m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

N O V E M B E R   1 9 6 1

Israel in 1965
Editor of the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review, Jon Kimche has his headquarters in London but makes periodic trips to Israel and the neighboring Arab states

by Jon Kimche

When, on September 26, 1965, on the eve of the Jewish New Year 5726, the President of Israel addresses his customary message to the nation, and to Jews throughout the world, what kind of Israel will he project to them? Will he look back nostalgically on the passing of what he would surely recall as the great age of Ben-Gurion; or will Israel's first Prime Minister still be holding that office more than seventeen years after the establishment of the state? Will the President welcome Israel's newly found peace settlement with its Arab neighbors, the opening of frontiers closed since 1948, and the passing of a mutual suspicion and fear which a few years earlier had seemed unyielding in its permanence; or will he note the unabated hostility of Israel's Arab neighbors and its continued beleaguered condition, an island in the midst of an ever more turbulent Arab sea?

And on that day, what will the people of Israel be like, how will they manage to live? Who will be their leaders, and what will be their goal? In short, how will Israel look in another four years, when the initial romantic phase of the restoration will have given way to new realities of a nation undergoing the most radical transformation of its long and stormy history?
Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • Return to Flashback: "Israel at Fifty."

  • Return to Flashback: "The State of Israel."

  • See Books & Authors: "A Century of Zionism."

  • See Flashback: "The Middle East -- Peace in Jeopardy?"

  • Let us consider first the nature of those changes which can be estimated and assessed with some precision. Possibly the most significant single feature of Israel in 1965 will be the changed composition of its population of 2,500,000. Some 300,000 will be Arabs (apart from any Palestinian Arab refugees who may be repatriated). Of the remaining 2,200,000 Israelis, a million will be not immigrants but native-born Jews, of whom three quarters were born in the state of Israel after May, 1948; this means that there will be 750,000 native Israelis and some 900,000 child immigrants who have arrived since 1948 -- that is, roughly half the Jewish population of Israel in 1965 -- who will have had no direct experience of either the Hitler persecutions, the War of Independence, or Jewish life in the Diaspora.

    Moreover, by 1965 another 750,000 former immigrants will have lived fifteen years or more in Israel and will have become fully absorbed and settled Israeli citizens, for whom Jewish life in Europe or Arabia has become a remote and fading memory. The great majority, therefore, will no longer be composed of refugee stock and will accordingly have increasingly less understanding, patience or sympathy for the refugee mentality of their parents and elders. In fact, it would be in the nature of things for these new generations to be inclined to resent the refugee past and attempt to ignore it, even if they cannot altogether forget it.

    The pressure of the new Israelis will, therefore, almost inevitably be toward normalcy and away from the abnormalities and upheavals of a past on which many will look back with mixed feelings. The trend was already evident in 1961, with this process only partly under way and with powerful counter-influences still at work. The old memories were still being pressed on the young generations by means of the passionately nationalist presentation of the history of the Jews of the last thirty years. The unrelenting publicity which was an essential element of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann played its part in this attempt to make the young understand the past.

    Yet, despite all this there was already a clearly recognizable trend among Israelis, young and old, toward turning their backs on the history of the Diaspora. That interregnum of 1813 years, from the defeat by the Romans of the rebellion of the Palestinian Jews under Bar Kochba in 135 A.D. to the reestablishment of the Israeli state in 1948, is considered by many as almost an alien period. Instead, the Israelis of the 1960s, led by Ben-Gurion, were looking back beyond the Diaspora for their inspiration; they rediscovered, for this purpose, the Bible, and with it, the new archaeology. The study and interpretation of both have become a national preoccupation, a popular pursuit -- almost a status symbol of the new Israeli. As against this, he is not impressed by the traditional histories of the oppressions and persecutions which comprise so large a part of the history of the Diaspora and which, if anything, were overstressed by Graetz and Dubnow, the traditional Jewish historians of the Diaspora. The new American school of Jewish historians -- especially Salo Baron and Howard M. Sachar, with their emphasis on realism rather than romantic nationalism -- has so far failed to make any noticeable impact on this new Israeli concept of Jewish history, from which the eighteen hundred years of the Diaspora life have been largely excluded.

    This was, in effect, the ideology of a new Zionism which Ben-Gurion bequeathed to the Israel of the 1960s. It was aimed at countering the premature return to normalcy in Israel and in the Jewish communities of the Western world, which was reflected in the rapid rise of the standard of living of a substantial section of Israel's middle class, of its skilled workers, and of many of its formerly penniless immigrants. (Israelis were first in the world in 1960 in the per capita consumption of fruit and vegetables. They ranked second, after the United States, in the consumption of eggs and the use of frigidaires, twelfth in the consumption of meat, and had impressively rising totals for clothing, foreign travel, and washing machines.)

    Basing his ideas on the Book and on Israel's ancient history, Ben-Gurion sought to impress on the new Israelis the need for more colonization and pioneering in Israel's wastelands and for the employment of the latest techniques of science and industry for the same purpose. Israel, he argued, dared not relax and could not be satisfied with its achievements, for there were still uncertain contingencies which might develop at some unexpected or critical moment. If the people were prepared for these, this might well become the moment of Israel's greatest opportunity; but if they were not geared practically and mentally to meet such possible emergencies, then the opportunity could turn to hardship, and even disaster.

    The contingency uppermost in his mind is the 3,500,000 Jews of the Soviet Union. What will happen once they are given permission to go to Israel? Ben-Gurion is convinced that this moment of decision will come, probably in the sixties; and so long as this possibility exists, Israel cannot relax into a normal existence, as would any other nation. But how do you live with so unpredictable a contingency? How can you anticipate whether, if the immigration deluge comes, it will be a blessing or a curse? Already the steeply rising curve of immigration during 1961 (an estimated total of more than 75,000) has been felt in the strained resources of the government and the Jewish Agency.

    Here again, the changing trend in Israel's population, linked with Ben-Gurion's national Zionism, has been the decisive factor. The principal objective of the preparatory period, which is to reach its climax in 1964, is to make Israel, within its limitations as a small country, self-reliant in the areas of its major decisions -- that is, in foreign policy, defense colonization development, and the economic planning for the home front. This last factor will also be the key to most of the others in this program, for it seeks -- not for the first time, but with a greater sense of urgency -- to bring about a balanced economy with only a relatively small sector depending on aid and donations from abroad. For example, in 1948 contributions from world Jewry accounted for 33 per cent of Israel's revenue: by 1960 these donations covered only 8 per cent of the budgetary income: and in 1964, it is estimated they will drop to less than 5 per cent.

    THE DECLINE IN FOREIGN FINANCING

    How, then, with this declining factor of foreign aid and the cessation of German reparations, will the Israelis live after 1964? How will they be guided economically in the mid-sixties to cope with their own economic problems and with the prospect of the Russian immigration deluge hanging over them -- an uncertain mixture of hope and fear?

    The government's economic advisers have recently concluded a number of studies for the guidance of ministers in which the Israeli economy is projected over the critical hump of 1964, when German reparation payments, which have been amounting to from $60 million to $80 million annually since 1953, come to an end, with the total amount due -- $821 million -- fully paid by the Federal German government.

    The full extent of the gap created by the virtual disappearance of the income from German sources will be considerably larger than what is accounted for by the elimination of the annual reparations payments. Israeli experts estimate that the total income from foreign sources will be $l35 million sources accounted for only 24 per cent of the total invested in 1955, and for only 33 per cent in 1958, but local sources will have to provide 75 per cent of all investment in order to meet the target for 1964. Between 1960 and 1964 the country will have to invest over a billion Israeli pounds (about $500 million). Of this, about $150 million each will go to housing and to industry, and the rest to transportation, agriculture, and government services. The expansion of agriculture will of necessity be restricted by the limitation of the existing water supply, until the Jordan diversion to the Negeb becomes effective.

    These are tall orders, and they clearly cannot be achieved without a combination of flexible planning, economic incentives, and strict economic discipline. But these objectives are in many ways, politically and economically, self-contradictory -- a mixture of free and controlled economics. It will be the acid test of the new government, formed after the general election of last August, whether it will be able to make the necessary decisions, in view of the different vested interests and pressure groups, to achieve the 1964 objectives.

    THE SPECIAL INTERESTS: AN ASSET

    These special interests are a peculiar feature of Israel's political and social life. They are, in most cases, assets rather than liabilities. They represent not so much selfish personal interests, but, rather, the legitimate group interests of large segments of the population: of the political parties, the trade unions, the religious parties, the industrialists and manufacturers, the farmers, the old settlers, and the net immigrants. In addition, there are the not always clearly defined interests of the so-called national institutions in which world Jewry actively participates: the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund (which owns most of the nonurban land), and a multiplicity of educational, scientific, and welfare institutions financed primarily by world Jewry. And last, but far from least, comes the pressure of defense and security needs required because of Israel's uneasy position amidst its Arab neighbors.

    As has been stressed, none of these pressure groups can be termed unreasonably selfish or anti-national in intent. They are not. But many of these interests have grown so powerful and influential, because of the worthiness or strength of their group, that the state often finds it difficult to resist their demands -- especially since these are, in most cases, backed by political and parliamentary power. Special interests have become the dominant element of Israel's political life, especially in the period between the election of November, 1959, and that of August, 1961.

    The government's policies were dictated increasingly by the necessity to find a workable compromise that would assuage at least the most powerful and most urgent of special interests, rather than by the strict national priorities which the prospect of the 1960s called for. This was true in all fields of national activity except defense. Here Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and his principal advisers -- especially the Deputy Minister of Defense, Shimon Peres -- reigned supreme. No outside interests were permitted to intrude on the priorities of defense.

    At the end of their projection of Israel's position in the mid-sixties, the country's economic advisers staked out the following economic signposts as a guide for further governmental action:

    OUTPUT AND EXPORT TARGETS FOR 1964 COMPARED WITH 1958

    (In millions of Israeli pounds at 1958 prices)

    [Output: 1958] [Target: 1964] [Exports: 1958] [Target: 1964]

    Mining and Quarrying: [Output: 1958] 37; [Target: 1964] 118; [Exports: 1958] 9; [Target: 1964] 73.

    Foodstuffs: [Output: 1958] 446; [Target: 1964] 668; [Exports: 1958] 18; [Target: 1964] 60.

    Textiles, wood, and paper: [Output: 1958] 657; [Target: 1964] 1408; [Exports: 1958] 35; [Target: 1964] 213.

    Chemicals, rubber and Plastics: [Output: 1958] 200; [Target: 1964] 569; [Exports: 1958] 23; [Target: 1964] 180.

    Building Materials: [Output: 1958] 103; [Target: 1964] 156; [Exports: 1958] 6;[Target: 1964] 30.

    Diamonds: [Output: 1958] 66; [Target: 1964] 120; [Exports: 1958] 69;[Target: 1964] 120.

    Machinery, Electric equipment, and vehicles: [Output: 1958] 264; [Target: 1964] 617; [Exports: 1958] 14; [Target: 1964] 130.

    Basic Metals: [Output: 1958] 41; [Target: 1964] 142; [Exports: 1958] -- -- ; [Target: 1964] 2.

    These formidable targets can and must be achieved, the experts maintain, if Israel wishes to retain its freedom of political action in international affairs. But there are some essential prerequisites for such a program. The experts name some of them but evade others as politically too explosive for officials to handle. They stress again that the country will have to invest 265 million Israeli pounds in each of the five years from 1960 through 1964, either through public or private funds. It will have to cut down on the rate of import of consumer goods and carefully allocate all other imports so as to meet essential national needs -- and no more.

    The government, however, will have to go much further. These economic signposts are useful, but they solve nothing without the requisite political actions. The high cost of production has to be reduced, labor efficiency has to be increased, savings and investments have to be stimulated, output increased, exports forced, and the heavy defense burden maintained -- but how? This question brings us to the peculiar character of Israeli politics.

    ORGANIZED LABOR: STATE WITHIN A STATE

    The hard core -- and it is a very hard core -- of the political life of Israel since its creation in 1948 has been the dominating role of the strongly organized, responsible, competent, and power-conscious labor movement. It is based on the twin pillars of a tremendously powerful trade union organization, the General Confederation of Jewish Labor, known as the Histadrut, and its political expression, the three Israeli socialist parties, Mapai, Mapam, and Ahdut Avoda.

    To appreciate the extent of the influence of organized labor in Israel, one has to imagine in American terms that the AFL-CIO membership amounted to more than half the electorate, that it held the presidency and a majority of the Cabinet posts and that it had a decisive say in the Pentagon; and moreover, that it held the controlling interests in General Motors, General Electric, and Standard Oil, directly employed a third of all the country's workers in its own enterprises, and provided its members and their dependents with their own National Health Service.

    In many ways organized labor in Israel is a state within the state, a characteristic it developed during the years of British mandatory rule and intensified with the emergence of the Israeli state. But this tremendous position of power of the Histadrut (in which all socialist parties and some nonsocialist labor groups are federated) is not quite so markedly reflected in the political field because of the political divisions of the labor movement.

    Predominant here has been the Israel Labor Party, Mapai. At the 1959 election, it polled 370,000 votes out of a total poll of 970,000 -- 38 per cent. The other two socialist parties polled much less. Mapam obtained 70,000 (7 per cent of the total vote), and Ahdut Avoda, 60,000 (6 per cent). The Arab lists affiliated to the Israel Labor Party polled another 35,000 votes (3.6 per cent of the total).

    In terms of division of seats in the Knesset, the Israel Parliament, Mapai had 52 members (including 5 representing Arab lists), Mapam had 9, and Ahdut Avoda, 7 -- a total of 68 in a chamber of 120 members. But this numerical majority could not be translated into political action because of the basic disagreements on policy among the three labor parties. Mapai was power-conscious, responsible, empirical, and opportunist, with increasingly strong conservative tendencies. Mapam was dogma-ridden and guided by a mixture of youthful idealism, mechanical Marxism, and an unimaginative and aging leadership.

    Ahdut Avoda was in many ways the most interesting of all three parties. It represented a collection of individuals and a remarkable tradition, rather than being a routine political party. It included in its ranks some of the ablest men in Israel, men such as Galili, Allon, Carmel, and many others who had played a foremost part in Israel's successful War of Independence. But they seemed unable to transplant their military abilities into the political field, and their party, like Mapam, has lost ground in recent years.

    Thus, in effect, the political expression of organized labor has been the Mapai Party, led by David Ben-Gurion. But, because of the split in the labor movement, this political expression has not been so complete as the numerical position of Organized labor in the country would indicate. In order to command a majority in Parliament and in the Cabinet without having to rely on the conditional good will of the two dissenting labor parties, Mapai has in the past had to broaden its coalition governments so as to take in the National Religious Party, and the small Liberal Progressive Party, as a counterweight. The National Religious Party had polled 95,000 votes in 1959, just under 10 per cent of the total; the Progressives, 45,000, a little under 5 per cent.

    COALITION AND OPPOSITION

    Outside the coalition there remained the right-wing Herut Party, led by the former Irgun leader Menahem Beigin; the General Zionists, a moderate businessman's party; the ultra-orthodox religious groups; and the Communists (who polled less than 3 per cent of the vote). It is this strange political alignment which has set the frustrating pattern of Israeli politics for the past ten years: a government coalition of partners who could not agree on the major issues in foreign and home affairs, facing a coalition of opposition parties which could not agree on anything except opposition to the government in office.

    The effect of this situation was that the combined opposition to Ben-Gurion and Mapai in the Cabinet and in Parliament was strong enough to negate or veto policies proposed by Mapai but not united enough to propose any possible alternative policy or form an alternative government. This might have produced long ago a major crisis in Israel's governing process if the negative character of the coalition government had not been compensated for by a novel form of administration. More and more departments were concentrated for administrative action in the Prime Minister's office. By 1960, Ben-Gurion had some forty departments attached to his offices as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, and some others, such as Foreign Affairs, were also invariably referred to him when major issues were under consideration.

    Increasingly, in these fields, decisions have been made and actions executed by ministerial decision without reference to the Cabinet; actions that were later justified by the Prime Minister on grounds of security or the need for secrecy. Some of Israel's most dramatic decisions in recent years were made in this manner, without the knowledge of the majority of the Cabinet. It was the only way of overcoming the democratic deadlock which threatened to paralyze government action in all fields in which the coalition was not agreed on policy. The Sinai campaign of 1956 was one; the closer association with France and Federal Germany was another. The development of a nuclear reactor and the launching of Israel's space rocket were similarly decided on, without consulting the Cabinet; so were Prime Minister Ben-Gurion's visits to Washington, London, and Paris in 1960 and 1961.

    It is understandable that this trend should have been resented and resisted, and in the end it led to the prolonged political crisis which began in September, 1960, and came to a head with the resignation of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and the general election of last August. This prolonged crisis had many public faces. There was the so-called Lavon Affair, which centered on the powerful General-Secretary of the Histadrut, Pinhas Lavon, who was forced to resign his post by Ben-Gurion. There followed accusations of arbitrary and undemocratic rule by Ben-Gurion and his friends and a general political malaise in which Ben-Gurion's stature suffered considerably for a while. But these were only the public faces of the crisis. The real issue was quite different. For Israel's government had been no more or less undemocratic in 1960 than it had been in 1950. Why, then, this sudden outcry? There was a reason. For this was essentially the first of Israel's crises of succession. Pinhas Lavon, with the support of the powerful Histadrut, had staked his claim against his rivals, and even against Ben-Gurion himself.

    BEN-GURION AND THE SUCCESSION

    This, in fact, was the beginning of the public debate about the men who would be leading Israel in 1965, the men who would follow Ben-Gurion, and about the goals they would be pursuing. It was not discussed in these terms, but this was as much the secret issue of the Lavon Affair as it was the silent issue of the elections last August, and it is the one great issue that increasingly dominates the background rather than the foreground of Israeli politics. Ben-Gurion himself pretended not to be aware of the debate. He gave no sign of his inclination or preference, not even a hint. More than any other Israeli leader, past or present, Ben-Gurion has a superb sense of timing, and he is very conscious of the fact that succession may depend in the end much more on the tasks which his successor will have to undertake, and on the conditions under which he takes over, than on any act of preselection either by him or the party. This may well dictate his choice when the time comes.

    The possible successors fall into two distinct age groups. Projecting the critical moment to the moment when the Parliament just elected should end, we get the following picture of the political scene in 1965. Ben-Gurion will then be seventy-eight. Moshe Sharett, Nahum Goldmann, and Finance Minister Eshkol, the present heir apparent, will be about seventy. And then there comes a great gap.

    The younger generation of Mapai leaders, who have been described in the post-Sinai years as the "new thinkers," will be in their intellectual prime. Giora Josephtal will be fifty-three; the nuclear physicist with a marked political bent, Aharon Katzir, will be fifty-two; Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, and Yigael Yadin will be in their late forties; and Shimon Peres, only forty. Two others must be mentioned, though neither is a member of Mapai at present; but by 1965 Israel's party alignment will have undergone great changes. They are the former head of the Haganah, Israel Galili, who will be fifty-eight in 1965, and Yigal Allon, probably the ablest commander during the war of 1948. He will be only forty-six. Both rank among the outstanding figures in Israel's public life.

    But then there comes an even more significant gap on the political map: where are the young leaders who will be under forty in 1965? They had not made their entrance on the political stage by 1961, but there were signs of discontent with the failure of the "new thinkers" to produce the kind of radical ideology which would represent the logical continuation of Ben-Gurion's national Zionism. For the debate about the future was changing course during 1961. It was no longer the familiar party dispute between left and right, or the ins and the outs, or between capital and labor. It had become an issue between the conservatives and the radicals in Israel's political life -- and this, clear across the customary party, and even personal, loyalties. It was a further development of the problem of national Zionism.

    The conservatives saw Israel as a country becoming a kind of Middle Eastern Switzerland or Denmark, settling down to an orderly, normal, prosperous existence, at peace with all the world, a source of material pride to world Jewry, and the symbolic expression of its national liberation. This was the view not only of the Liberal Party, which was formed shortly before the election last August by a merger of the General Zionist and Progressive parties, but also of many leading personalities in all parties, from the extreme right to the fairly extreme left, including that of the world Zionist leader. Dr. Nahum Goldmann.

    Against them stood, no more clearly articulate than the conservatives, the supporters of what, for want of a better word I would call a "radical" policy. Among them were the supporters of Ben-Gurion, but also many of his opponents; they also ranged across the entire party spectrum. Their principal shortcoming was that they were more conscious of the problems they still had to face than of the solutions with which they might overcome them. And where the conservatives were inclined to minimize the diffficulties that lay ahead, the radicals were prone, rather, to overstress them -- possibly justifiably. For the radicals placed the greatest emphasis on the continued need to ensure the security and defense of the country, no matter what the cost. Ben-Gurion himself was the foremost advocate of this line, and Peres and Dayan were among his supporters. It was this that gave the defense establishment a unique position of primacy in the politics of the country, both at home and abroad, for without effective defense everything else was in jeopardy.

    Even so, the radicals are realizing, as they look toward 1965, that Israel will have to defend itself on an even wider front than that covered by the Defense Ministry. For it will have to protect its balance of payments no less effectively than the Negeb territory; and without drastic adjustments, much stricter planning, and more sacrifices, neither the Negeb nor the balance of payments will be adequately protected.

    The signs do not all point to a conservative solution for Israel. Not only the uncertainties of the Russian Jewish future remain, but also those of Israel's position in the Middle East. The trend of Arab affairs was, in 1961, even more unpredictable than that of Israel. Internal progress in the Arab world was erratic, and its international orientation unsettled. But Soviet influence was growing in every direction, reinforced in some places by Chinese activity.

    And as the Russian sphere of influence began to extend toward the Persian Gulf, the Horn of Africa, into Southern Arabia as well as into Egypt and Iraq (and to threaten Iran), it became ever more clear that the road to a final settlement between Jerusalem and Cairo would have to pass through Moscow; and that was something that Israel, conservative or radical, could not control.

    As Israel turned to meet the challenge of 1965 one certainty stood out: Israel was destined, it seemed to become an outpost of democracy in the Middle East, an island in a totalitarian expanse, and perhaps its hope and example. Clearly, the age of quiet normalcy has not yet dawned for Israel. A decade of challenge still lies ranged against it.

    But the outcome of the election last August left Israel in a somewhat ambivalent condition to meet this challenge. The answer which the electorate gave was not as clear as it might have been, because the issues which had been raised had not been clear-cut. The election left Ben-Gurion still the unchallenged leader of the nation, but it marked also the first perceptible shift into the transition toward the post-Ben-Gurion era. The elections emphasized again the negative character of the political structure of the country and the obstacles this places in the way of forming a strong government.

    The result showed a swing of 4 per cent away from the ruling Mapai Party. In a total vote of just over a million valid ballots cast (81 per cent of the electorate), Mapai polled 350,000, against 370,000 in 1959, and won forty-two seats, against forty-seven last time. The new Liberal Party did less well than it had hoped and won only three more (for a total of seventeen) seats than its separate components at the last election. The left socialist parties gained one seat and the Communists two. These seats were mainly in the Arab areas.

    Basically this changed nothing, with the possible exception of increasing still further the power of the pressure groups. But it did produce a dawning realization -- no more than that as yet -- that Israel was entering a new age and that the men and methods of the fifties would need to be radically changed to meet the conditions of the sixties. No one held this view more strongly than David Ben-Gurion, but he had not yet converted the country to its full implications.


    Copyright © 1961 by Jon Kimche. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; November 1961; "Israel in 1956"; Volume 208, No. 5; pages 60-65.

    m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture