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Ingredients in Israel’s Forthcoming Elections: Traumas and Tremors

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How will the extreme trauma of the war affect Israel politically? The election date has now been finally set for Dec. 31 and the war in retrospect will obviously be the main issue before the voter. At present most pundits are convinced that the Likud will make substantial gains at the expense of the ruling Labor Alignment. There are even serious analysts who are thinking in terms of an actual change in government–which would be the first ever for Israel.

The pundits hedge their prognoses with the condition that Likud must play its cards right, must not bail Labor out by its own petty and shortsighted squabbles. Thus Likud would have to hammer away tirelessly at the intelligence mis-assessment which no less an authority than U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger has confirmed occurred in Israel before the war. Opposition leader Menachem Beigin has already said in the Knesset that it is the politicians and not just the army who must bear responsibility for mis-assessments. The rules of democratic government seem to support him in this–the Cabinet in a democracy is responsible for the administration as a whole, including the armed forces. But often, after a failure or an incomplete success, the political leadership will quite naturally try to shift the blame wholly onto the generals. Likud–if it is to make maximum inroads into Labor’s electoral strength–would have to be on its guard against this happening here.

Another important–perhaps even trump–card which Likud will have to play wisely will be Arik Sharon, the dashing general whose popularity will soar even higher as a result of this war. It was he who, scarcely out of uniform this summer, molded the Likud out of three feuding factions–in the face of reluctance and even some hostility on the part of those parties’ leaders. Will Likud leaders–and especially Beigin–be prepared to cash in on Arik’s popularity, even at the expense of their own images? Will they assign to him the central role in Likud which he must have if the party is to attract more voters of his own sabra mold? Beigin has not been generous in the past to those threatening his own pre-eminence in the party. He has a grossly inflated view of his own popularity and simply does not understand that his appeal to the younger Israeli who never went through World War II or the fight with the British is strictly limited. The third condition of Likud’s success is not in Beigin’s hands: it is the extent to which the Labor Party itself will tear itself apart in post-war recriminations and fault-finding.

If last week’s attack by Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapiro against Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is anything to judge by, “the wars of the Jews” within the Labor Party are going to be bitter and virulent indeed–and the profit will be purely Likud’s. Beigin can be relied upon to keep the pot boiling with constant references to what went wrong during the “ten days of penitence.” Eventually, as JTA reported last week from Labor sources, it is not inconceivable that Dayan himself will be forced to assume the blame and resign, perhaps taking some generals with him. Dayan has many, many enemies within Labor who would not hesitate to drive him out. Whether he goes or not will depend on how far Premier Golda Meir and Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir will go to protect and defend him. Until now they seem solid enough. But fast changing events on the home and overseas fronts could change their attitudes.

If Dayan goes, Chaim Barlev (and not Yitzhak Rabin) will be put up by Labor as future Defense Minister. He is a respected man–but has nothing of the charisma of Dayan–or of Sharon. But the prediction that the war and its aftermath will inevitably lead to a lurch to the right is not universally shared, and certainly not (yet) proven. Despite the many pundits who are advancing this prognosis, experienced analysts within Labor itself are not at all certain that the nation will become more “hawkish” as a result of the war. The reaction could be precisely the opposite, they say (and fervently hope).

What does the man who was at the front think?–That is the vital question and to date there have been no opinion polls that attempt to answer it. Yet the front-line soldiers’ opinion is going to be all important. Because the populace in the rear, especially but not exclusively his own family, will look to him and to his experiences for guidance in their choice of government. Does he feel more hawkish than ever? Or is he heartily sickened by wars which seem to have no end and get bloodier each time? And is he, therefore, prepared to make far-reaching concessions to the Arabs to avert further wars and bloodshed?

There is another possible scenario against which we can anticipate the elections: that the present government will have had to make crucial political decisions before the polls. At the pace of Kissinger-prodded diplomacy this is by no means beyond the realm of possibility. In that case the country will be judging not only the government’s military responsibility and actions before and during the war, but also its performance at the negotiating table. Whatever the eventual backdrop, the elections in December are sure to be the most dramatic, and perhaps the most bitterly fought, in Israel’s short history.

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