Three Decades of Power

Ever since the turnaround of 1977, the Likud has been the party of power in Israel. Of the 31 years that have since elapsed, the Likud was in power for 20. This fact is particularly important since it seems that there are still quite a few people in the Right who believe that Mapai is still in power. Since the turnaround, one can apparently say that the Likud always disappoints the extreme right, usually employs a liberal economic policy that harms its voters from the weaker strata, and is always seen in the eyes of its voters as the opponent of the elites.

The Likud was established in 1973 as the Right's answer to the Alignment of Labor and Mapam. It consisted the Herut party, the Liberal party and a number of splinter factions that united to form the La'am faction, which was Ehud Olmert's first faction. Particularly active in the Likud's formation was Ariel Sharon, who had around that time retired from the Israel Defense Forces. With the years, La'am and the Liberals united with Herut and were effectively swallowed by it.

The Likud reached the pinnacle of its power in 1981 - 48 seats. That was after Menachem Begin made his speech about chach-chachim (an uncomplimentary epithet for mizrahim - Jews of Middle Eastern descent) and in the wake of the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. The low point was during the last Knesset, when the Likud dropped to 12 seats. Decreasing support for the Likud was not the sole reason that the number of seats dropped by 75 percent. The move in 1996 to voting with two separate ballots (for the prime minister and for the party) encouraged support for small parties. Despite the return to the one-ballot system, the Israeli voter has still not gone back to voting for large parties.

Between war and peace

The Likud has had four prime ministers: Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Sharon. Begin's term of office was conducted between the peace with Egypt and the First Lebanon War.

It was characterized also by a liberalization of the economy, which was accompanied by an inflation of hundreds of percent. The period when Shamir was in power was characterized by a freeze on the diplomatic front, and it appears that he would have considered this remark a great compliment.

Begin and Shamir both belong to the period when it was hardly conceivable to think that a prime minister would be investigated for corruption.

Netanyahu's term of office was marked by continued implementation of the Oslo agreements, which met with great opposition from the Right. Sharon's government led an economic plan that rehabilitated the Israeli economy but greatly harmed society's weaker strata. Sharon also led the unilateral disengagement from Gaza that was supposed to bring quiet to the south of the country.

Netanyahu and Sharon belong to the period when investigations into corruption became an inseparable part of a prime minister's agenda.

In the Mapai and Alignment governments, there was a convention that two government portfolios should be reserved for ministers of Mizrahi origin. These were usually the ministries of mail and police. The turnaround, and later the establishment of the Shas party, led to the fact that since the beginning of the 1990s, some one-third to half of the ministers have been of mizrahi origin.

The power center

Throughout its history, the Likud has known waves when Knesset members have left the party, sometimes as a result of lack of space at the top of the list, sometimes as a result of the gap between right-wing ideology and the conciliatory reality.

In that way, following the Camp David Accords with Egypt, Geula Cohen and Moshe Shamir broke away from the Likud in 1979 and set up the Tehiya movement. A particularly impressive wave of departures was evident from the Likud prior to the 1999 elections, most of them against the background of Netanyahu's personality.

Cabinet ministers Yitzhak Mordechai and Dan Meridor left and set up the Center Party; another minister, Benny Begin, broke away to join the National Union party, while the former director general of the prime minister's bureau, Avigdor Lieberman, set up Yisrael Beiteinu.

Over the years, the Likud central committee evolved into the symbol of activists' control over the politicians, and also brought about a number of events that gave it a central role in political folklore.

One example was the "night of the microphones," when Sharon took control of a microphone and began calling "Who is in favor of eliminating terrorism?" or the "speech of the jobs" in 1997 when minister Limor Livnat asked members of the central committee whether they were looking for jobs and received a big "yes" in reply. The central committee also gave birth to a number of mythological characters in Israeli folklore, such as Gaston Malka and Uzi Cohen.