Critics of Likud's new vanguard say party has abandoned founder's ideals

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was an ardent nationalist – and a staunch defender of civil rights. Likud critics say today's party is discarding the liberal aspects of Begin's legacy.

Gali Tibbon/Reuters/File
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in front of a photograph of late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, during Netanyahu's visit to an exhibition in Jerusalem marking the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel, in November.

Few Israelis today remember that until 1966, Arab citizens of the Jewish state were under army rule and needed permits from the local military governor to travel outside their home towns for work, study, or medical care. Even fewer know that a key figure in bringing an end to this less than democratic system was Menachem Begin, the fiery founder of the right-wing opposition Herut party, predecessor of today's Likud party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Begin was an extreme nationalist and he was also a real democrat and liberal," recalls Uri Avnery, a peace activist who was a left-wing member of the Knesset during the 1960s. "He really believed in full equality for Arab citizens. The communists, Begin, and people like me all cooperated inside the Knesset and outside to have this system abolished."

Mr. Begin, former head of the pre-state Irgun underground that fought British rule, and prime minister from 1977 to 1983, is remembered at the state-funded heritage center in Jerusalem that bears his name as a scrupulous democrat in domestic affairs, upholding the rule of law, minority rights, and the right to criticize.

"I recommend that we not be content with just the independence of the law but that we raise the banner of the supremacy of the law," an exhibit quotes Begin as saying. Nearby is a black-and-white picture of Arabs at a session of the High Court of Justice. In its legacy section, the exhibit gives as much space to Begin's stress on "human freedom," including "freedom from the dictatorship of the majority," as it does to his well-known project of building settlements throughout the West Bank, which he referred to by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

But the liberal aspects of Begin's legacy are now, according to many observers, being discarded. In the run-up to Israel's Jan. 22 elections, in which Netanyahu is expected to easily win reelection, a new generation of Likud leaders unabashedly seeks to move the party and the country further to the right on the Palestinian issue and on domestic matters.

Though the party's rising stars deny the charge, some critics argue that the new Likud threatens Israeli democracy.

"'This young country is still a very fragile democracy," says Ofer Kenig, a scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank whose stated goal is to bolster Israeli democracy. "If the governing party doesn't stand to protect and strengthen the democratic values, then we have things to worry about."

The new Likud platform

Mr. Kenig cited young Likud legislators' efforts in the outgoing Knesset to limit foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, a move seen as aimed at silencing criticism of groups that monitor West Bank occupation practices. Kenig also takes issue with their ambitions to limit the power of the Supreme Court, and, in his view, to infringe on freedom of expression and the standing of the Arab minority.

Four architects of that controversial legislative drive – Danny Danon, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levine, and Tzipi Hotovely – surged to prominent slots in Likud's November primaries and have emerged as key voices during the campaign. Meanwhile, three ministers who were older stalwarts of Begin's liberal approach, including the Likud founder's son Benny, and Dan Meridor, moderate son of another Irgun leader, appear unlikely to hold influential positions in the next parliament.

The primary also saw the rise to 15th on the Likud party list of candidates of Moshe Feiglin, a Jewish fundamentalist who calls for rebuilding the biblical temple in Jerusalem and has campaigned on a proposal to pay Arab families half a million dollars each to emigrate from the West Bank.

And moving the party even further to the right was a merger of lists with Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, calls for the ouster of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Yisrael Beiteinu stoked anti-Arab racism during the 2009 election campaign with its slogan "Only Lieberman understands Arabic," hinting he would get tough with the Arab minority.

Mr. Danon, who soared from 24 to six within the Likud in the primaries, has not espoused Mr.Feiglin's initiative for a voluntary removal of Arabs but he does make clear in remarks to the Monitor his view that the international community should forget about a two-state solution to the conflict, to which Netanyahu gave qualified endorsement in 2009.

Danon believes that Israel should annex the Jewish settlements along with open land in the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with scraps. "I believe that the ones who need to be in blocs are the Palestinians and not the settlers in Judea and Samaria," he says.

The thesis of Danon's recently published book (in English) The Will to Prevail is that Israel should stop being afraid of foreign objections to its policies. "We have to do what is good for us and to ignore foreign pressures," he says.

In domestic matters, Danon has advocated that members of Israel's Arab minority be required to pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state before they are granted driver's licenses or identity cards, a stance inspired by Yisrael Beiteinu, which campaigned in 2009 on a proposal that people who do not take such a loyalty oath should lose their citizenship.

In his comments to the Monitor, Danon sharply criticized the Israeli Supreme Court for a decision last week reinstating the electoral candidacy of Haneen Zoabi, a legislator from the Arab nationalist Balad party. Danon was among those who led the successful campaign to have the Central Elections Committee cancel Ms. Zoabi's candidacy on the grounds that she violated Israeli law by participating in a pro-Palestinian flotilla in 2009 to protest Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Even though the judges showed rare unanimity in ruling 9-0 to overturn the ban, Danon accuses the court of "ignoring the language of the law and deciding on norms that are against what has been legislated." He is vowing to advance a bill in the new Knesset to bar Zoabi from serving if she is reelected.

Battling to be most 'right'

Danon denies that Likud is deviating from Begin's legacy. "One of the big changes is generational change, and this is something welcome. Just as in Britain and the US, younger leaders were chosen for more senior positions, so too in Israel, a young generation, active, and with ideology, worked hard and got the backing of the public. I am very proud of today's Likud. The way I was elected was very democratic, more than other parties."

As the campaign nears a close, analysts say a surge in opinion polls by Likud's rival for right-wing religious voters, the smaller Jewish Home party, is contributing to extremism as the two seek to outbid each other in their nationalism. Like Danon, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett is calling for Israel to annex most of the West Bank, not including densely populated Arab areas.

Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the US, says that Netanyahu wants to limit the clout of Danon and his allies and will be able to do so in the short term. "The composition of the list is a fact that cannot be disputed," he says. "But Netanyahu is a pragmatic centrist and he will look for coalition partners to try to balance things."

However, Avnery, the former legislator, does not believe Netanyahu will prove a restraining influence. "Israel will become more of what it is, more right wing, antipeace, and less democratic," he says.

Of today's Likud, Avnery says, "Begin would have looked upon it with abomination."

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