Every time I hear Benjamin Netanyahu promise, or rather threaten, to form an “entirely right-wing” government, I remember Menachem Begin, who abhorred the term “right-wing.” He never used it to define himself or his party throughout its incarnations from the Herut movement to Gahal to Likud.
For Begin this wasn’t a semantic matter; he refused to call himself “right-wing” not only because he didn’t believe he was bound by the etiquette of the French National Assembly in 1789, but because of two deeper reasons, embodied in the term he chose as an alternative: national-liberal.
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Begin, Likud’s first leader, justly believed that the ideas of Greater Israel (the homeland’s integrity, as he called it) and a profound Jewish national consciousness don’t necessarily have anything to do with a rightist ideology. “Right-wing” is a term with no Jewish, Zionist or Israeli association or context.
But the second reason was no less important to him. Begin and his movement were no less liberal than nationalist. He use to say: What does a term meant historically to describe the parties of the rich have to do with us? We’re a party of the common people of Israel, of the simple Jew.
“In the beginning God created the individual,” he would quote Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Individual freedom and human liberty were sacrosanct to him. I’m sure he’d thank Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro for their support for Israel, but he wouldn’t see himself in any way as their ideological partner.
Rivers of ink have been spilled on the disruption of the balance between “Jewish” and “democratic” in Israel’s character. It’s time to discuss the proportion between the national and the liberal in the ruling camp.
Here it’s not merely about disrupting the balance but about wiping out the liberal component and radicalizing the national component. A few days ago a reporter from the nationalist ultra-Orthodox weekly B’Sheva accused me – a former chairman of the settlers’ Yesha Council – of putting “small politics ahead of big ideology.” That’s not true. Once I believed that shared belief in the idea of the country’s integrity was enough to offset disagreements and enable Bezalel Smotrich and myself to belong to the same camp. No longer.
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Maybe it’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s success in pushing aside the danger of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. He deserves credit for that. But to create the Israel I want to see at this time, with the current priorities, extreme conservatism is an obstacle, not a partner. Netanyahu’s dream government, entirely right-wing, would be bad for Israel not only because of the man who would lead it, a gifted man currently doing more harm than good. Such a government must not be formed also because of the ideology that would guide it.
Today Israel needs a liberal government that will introduce civil marriage, including same-sex marriage. It needs a government that will respect Judaism’s liberal factions and allow egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, one that will reach out to our brothers and sisters overseas and understand that the evangelicals are no substitute for Diaspora Jews.
Thirty-two years ago my wife and I left our comfortable life in Tel Aviv and settled in Samaria for ideological reasons. For this reason Samaria, God willing, will always be our home. I led the Yesha Council for six years, during which the Jewish population there increased by a double-digit percentage, and I’m proud of it. A visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron moves me to tears.
In other diplomatic circumstances my priorities would be different. Today the ability of every couple to marry officially in Israel is more important to me than the evacuation of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. That’s how I am: Jewish, Zionist, national, liberal.