Friday, May 18, 2007

And Yossi Sarid Has Something to Say

The upheaval that wasn't

Three days before the 1977 elections I ran into the foreign minister on the main street of Metula. I was then a young Knesset member at the end of his first term and he was - then as always - Yigal Allon. He was in high spirits, having just come out of a successful election meeting, whereas I was in a bad mood. I feel we've lost the elections, I told him. He laughed and tried to calm me: "We may lose a few seats, but if we weren't defeated four years ago, right after the Yom Kippur War, there's no chance we'd be beaten now."

I know he interpreted my defeatism at the time as end-of-campaign fatigue. I was then information chairman of the Labor Alignment (the alliance of Mapai, the largest left-wing party in the country with Achdut Ha'avoda) campaign. I saw his response as the obtuseness of being in power too long. It not only corrupts but also blinds the eyes of the wise.

A few months earlier I met the West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, who visited me in Kiryat Shmona during his visit in Israel. I made the same pessimistic forecast, but added that perhaps Labor, out of power, would rehabilitate and heal itself. The experienced chancellor shook his head and said: "I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not ever seen a defeated party rehabilitate itself in opposition."

In retrospect, I daresay he was right. There are illnesses that only get worse in the political wilderness, and they attack mainly parties that have never been weaned from power.

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the upheaval - the Likud's rise to power. It's not good for a democracy to have a single ruling party. So 1977's turnabout should be seen positively, at least in principle. The Likud's beginning seemed promising. What the Alignment failed to do in its various incarnations in 30 years - make the first peace with a major Arab state - Menachem Begin pulled off in an amazingly short time. For a brief moment, it seemed to confound all the predictions of disaster. The land might after all overflow with milk and honey.

But the moment was brief indeed. Everything Mapai had spoiled, the Likud spoiled further. Under Begin's leadership the rifts and gaps in Israeli society widened. Granted, the Jews from Arab countries felt better, felt at home, but that feeling didn't pay their grocery bills. Poverty, for the most part, increased, while a few became hugely wealthy. The ultra-Orthodox draft dodging spread, and yeshiva pupils multiplied and increased and now fill the earth.

The occupation strengthened its grasp on the land, and the settlements expanded their boundaries. The seed of calamity planted by Golda, Galili and Dayan took hold and grew and sprouted all the wild growths.

Jerusalem, which was never united and never will be, received an annexation law that drove all the ambassadors from it.

At the end of Begin's term the first Lebanon War broke out. It was a preemptive war of choice, and it was obvious from the beginning that it was a mistake. In the 18 years we were in Lebanon, our presence exacted more than 1,000 victims and finally defeated Begin himself. The voice and hands were Begin's, but the legs that knocked over the bucket were Ariel Sharon's.

Begin was a decent, honest man, who would be horrified to find what happened here after his death. Mapai at the end of its hegemony was a corrupt party but its sins were like the driven snow compared to the Likud's era in power. Corruption lost all shame, and Begin's heritage was stained unrecognizably by the Diadochi.

A few weeks ago retired Judge Sara Sirota recalled in a newspaper report that a thief once explained why he broke into Pinhas Sapir's house. He was sure he said that in the treasurer's house there'd be a treasure. To his amazement all he found was an old watch. Today's thieves would not emerge empty-handed from the homes of prime ministers and ministers.

Thirty years since the Likud came to power, it's easy to be nostalgic for the good old Mapainiks and their culture, whatever their flaws.

After all that has happened since, one may well ask - was there an upheaval? And one should also answer - there was no upheaval.