JERUSALEM (Jul. 25)
Premier Menachem Begin’s trip to the U.S. from which he returned today may well be the high point of the political “honeymoon” that Likud has enjoyed since it emerged victorious from the elections two months ago.
Begin, the opposition leader for 29 years, was regarded before the elections as just another politician who failed to adjust to changing times. He returned from Washington projecting the image of a national leader of purpose who knows exactly where he is going. Israelis who regarded his elevation to the Premiership with apprehension, now express relief that finally someone is steering the ship of state. Begin’s new popularity stems in part from the contrast he presents to the opposition Labor Alignment leadership.
Labor Alignment leaders are still busy blaming each other for the May 17 election disaster. Prof. Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) whose strong election showing at the expense of Labor was largely responsible for Likud’s victory, is currently wracked by internal debates over whether or not to join Begin’s coalition.
LIKUD MOVES TO ENLARGE COALITION
Likud is the only party which seems to be in control of the situation and it is exploiting every public relations device to enhance that image. In fact, Likud is acting as if the election campaign still was in full swing. It is making a determined effort not only to enlarge its narrow coalition but to win over a majority of the electorate–permanently. One pundit, Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel of the Hebrew University, warned in Haaretz last weekend that if Labor does not close ranks soon it risks the danger of losing a substantial section of the moderates who supported it to Likud.
Of course there are plenty of skeptics who view Begin’s foray into international diplomacy in Washington as a triumph of cosmetics over substance. But the general public seems satisfied. At last, they say Israel has a leader who knows the art of public relations, an area in which the previous government was often awkward and heavy-handed.
There is, nevertheless, on undercurrent of concern that Begin’s government partners are the two religious parties which apparently feel that now is the time to increase the influence of Orthodoxy in all aspects of Israeli life. There is much uneasiness over Begin’s commitments to the religious establishment to kill Israel’s new, liberal abortion law, to exempt women from military service, to tighten rules against Sabbath work and to try to get a majority of the Knesset to amend the Low of Return to suit Orthodox demands.
But even the secular elements have pushed these worries aside for the moment in the wake of Begin’s talks with President Carter which the Likud publicity machine is depicting as a glittering success.
EHRLICH EMERGES AS ECONOMIC HERO
Begin is not the sole beneficiary of this “era of good feeling.” Likud’s No. 2 man, Finance Minister Simcha Ehrlich, until recently a faceless behind the scenes politician with what many regarded as a 19th Century petit bourgeois mentality in economic affairs, has emerged as something of an economic hero.
The tough fiscal measures he just pushed through the Knesset might have raised a storm under the previous government. But after some initial anger, mostly on the part of Histadrut for not having been consulted in advance, the measures were accepted by the public as necessary to aid the nation’s faltering economy and fight inflation.
Ehrlich got an excellent press for keeping his fiscal package under tight secrecy until he was ready to announce it. His predecessor, Yehoshua Rabinowitz, it was noted, never managed to prevent leaks and the results in the past were wild buying sprees and hoarding whenever the public knew that price increases were imminent.
Ehrlich increased his popularity by announcing that he will abolish control over foreign currency, simplify the investment law to attract more overseas investors and not deliberately use unemployment as a weapon against inflation.
Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, whom many Israelis once thought too inexperienced and too impulsive to be trusted with a major government post, aroused cheers from many former opponents of Likud when he spoke of the need to allow the displaced Arab villagers from Ikrit and Baram to return to the sites of their villages near the Lebanese border.
The Labor Alignment had stubbornly resisted any such move by the villagers who are Maronite Christians and no threat to the security of the State. The Labor position, especially the hard line taken by Premier Golda Meir, was seen as symbolic of the old regime’s inability to make a simple gesture that would have enhanced Israel’s image abroad.
AN ASTONISHING TURN-ABOUT
Perhaps the most astonishing turn-about is the criticism now being leveled at Begin from the political left because he has indicated a willingness to return territory on the Golan Heights. The astuteness of Likud is also demonstrated by the low profile maintained by Moshe Dayan since his elevation to the office of Foreign Minister. Dayan, regarded as a renegade by former Labor colleagues, is well aware that many Israelis still hold him responsible for the lack of preparedness on the eve of the Yom Kippur War when he was Defense Minister.
Perhaps Likud’s biggest public relations coup was the retention of most of the senior civil servants of the old regime. Few were removed from their jobs after the new government took office although most were apparently expecting to be unemployed. The new political leadership says it wants to establish a civil service tradition based on continuity similar to that of Great Britain.
Begin thus returns from the U.S. with greatly increased prestige and credit among the people. Whether it will last depends on whether he can reinforce his public relations image with concrete political acts that will meet with equally wide approval.