Can Ben Gurion Reshape Israeli Politics?
A Victory for the “New Image” Mapai
The Israeli election last month was a spectacular personal triumph for Premier David Ben Gurion, as well for his party, Mapai (the Israel Workers’ party). Not only will the party’s gain—from 32 to 38 per cent of the vote—more than recoup the losses sustained in the 1955 election; it will enable Ben Gurion to establish a new coalition government in which he will have a freer hand. The victory also strengthens Ben Gurion’s hold on his own party, which is just as essential to him if he is to achieve his stated objectives. These include reform of the Israeli electoral system, in order to remove some of the uglier features of Israeli political life (and to insure Mapai’s hegemony for years to come); the further transformation of Mapai itself from an old-style Social Democratic party to a modern, national “state party”; and the transfer of leadership to a successor of his own choosing—General Moshe Dayan.
The election campaign provided an instructive demonstration of the “new image” Ben Gurion has fashioned for Mapai. A leading role was played by the “younger generation” personalities whom he brought into the party leadership from the army and from government service, over the heads of the veteran Socialist-Zionist trade union politicians. General Dayan, basking in the prestige of his Sinai victory, exuded the promise of a new, non-partisan, pragmatic approach to Israel’s problems. His handshaking, backslapping, “let’s sit down and talk it over” visits evoked considerable response in immigrant centers, particularly those whose inhabitants were mostly of Oriental origin. Shimon Peres, who resigned as director general of the Defense Ministry to organize Mapai’s election campaign, successfully mobilized support for various party projects among non-party dignitaries, including several leading rabbis. Abba Eban, former Ambassador to the United States and delegate to the United Nations, lent Mapai the prestige of the diplomatic corps, which like the army is esteemed by many Israelis as a symbol of sovereignty and statehood.
Mapai played down socialist ideology and appeals to working class solidarity in its campaign among the general public, though not in its propaganda directed through trade union or industrial channels. The general image Ben Gurion’s party presented did not differ markedly, mutatis mutandis, from the Kemalist type of party in Turkey or the Gaullist one in France. Israel’s ruling party was presented as the moving spirit of the nation, embodied in the armed forces, the diplomatic corps, the state machinery, economic administration and development, and even the synagogue—a rather Olympian, “above-party” kind of party. Mapai’s rivals, on the other hand, were depicted as narrow coteries of demagogic politicians who were disrupting Mapai’s constructive effort purely out of lust for power, selfish concern for sectarian interests, or fanatical adherence to foreign ideologies.
Mapai’s success, combined with the setback suffered by the parties of the extreme left (Whose share of the vote fell from 20 to 16 per cent), constituted a demonstration of public approval for both the Sinai campaign and Ben Gurion’s generally Western-oriented policies, which have enabled Israel to acquire modern armaments and economic aid alike. The left’s opposition to the sales of Israeli arms to Western Germany, which led to the breakup of the government coalition this past summer, obviously failed to evoke popular sympathy.
The composition of the new Knesset is, then, more a guarantee that Ben Gurion will be able to carry out his present policies (with less elbow-jogging from the left) than the harbinger of any basic change of direction. The general Western orientation, the search for ties with Afro-Asian powers, and the policy of “dynamic defense” toward the Arab states will continue, while Israel’s day-to-day policies will remain reactions to outside stimuli—as they have always been.
The elections marked a turning point in a long struggle on the part of Ben Gurion to consolidate his ascendancy within Mapai and to break the power of the smaller parties to Mapai’s left. During the third Knesset (1955-59) Ben Gurion was engaged in a continuous effort to insure the support of his own party for his defense and foreign policies, and to fight off economic demands by the left and sections of Mapai which threatened to undermine the Israeli economy.
Like other Social Democratic governments elsewhere, Mapai’s leaders have spent much of their time resisting pressures from their more doctrinaire rank and file, which were exploited within the government coalition by Mapam and Ahdut Avoda, the two “left-wing Socialist” parties. Feeling little real responsibility for the government of the country, these two parties became increasingly doctrinaire and ultramontane, basing their program on concepts of “class struggle” that were anachronistic in a country in which three-quarters of the national income is generated in the public sector, and the remainder is rigidly controlled by the state. They demanded active measures against local capitalists and foreign investors, at a time when Mapai was desperately wooing foreign capital in order to compensate for the anticipated dwindling of domestic investment funds, and was encouraging greater activity in the private sector in order to expand employment and income. They pressed incessantly for rapid wage increases, regardless of productivity, in both public and private sectors—even though in the past few years Israel’s per capita incomes rose at one of the highest rates in the world, and even though the left-wing parties’ own economists recognized that such wage in—creases would inevitably lead to inflation, further deterioration in the balance of payments, and the consumption of resources which should be directed toward investments, exports, and debt-servicing. Nevertheless, Mapam and Ahdut Avoda courted popularity by opposing all measures to stabilize wages, improve labor discipline, increase productivity, and streamline the labor force. A typical election pledge was their promise of a “compulsory employment bill,” obliging the government to provide regular work at full pay for unemployed and casual laborers; these constitute nearly 10 per cent of the wage-and salary-earning population, and many of them are unskilled new immigrants or hard-core cases.
The foreign policy of the two leftist parties can brat be described as “positive neutralism,” similar to Nasser’s before his clash with Kassem. They denounced all ties with the West, including the receipt of financial and military aid, though they have always been ready to accept the proceeds of U.S. aid for the kibbutzim and industrial enterprises they own. They continued to claim that by “joining the peace-loving nations” Israel could nullify Soviet hostility. Mapam has also been claiming of late that it could achieve an understanding with Nasser were it not for Ben Gurion’s “criminal adventurism.” Ahdut Avoda has endeavored to be all things to all men—appearing in some circles as “activists” (proponents of a strong line toward the Arabs), and in other quarters as partisans of peace negotiations with the “Arab Liberation movement.”
The local Communist party has always confined itself to the standard Communist propaganda fare, regardless of its relevance to Israel, and to providing a legal front for Arab nationalist activities. Its Arab following was shaken by the disruption of the alliance between Nasser and the Communists throughout the Arab world, and this probably explains the decline in the Israeli Communist vote from almost 5 per cent of the total to less than 3. (Most of the votes lost by the Communist party in the Arab villages apparently went to Mapam.) The real importance of the Israeli Communist party, however, has always been less in its mass appeal than in the pressure it exerts on the other leftist movements for greater militancy.
Whenever Ben Gurion could insure the unreserved support of his own party, he was able to defeat the leftists. But there were other difficulties within Mapai ranks, besides the trade union wing’s sympathy with all wage demands, and the susceptibility of some of the more doctrinaire socialists to an infantile leftism in foreign affairs and economics alike. For some years, Ben Gurion’s leadership had been contested by a group headed by Moshe Sharett, and during the 1950’s this power struggle was expressed mainly over issues of foreign and defense policy.
By 1953, and particularly after the Kibya raid,1 Ben Gurion seemed to be losing this struggle, and at the end of that year he found it politic to retire to Sde Boker. There he retained effective control of the armed forces and certain other services, while he prepared his comeback. By mid-1956, he was able to oust Sharett from the Foreign Ministry, effective deputy-leadership of the party and government, and all positions of real power. Planning for the Sinai campaign followed swiftly on Sharett’s ouster, but even that victory solved neither of Ben Gurion’s two major problems: his lack of a stable Knesset majority, and the tenuousness of his hold on his own party.
Shortly after Sinai, it was rumored that Ben Gurion had designated General Dayan as his “crown prince” and that the latter would soon retire from the armed forces to head Mapai’s next election campaign. The choice was significant. Dayan would bring to bear the full prestige of the armed forces and the Sinai victory, as a counterweight to the verbal “activism” displayed by Menachem Begin, the Herut leader, and by Ahdut Avoda’s Independence War commanders who had turned politicians like Yigal Alon. Dayan also appeared to be most capable of putting down opposition inside Mapai itself, where Ben Gurion feared that the party-machine men would not only fail to fire the imagination of new generations of voters, but would gravitate back to Sharett and his “safe” foreign policy approach—which Ben Gurion considered catastrophic. The “laying of hands” on Dayan and the obvious grooming of Peres for a leading post in the party and government aroused considerable opposition in Mapai’s top and middle echelons, which Ben Gurion, however, was able to overcome before the election—and the results vindicated his position.
In addition to these tactical considerations, Ben Gurion’s attempt to fashion a “new image” national state-party stemmed from deeper roots. For one thing, it was increasingly obvious that the old-time Socialist working class propaganda was producing diminishing returns. Manual workers in industry, agriculture, transport, and construction now account for only a minority of gainfully employed Israelis. The majority consist of clerical, professional, and service workers; independent craftsmen, shopkeepers, and other self-employed persons; and cooperative members of one kind or another. In addition, a large sub-proletariat regarded the trade union not as their own “workers’” organization but as merely another form of authority, emanating from the same “they” who rule lesser folk in other ways. The image of the worker, which once had such powerful appeal for Israelis in all walks of life, has thus lost much of its emotive power.
At the same time, there has been progressive disenchantment with the proportional representation system, which has not only prevented Mapai from obtaining the parliamentary majority it would surely obtain under a constituency system, but also has a built-in tendency to encourage splinter parties and extremism. Whereas in the British-style cabinet system, based on two major parties, cabinet members generally belong to the same party and the powers of the Prime Minister are reinforced by party discipline, in Israel cabinet members owe their primary loyalty to their party, rather than to the government or its head. Since the parties have many other interests (in the Jewish Agency, Histadrut agricultural settlements, party-owned economic enterprises, etc.), and since they are constantly sparring for one election or another, the cabinet becomes a battleground for conflicting loyalties, and the major decisions are taken elsewhere.
Only two of the ten parties in the Knesset—Herut and the Communists—have not participated in a coalition government at one time or another since the first Knesset was elected in 1949. Mapai has retained the effective power of decision, thanks to its size, centrist position, and statecraft. The other seven parties have had little power and still less responsibility, and have tended to remain “opposition-minded” whether in or out of office. Of late, the small Progressive party, which seems to be close to accepting “client status” to Mapai, has been an exception to this rule. On the other hand, Mapam and Ahdut Avoda have consistently endeavored to combine the prerogatives of office with the privileges of a “workers’ opposition.”
Now, the two-party system forces parties to seek the support of a majority of the voters. But the minority parties under the Israeli system, each of Which may command anywhere between 2 and 13 per cent of the vote, are more immediately concerned with possible gains or losses of a few points percentage-wise. Such gains or losses could take them into or out of coalitions, win or lose them an extra ministry or assistant minister-ship, civil service appointments, and various appropriations. A party seeks extra votes under such a system among supporters of those parties which are the closest to it ideologically, and these become its main rivals at election time. In theory every party appeals to the whole electorate; in practice, the main battle is between like parries, a competition in extremism between the parties within each of the three broad groupings: left, right, and clerical.
The four parties of the left, for example—the Communists, Mapam, Ahdut Avoda, and Mapai—are composed of various groups and factions which tend to overlap. Mapam’s leaders are wary of being reproached by the Communists for “opportunism” or “bourgeois nationalism.” Ahdut Avoda is equally sensitive to accusations of insufficient “militancy” compared with Mapam and the Communists, particularly where living standards and foreign policy are concerned. Mapai leaders in their turn feel Ahdut Avoda breathing down their necks, and will privately admit that they often feel forced to adopt economic policies which they know to be wrong “in theory” (as they put it) in order to avoid being “outflanked on the left” by Ahdut Avoda. Similarly the anti-socialist General Zionist party regards Herut as the party most likely to steal its votes, and the Progressives, with whom the General Zionists have many ideas in common but who are closer to Mapai, as the main reservoir from which they might win votes by greater anti-socialist militancy.
Herut, with 13 per cent of the vote, is the second largest party in the Knesset. Heir to the Revisionist movement and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, it has become the main party of protest for the non-left, particularly for sections of the Oriental proletariat and lower middle classes who suffer from a sense of social and cultural frustration. Its foreign policy has oscillated between demands for the reconquest of the whole of Palestine and claims that it would be better able to make peace with the Arabs than Mapai. But its “activism” has lost a good deal of appeal since the Sinai campaign and Dayan’s candidacy. Herut’s economic program has been eclectic, to say the least. It has denounced socialism while calling for the nationalization of the Histadrut economic empire and while building up a similar economic domain of its own (on a much smaller scale, of course). It has trenchantly criticized mismanagement, misinvestment, the waste of resources and over-bureaucratization—while promising work and higher living standards all around and opposing the occasional measures put forward to remedy the evils it has criticized.
While many Israelis would like to see Herut’s capable cadres return to the mainstream of Israeli political life, few take seriously its claim to offer an alternative government. The deep gulf which divides it from Mapai as well as the extreme left seems unlikely to be bridged during the lifetimes of the protagonists, and this, no less than the violence of its tone, explains Herut’s inability to gain more than a twelfth of the vote after a dozen years of campaigning on an uninhibitedly opposition platform. Its existence has, however, prevented the emergence of a consolidated conservative party.
It is misleading to use the term “rightist” for the General Zionists. Unlike parties of the European right, the General Zionists completely lack a ruling class background, the national mystique, the tradition of authority, or a sense for power. They have none of the association with the armed forces, diplomatic service, police, universities, civil service, or organized religion which characterize the old right in the countries where it still exists; in Israel, these are associated with Mapai.
Unlike Mapai, Ahdut Avoda, or Herut, the General Zionists have neither generals nor former chiefs of the underground movement among their leaders. Nor does the group which comes closest to being a big bourgeoisie in Israel take the General Zionists seriously. Their main social base has always been in the lower middle class: the Farmers’ Federation particularly (the non-Histadrut working farmers who form the backbone of the citrus industry), together with sections of small and medium business, the professions and semi-professions. For the support of these groups, they compete with Herut, the Progressives, the clerical parties, and Mapai itself. In the first years of the state, the general public resentment at Mapai’s unworkable “austerity” policies enabled the General Zionists to win nearly 20 per cent of the vote, but they never succeeded in revising their platform to meet subsequent developments. Consequently, they have been on the decline ever since, dropping to 6 per cent at this election.
The General Zionists’ slogan of “free enterprise” has proved unattractive to Israelis for a number of reasons. In the first place, they are not the defenders of a status quo as are conservatives in Britain or the United States; they are, rather, an opposition movement which is attacking the established system of state-trade-union socialism in the name of what seems to many Israelis a “foreign” concept. Secondly, whatever might have happened in Israel had a free enterprise party won leadership in the formative years and developed a basically capitalist society, in the present state the majority of the voters are integrated into the state economic system in one way or another, employed by or affiliated with the public sector. Nor, indeed, is the residual private sector particularly attracted to the struggle for freer enterprise. The private sector lives largely as a dependency of the state sector, from which it seeks aid to overcome problems caused by the narrowness of the home market, high labor costs, the country’s difficult balance-of-payments position and general poverty—all of which affect both sectors equally. The main demands of the General Zionists’ potential supporters, therefore, are not greater freedom of enterprise, but a greater share in state import licenses and currency allocations, tariff protection, loans, subsidies, contracts, and monopolies. And of late Mapai, for a number of political and economic reasons, has been trying to nurture the private sector; that has helped leave the General Zionists high and dry.
The clerical parties, which together account for less than a sixth of the total vote, are doomed to remain a permanent minority in Israel. Their support comes from two main sources: diehard militant Orthodoxy, and the complex of patronage and economic interests they have succeeded in building up. Though a comparison of synagogue membership and voting figures reveals that the majority of observant Jews in Israel vote for the secular parties, the clericals are driven to greater intransigence by two factors: their own inter-party competition, and the need to defend their economic interests.
The National Religious party (formerly two rival Mizrahi parties), the largest and more mundane of the clerical groups, looks anxiously over its shoulder at the two Agudist parties (which alternately cooperate, and feud bitterly among themselves). These paragons of Orthodoxy, in turn, keep an anxious eye on the zealot Neturei Karta group, which favors “direct action” as against parliamentary politics and which denounces the Agudists as too conciliatory.
The general instability of government coalitions is particularly intensified by the clerical parties, which are perpetually on the verge of resigning. One of the points stressed by proponents of electoral reform is that a straight constituency, majority-vote system would practically eliminate parties of this kind, which wed fanaticism to patronage. Such a reform would also end the broader situation in which the logic of party competition pulls all the parties away from the center toward extremism.
The roots of the proportional representation system in Israel, however, lie not so much in abstract political theory as in social and economic arrangements. The public sector now accounts for over three-quarters of the national income—including the lions’ share of agriculture, construction, real estate, finance, public utilities and mining, and many branches of manufacturing, transportation, and even wholesale and retail trade. Though nominally the public sector is divided up into government-owned, Histadrut-owned, Jewish Agency, and other segments, in fact it is controlled by the same political parties, which contest government, Histadrut, and Zionist elections alike. The parties of the left and the Progressives participate in all three segments. The National Religious party and General Zionists have somewhat less of a footing in the Histadrut. The Communists, Herut, and the Agudist parties are confined mainly to government elections, though Herut has a certain interest in the National Institutions (Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, etc.) from which it receives funds and land grants, while the Communists intermittently enjoy certain rights in the Histadrut. In the case of the Histadrut and National Institutions, all the parties participate in a kind of coalition, with portfolios, funds, and patronage divided up according to the parties’ relative strength—the “party key,” it is called.
The parties exercise control over ministries, institutions, and enterprises not merely by appointing ministers, directors, trustees, and so on, but by the placement of party cadres in key posts and at many levels—this having been the system used in the Histadrut and Jewish Agency before the state was founded. The cadres are moved from one field to another: they may function alternately as government officials, Histadrut economic managers, politicians, trade union organizers, Zionist emissaries, bankers, and so forth. Their primary loyalty belongs to their party, rather than the institution in which they happen to be serving at any particular time.
The cadres coordinate the activities they carry on in the various areas through party committees. For example, the Mapai cadres who meet to discuss joint policy on agricultural settlement may be working variously in the Jewish Agency settlement department (which allocates settlement funds), the Jewish National Fund (which allocates land), the National Water Board, the Jewish Agency Immigrant Absorption Department, the Ministries of Agriculture, Finance, and Labor, the nationally owned Agricultural Bank, the Agricultural Workers’ Union, Tnuva (the Histadrut-owned agricultural produce Wholesaler), Hamashbir Hamerkazi (the Histadrut-owned wholesale supplier), or in Mapai’s own agricultural settlement organizations which, naturally, compete with those of the other parties for limited supplies of land, water, funds and new immigrants.2 Similar cadres operate throughout industry, housing, agriculture, finance, labor allocation, and inter-sector economic dealings.
This system has created a vast complex of patronage, whose scope and ramifications would be inconceivable in a private-enterprise society, where the proportion of national income controlled by political parties is limited. Since in Israel the public sector is the main field of employment, the political party has become the main avenue for social and economic mobility. Though the party activist—or askan, as he is known in Israel—appears nowhere in employment statistics, Israeli political sociologists have estimated that his is the largest and most rewarding of professions, and may account for 6 to 8 per cent of the labor force.
To large sections of Israeli society, this system, a form of “meritocracy,” actually seems preferable to capitalism. But its effects on political and economic life have been disconcerting. The control of enterprises and institutions has become both a prize in the political struggle and a political weapon or strong point, an indispensable source of patronage and funds. Only a fraction of a party’s funds come from membership dues; the bulk are siphoned off from economic enterprises, various Jewish Agency allocations, and occasional “voluntary” contributions by the staff of Institutions. Moreover, the number of party officials who are paid directly out of party funds is small; the majority of them draw their salaries from party-controlled enterprises or institutions.
Since a party’s strength increases with the patronage and funds at its disposal, each party is of course not only tempted to extend its power within existing institutions, but also tries to maximize employment in those it already controls and to create as many new ones as it can, irrespective of economic considerations. This means the creation largely of new office jobs, which require far less capital than more productive enterprises, and which are also in greater demand among the more educated citizens. The ratio of Israelis in white collar, intellectual, and service industries is already abnormally high, as compared to industrial, agricultural, and other “basic” occupations. What is more, though this concentration has historically been deplored in Labor Zionist ideology, there has been little or no improvement during the past eight years. The “iron law of party competition” is largely responsible.
In the first years of the state, the public sector expanded rapidly, thanks to the influx of immigrants, the inflow of funds from abroad, taking over of Mandatory institutions and property and of abandoned Arab property, the establishment of new social services, and the socialization of fields which formerly were in private hands exclusively. In the past few years, however, the growth of the public sector has been slowing down. Immigration has fallen off (annual net immigration is now less than 1.5 per cent of the population, which is less than natural increase); most of the proceeds of foreign aid and loans are needed to cover current consumption; and the residual private sector leaves considerable less scope for further Gleichschaltung.
The minor parties of the left, however, continue to manifest the expansionist tendencies which seem to be innate in most social institutions. Furthermore, the General Zionists, Herut, and the clericals have come to model themselves increasingly on the “public sector parties.” In short, all the parties—right, left, and religious—have been eying the lion’s share of the public sector held by Mapai ever more hungrily. This has given Israeli politics a rather peculiar cast. For example, though Mapam has disagreed violently with many government decisions on ideological grounds, it has only threatened to leave the coalition over “jurisdictional disputes,” in one case over which minister should control the port of Eilat, and in another over a certain chemical combine.
These party socio-economic interests—added to ideological differences, cold war pressures, long-standing personal feuds (in which Israeli political history is surprisingly rich), and the extremism generated by proportional representation—have increased the bitterness and instability of Israeli politics. They have also made the system more difficult to change.
In 1955, in the increasingly critical period initiated by the Soviet arms deal with Egypt, Mapai was at its weakest, having lost ground in the elections held earlier in the year to the parties of the extreme left. Along with differences inside Mapai’s leadership, this made it increasingly difficult for Ben Gurion to retain full control of foreign and defense policies as he had been doing in the past—by judicious combinations of appeals to patriotism, economic and religious concessions, and patronage. Ben Gurion attempted first to weld the three Labor Zionist parties into one, hoping thus to curb extremism; but this effort failed. It was then that he raised electoral reform as an issue.
His first effort to pass it through the Knesset was overwhelmingly defeated, as might have been expected. A change-over to constituency elections would, in view of the threefold split in the opposition, have given Mapai an overwhelming majority. Under such a system, Mapam and Ahdut Avoda could hardly hope for more than two seats out of 120; many of their supporters would probably rejoin Mapai, While others would make common cause with the Communists. The clericals could hardly hope for more, and the right-wing parties, even if they made common cause with some religious groups, could not do much better, the distribution of Israeli opinion being what it is. An all-powerful Mapai could then legislate far more boldly for the Jewish Agency and Histadrut, as well as wield its power in the Ministry of Finance with fewer inhibitions. This would not only reduce the other parties’ political influence, but would seriously curtail their vested economic interests. And this in turn would deprive them of funds, without which they could not maintain their heavily subsidized headquarters, newspapers, and periodicals (no party periodical in Israel is self-supporting).
But Ben Gurion has set his mind on electoral reform, and his victory at the polls last month will now enable him to concentrate on this objective with his characteristic combination of single-mindedness and tactical virtuosity. His campaign for electoral reform is winning more and more sympathy from public opinion; and it gains even greater urgency from disturbing economic trends, some of which are indirectly traceable to the social consequences of the party system.
One cause of Mapai’s election gains was the rapid improvement in living standards which has taken place since the 1955 election. Average per capita consumption rose by over one-sixth during this period, and the greater part of the increase took place in 1958 and 1959. Employed wage-earners gained most, thanks to the wage concessions wrung by the left, but most sections of the population prospered to some degree because of the higher level of imports and production. This prosperity has not, however, stemmed from increased productivity—it has been financed by outside aid and borrowing of one kind or another. Barely a fifth of Israel’s foreign-currency needs are being met out of exports; the rest are financed by a balance-of-payments deficit which is now running at over $330 million a year—equal to more than a quarter of the gross national. product. In addition to the record flow of unrequited aid from abroad (German reparations, German restitutions to Israeli residents, Jewish aid, and U.S. government aid), the Israeli government has had to borrow substantial other sums abroad in order to maintain current production, employment, and income at their present high levels.
The exigencies of Israeli politics have not been conducive to economic efficiency. There is a notable gap between the country’s aspirations to Western standards of living and its low levels of productivity, mal-distribution of labor and resources, misinvestment, high level of social services, and excessive bureaucracy—not to mention unavoidably high defense expenditures, the paucity of natural resources, and the difficulties occasioned by geography and the Arab boycott. This gap has been bridged by the lavish use of subsidies, open or disguised, which are financed by running a heavy import surplus.
Within the next few years German reparations will have been exhausted and German restitution payments will have tailed off, while Israeli foreign debts will be falling due for repayment, or refunding, in increasing amounts. Official Israeli sources estimate that by the mid-1960’s the Treasury will have to find an additional $250 million a year to make good the decline from these sources and provide for normal population growth and a slight annual increase in living standards. (This assumes that Jewish contributions and loans and U.S. government aid remain at their present high levels, and that no large-scale immigration occurs.) If Israel fails to obtain additional funds on this scale, a serious economic crisis is likely to ensue.
For Israel to earn a sum of comparable size by exports, it would have to more than triple its present exports, and this would require radical economic reforms. Price levels would have to be slashed ruthlessly, labor costs reduced (by more than half, according to reliable calculations), inflated payrolls sweated down, government expenditures and taxation reduced. Mapai’s economic chiefs have been dwelling on this need for some time—there were aggressive speeches about it early in 1959 by Dayan; the Bank of Israel governor, David Horowitz; and the Minister of Trade and Industry, Pinhas Sapir—but the political obstacles are formidable. During the election campaign, therefore, economic criticism of this kind was avoided, and the Mapai keynote was, “You’ve never had it so good.”
The workers have been led to believe that to be a worker in the land of Israel is a mitzvah in itself, which calls for due reward irrespective of productivity, and that the “worker is always right” in labor disputes, whether with private owners or public-sector managers. It is virtually impossible to dismiss a worker or minor official for reasons of either inefficiency or redundancy, and there are automatic pay increases for seniority and family increase, as well as cost-of-living allowances.
The problem is further complicated by what is generally known as “the Oriental question.” More than a third of Israel’s inhabitants have come from the Moslem countries; because their birth rate is high, they will soon become the majority of the population unless there is massive immigration from Russia or the West, which is not expected. The Oriental immigration contains a multitude of unskilled patres familias who have large families and little capacity or inclination for hard work even where it is available. Many have acquired the conviction that the state bears entire responsibility for the welfare of their families. There is also, official figures show, an unduly high proportion of old people, social cases, lumpen proletarians and juvenile delinquents.
The lower social, economic, and educational status of the Oriental immigrants has imbued many of them with a sense of grievance, which is being politically exploited. Shortly before the elections, several hundred slum-dwellers of North African origin rioted in Haifa, under the leadership of a compatriot with political ambitions. They overturned cars, stoned police, and smashed shop windows in the “upper town” in a manner which recalled the Arab nationalist riots in their native Casablanca five or six years ago. Though communal-party lists purporting to represent North Africans, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Sephardim polled badly in last month’s election (the organizer of the Haifa riots won less than one per cent of the vote), the competition among the major political parties for the vote of the Oriental voter qua Oriental was quite discernible.
All the parties in the campaign assured the Oriental that not enough had been done for him, that he was discriminated against, and that, if elected, they would insure him his just deserts. (This, of course, confirmed many Orientals in their sense of grievance.) The parties included members of the Oriental communities on their tickets, in far higher places than they could conceivably have gained on personal merit. Mapai promised, among other things, to house “fifty thousand problem families” of Oriental origin, whose breadwinners still lack regular work; to abolish unemployment among the unskilled Orientals clustered in the urban slums (whence they had drifted from the settlement areas): and to accelerate immigration from the Moslem countries.3 All these promises involve heavy expenditures, and are quite incompatible with the task of streamlining the economy and “working toward economic independence,” a slogan which all the parties enshrined in their election manifestoes.
The extent to which the “new image” Mapai can and will tackle these pressing economic and social problems remains to be seen. Israel is one of the few “new countries” created in the aftermath of either the First or Second World War which has managed to go a full decade without severely modifying its democratic institutions. The recent election marks a further step in the transformation of the ideas and institutions inherited from Eastern Europe and the British Mandate into something more suitable to the age and to the country’s Mediterranean environment. So far, this process of adaptation has taken place in a democratic fashion. Freedom of speech and press have been fully preserved, though the use of economic power for political purposes—control over jobs and housing included—has become a permanent feature of Israeli life. The extent to which Israel can succeed in adapting her free institutions to her changing social framework will depend to a considerable extent on the government’s success in tackling the country’s major economic problems, while it still has reserves and sources of foreign income to cushion reform. In any case, the “new image” Mapai seems better equipped than the old to deal with these problems.
1 A reprisal raid was undertaken against the Arab village of Kibya in Jordan on October 1953, in which women and children were killed when a building was dynamited. Ben Gurion was fiercely criticized for ordering the raid without consulting the Cabinet.
2 New immigrants are plentiful en gros, but since comparatively few of them are ready for agricultural settlement, and the turnover among those sent to agricultural settlements is high, settlements for new immigrants are chronically undermanned. This is a source of considerable concern to the parties.
3 Since self-supporting families from Moslem countries can already come in to Israel without difficulty, this promise, if it means anything, signifies that families will be brought in whose immigration has been held up because of minimal selectivity regulations—because they lack a breadwinner under forty or possessing some skills, because they have an undue proportion of old dependents or chronically ill members, etc., etc. This type of immigration has been a constant demand of the North African immigrants' spokesmen, backed by Herut and the National Religious party.