Likud Torn Between Two Passions

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Likud is a political party torn between two passions. Since the days of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the revered ideological forbear of right-wing, or revisionist, Zionism, the movement has sought to reconcile conflicting impulses.

On the one hand, reacting against the powerlessness that crippled the Jewish capacity for self-defense in the first half of the twentieth century, it espoused uncompromising Jewish pride and assertiveness. On the great Zionist questions of the day such as armed resistance to the British and opposition to partition, its diplomatic demands were maximal and willingness to compromise minimal. On the other hand, Jabotinsky was a strong advocate of democracy, and Likud is an amalgamation of groups firmly rooted in European capitalist liberalism. Rejecting the socialism that was the founding ideology of Israel’s first generation, the predecessors of today’s Likud were in the minority during the first three decades of the State. In the bitter political debates of the time, their self-awareness, parliamentary skill and commitment to individual rights did much to establish Israel as a vibrant democratic state.

Last week’s enactment of the problematic Anti-Boycott, Delegitimization and Sanctions Law saw the unique inner conflict of the Likud play out on a national stage. Romantic nationalist right-wing parties such as Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu remain unconflicted in their support for the law since the European liberal does not speak to them with the same authority.

MK Ze’ev Elkin, majority whip and up-and-coming Likud leader, was a leading proponent, while Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin, a senior Likud leader and former candidate for President, was one of its most effective and devastating critics. (Full disclosure – my daughter-in-law is a legal counsel to the Government Coalition.) For Elkin the issues are clear. In classic romantic nationalist style he suggests that Israel’s enemies are out to destroy her, and that the BDS campaign demeans Israelis and Jews as individuals and as a people, since it stigmatizes them not for anything they do but for what they are. Anyone who disrespects the fundamental rights of Jews, he reasons, should feel the strong hand of the law.

Speaker Rivlin agrees with Elkin on the moral illegitimacy of boycotts directed at Israel and its people. Nevertheless, he argues that they must be combated in a way that does not compromise democratic principles. In a vigorous Ha’aretz op-ed he quotes the founder of right-wing Zionism: “’I believe only in parliamentarianism of the old-fashioned kind,’ Ze’ev Jabotinsky once wrote, ’even if it sometimes seems inconvenient or helpless.’” Rivlin had worked to rewrite the bill, and his frustration shows when he declares “…woe betide the Jewish democratic state that turns freedom of expression into a civil offense …. Not only does the legislation not provide democracy with an effective tool with which to cope with the boycott problem, it also threatens to catapult us into an era in which gagging people becomes accepted legal practice; an era in which the democratic-constitutional boundary line falls victim to acts of legislative infraction.”

The law is indeed an overbroad, ill-conceived attempt to deal with a legitimate issue. AJC’s Executive Director David Harris publicly stated: “Our organization has been at the forefront globally confronting the insidious activities of the BDS movement that seek to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel but this Knesset action, which challenges freedom of expression in Israel, is not the appropriate answer to the BDS campaign.”

Thankfully, the Israeli democratic system has numerous avenues to convey disagreement with the actions of a majority of MKs. These include vibrant free media, active parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition and especially strong courts with a tradition of independence. The way is open for the Supreme Court to strike down the Anti-BDS law’s controversial equation of boycott of settlements with boycott of Israel and its numerous other restraints on freedom of speech.

What the courts cannot do, however, is heal the deep divide in the hearts of Likud members. The current state of Israeli politics indicates that Likud could be the main coalition party for a long time to come, and so this internal battle—a confrontation that goes back to those conflicted tendencies in the mind of Jabotinsky and that was exemplified last week by the warring perspectives of Rivlin and Elkin—may be a more significant arena of debate than any of the more immediate life-and-death issues Israel faces, since without a vibrant democracy this country will not survive. Rivlin understands this.
This article first appeared on the American Jewish Committee website and appears here with the permission of the author and can also be found at :¬oc=1

About Edward Rettig

Edward Rettig is the Director of the Israel/Middle East Office of American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem. Before that he served for nine years as Associate Director for Legislative Affairs and Education and for two years as Associate Director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of AJC, working at national headquarters in New York.
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