information and ideas; and additional layers of bureaucratic and institutional arrangements have emerged. Kibbutz idealism, the pride of Israel, has declined, especially among increasingly individualistic and consumer-oriented young people. To stem this tide and to retain young members, kibbutz federations and individual kibbutzim have established many educational and vocational programs and activities.

As the 1970s began, the social base of Israeli politics had become highly complex, and political fluidity resulted. A major catalyst in creating a new mood was the October 1973 War, known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War, which dealt a crushing blow to popular belief in Israel's strength and preparedness in the face of its Arab adversaries. The result was a loss of confidence in the political and national security elite, headed at the time by Prime Minister Golda Meir, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, and Minister-without-Portfolio Israel Galilee. After the war, in which Egyptian and Syrian forces scored military gains, many charges and countercharges concerned inadequate military preparedness. Nevertheless, Meir's government returned to power in the country's parliamentary elections held on December 31, 1973. Apparently, despite widespread misgivings, many Israelis believed that continuity was preferable to change and uncertainty under Begin's newly formed and untried center-right Likud Bloc.

Meir's resignation from the prime ministership in April 1974 resulted in a succession crisis and the departure of the last of Labor's old guard party leaders, mostly in their late sixties and seventies, such as Meir, Pinchas Sapir, and Israel Galilee. Meir's departure triggered political infighting among the Labor elite, specifically between the former Mapai and Rafi (Israel Labor List--see Appendix B) factions; a new generation centered around the triumvirate of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yigal Allon, succeeded Meir.

The second most striking political development in the 1970s was the ascendance of a new right-wing counterelite in May 1977. An upset victory in the ninth parliamentary elections, called an "earthquake" by some, brought Begin's center-right Likud to power, ending Labor's half a century of political dominance. The new political elite won primarily because of the defection of former Labor leaders and previous Labor voters to the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC), which had been founded in 1976 by Yigal Yadin and several other groups. Despite the subsequent collapse of the DMC and the defection of moderates from the Likud-led cabinet--for example, former Minister of Defense Ezer Weizman formed his own list Yahad (Together--see Appendix B) in 1981 and Minister of Foreign Affairs Moshe Dayan created Telem--Likud's success in the tenth parliamentary elections of 1981 resulted from its continued ability to present itself as a viable governing group and a party dedicated to ultranationalism and territorial expansionism.

The top echelons of the Israeli political elite as of the late 1980s were still predominantly of European background; many of them had either immigrated to Palestine during the 1930s and the 1940s or had been born in the Yishuv to parents of East European or Central European origin. A growing number of Oriental politicians, however, were making their mark in the top ranks of all the major parties and at the ministerial and subministerial levels. A majority of the elite had a secular university education, while a minority had a more traditional religious education. The political elite was overwhelmingly urban--most resided in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Haifa. A minority, particularly the Sephardim, came from the newer development towns. Among the elite who resided in rural areas most, especially members of Labor and its satellites, represented communal kibbutzim and, to a lesser extent, moshavim.

By occupational category, professional party politicians constituted by far the largest single group, followed, in numerical order, by lawyers, kibbutz officials, educators, Histadrut or private sector corporate managers, journalists, ex-military officers, and, to a lesser degree, functionaries of religious institutions. Many of the elite were in the forty-to-mid-sixty age bracket. In 1988 the political elite numbered more than 200 individuals, excluding the broader social elite encompassing business, military, religious, educational, cultural, and agricultural figures. The number would be greater if senior officials in such key offices as the Office of the Prime Minister and the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, finance, and commerce, as well as the Histadrut and its industrial and financial enterprises and trade unions, were included.

The power of individual members of the elite varied depending on their personal reputation and their offices. The most influential were found in the cabinet. Members of the Knesset came next. Elected mayors of large municipalities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa had considerable importance because of the influence of local politics on national-level politics. In addition, the president, Supreme Court justices, and the head of the Office of the State Comptroller had the prestige of cabinet members although they lacked decision-making responsibility.

During the late 1980s, the criteria for entrance into the top elite were more open and competitive than previously. Political parties, and, to some extent, the civil service, continued to be the principal vehicles for upward mobility. Under the country's electoral system of proportional representation, participation in party politics remained essential for gaining top positions, except in limited cases of co-optation from nonparty circles, principally the military. In earlier periods, party nominating committees primarily determined a politician's entry into a parliamentary delegation; in the 1980s, internal party elections increasingly governed this decision. This system placed a high premium on partisan loyalty, membership in a party faction, and individual competence.

The political establishment, whether in office or in opposition, secularist or Orthodox, left-wing or right-wing, has remained basically loyal to the state. Establishment interpretations of classical Zionist ideologies have varied according to the adherents' diverse backgrounds and political and religious orientations, but internal political cleavages have not undermined the essential unity of Israeli society and political institutions. Except for certain segments among a minority of extremist right-wing religious or secular ultranationalists, most Israeli citizens have sought to maintain democratic values and procedures; their differences have centered mainly on tactics rather than on the goal of realizing a modern, democratic, prosperous social welfare state.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress