Fifty years ago, in mid-July 1973, the outgoing head of the IDF’s Southern Command, Ariel Sharon, held a retirement party in the garden of his Beersheba home. His farewell speech evolved into a tirade against David Elazar, the IDF Chief of Staff — there was no love lost between the two. Elazar had swept away any commander over the age of 45 — and Sharon qualified. The subtext of Sharon’s assault however was focussed on the enduring control of the Labour party machine.
Labour and its antecedents had led Zionism since the beginning of the twentieth century. Its leaders were the backbone of the pioneering generation. The Labour Alignment was subsequently formed in 1969 from four widely differing parties of the Left. It threatened to split apart from the moment of its birth and Golda Meir was brought out of retirement to manage this political pantomime horse.
Within a few days of his departure from the military, Sharon had hired a hall at the Tel Aviv Press Centre and held a press conference for political correspondents. A central theme was the need for a proper opposition. This, in itself, was an unspoken criticism of Menahem Begin who led an alliance of his Herut movement and the Liberals.
Herut was Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi, transformed into a political party. The Irgun had famously been responsible for the blowing up of the King David Hotel and the hanging of the two British sergeants. Herut however gained only 14 seats out of 120 in the first Israeli election in 1949. By 1973, Begin was 60, set in his ideological ways and reticent about accepting new groups into his movement.
In contrast, Sharon did not care for political niceties, exemplified by Begin’s Polish manners. He was known for his insubordination, being economical with the truth and quick to pick a fight while being a brilliant strategist on the battlefield. Known as ‘the Bulldozer’, he had fallen out with most of his military colleagues. Yet it was this ability that allowed him to browbeat and squeeze the unwilling into a new movement, the Likud — which since 1977 has become the natural party of government in Israel.
Sharon had been a long term member of Mapai, the forerunner of the Labour party and
was an admirer of Ben-Gurion. By the 1960s, Ben-Gurion’s allure as the founder of the state was waning. He was seen as stubborn and cantankerous — opposed by figures such as Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol but revered by others such as Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres who followed him out of Mapai into political exile. Yet they too turned their collective back on Ben-Gurion in joining the newly formed Israeli Labour party a couple of years later. Ben-Gurion instead established the State List which won a paltry four seats in the 1969 election. Many believe today that Israeli Labour’s long decline began with Ben-Gurion in the 1960s.
Sharon began to charm Ben-Gurion’s diehard supporters into joining the new opposition grouping. The State List joined as did the Labour Movement for a Greater Israel which supported settlement on the West Bank. He also convinced a breakaway from Herut, the Free Centre, led by those disaffected by Menahem Begin’s one-man rule of his party including a young Ehud Olmert, a future prime minister.
Sharon promoted the proposed new party as centrist rather than as right wing. He argued that it was the party of the disciples of both David Ben-Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky who had joined forces to save Israel from a flailing Labour party. Right wing figures within Labour such as Moshe Dayan were also approached but without immediate success.
By 1973, the events of Israel’s independence struggle in 1948 had become a page in the history books. Menahem Begin was now seen as a founding father of the state, an elder statesman who had loyally served in the coalition during the Six Day War. Begin’s incendiary nationalist rhetoric was viewed as a thing of the past and a new generation of voters looked to a different future. In 1973, Menahem Begin appealed to the Israeli working class, the traditionalist and the undereducated. Many perceived socialist collectivism to be a European phenomenon, past its sell-by date and growingly replaced by an entrepreneurial individualism.
The Labour party in 1973 was in search of an ideological identity. It was divided on the future of the West Bank and on the evolution of a Palestinian people.
For Sharon, this new political constellation and internal division made it opportune to forge a new party. The Likud thus came into existence in September 1973. Its immediate political fortune however proved to be a matter of luck.
In an interview in July 1973, Sharon said that the security situation was ‘wonderful’ and that Israel had become a military power with ‘enormous strength’. A couple of months later on Yom Kippur, the Egyptians attacked across the Suez Canal, overrunning meagre Israeli forces.
Before the war, opinion polls had suggested that the new Likud would do no better than its constituent parts. However many soldiers were killed in the conflict and Israel’s sense of confidence was replaced by one of great vulnerability. The general election was postponed until the end of the year — and shocked Israeli voters punished Labour for its lack of military preparedness by voting for the Likud which gained a remarkable 39 seats. For the first time, the Right was in striking distance of overthrowing Labour domination and forming a government.
Moreover while Sharon had participated courageously and innovatively in the war, he also projected himself as the sole archetypal Israeli hero, sporting an iconic head-bandage. This did not endear him to his hard-working military colleagues but undoubtedly appealed to the public.
In the aftermath of the war, Golda Meir’s government found itself in great difficulty. It was politically isolated — not only by the Soviet bloc and the oil-rich Arab states, but now by the developing world including many emergent African states which Israel had helped decades before. They broke off diplomatic relations under Arab financial pressure in great numbers — and one consequence of Israel’s desperation was to establish clandestine relations with apartheid South Africa.
As history records, Begin became prime minister shortly afterwards in 1977 as head of a Likud-led coalition — and Sharon achieved the same in 2001.
In 1995, Sharon spoke at a rally of the Right in which Yitzhak Rabin was infamously depicted as a Gestapo officer. He said that Rabin was a collaborator for negotiating with the PLO, comparing him to Marshal Pétain, leader of Vichy France under the Nazis. Sharon dismissed reports about threats from the Right to assassinate Rabin as wild provocations.
Sharon however remained an advocate of Ben-Gurion’s pragmatism and continued on his path as an unpredictable maverick. In 2003, as prime minister, he termed, the Israeli presence on the West Bank an ‘occupation’ and left the Likud to successfully form a centrist party, Kadima, with Shimon Peres. Netanyahu was left with the rump of the Likud. Felled by two strokes in 2006, Sharon never implemented his plan to withdraw from more West Bank settlements and died in 2014.
In his absence, his rival, Netanyahu moved into Sharon’s space as the leader of a radicalising faction of a different Likud, effecting a coalition with Kahanists, the haredim and the far Right. Which path would a Sharon-led Likud have chosen? Would Sharon have repeated Netanyahu’s tactics? The answer resides within the realm of speculation.
Jewish Chronicle 14 July 2023