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A dividing line in Israeli history

By Avi Davis
web posted February 3, 2003

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is congratulated by Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after making his election victory address at his headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2003Last Tuesday's overwhelming victory by Ariel Sharon's Likud Party crossed several historical thresholds. It was the first time since 1981 that a prime minister who called for an early election actually won it. It is the first time in 20 years that a prime minister has been elected to a second consecutive term. It is the first time in 45 years that the victorious party doubled the representation of its nearest rival.

All of which might offer proof that the Israeli public appreciates that a battle for survival requires an experienced hand to guide the country's security interests. But the true meaning of the election results actually transcends politics. They are a powerful affirmation of Israel's Zionist heritage and a return to the very ideological roots of the country's founding.

For more than two decades Israeli society has been caught in a post ideological free fall, in which they very tenets of its Zionist heritage have come under assault. The post-Zionist culture, subscribed to by artists, academics, journalists and the political elite, has found expression in myriad social attitudes. During the 1990s the national school curriculum become the first battleground in this struggle and was almost immediately denuded of any Jewish content. In academia , historical revisionism among journalists and academics attributed Israel equal, if not greater blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict, leading many Israelis to dismiss their own triumphant past. In the judicial sphere an avowedly secular chief justice nudged the country toward the separation of religion and State. With the rush to sever the state from its own ideological and cultural roots, the word Zionism quickly became an anachronism, associated with a past to which young modern Israelis could barely relate.

Oddly enough, it was the Labor party, the bastion of pioneering Zionism, and the first home of the prototypical Zionist leader David Ben Gurion , that came to pilot this hurtling juggernaut. Although led by such men as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, who wore their Zionist credentials proudly, the party was intellectually powered by younger men for whom the earlier struggles of the State had little emotional resonance. Yossi Beilin, a secular academic, was the most prominent among them . The chief architect of the Oslo Accords repeatedly preached an Israeli future untethered to a tribal past. In this context, the Oslo peace process came to represent far more than an accommodation with the Palestinians. It also meant a wholesale redesign of Israeli society, a state to be guided not by either Zionist or Jewish ideals but by universalistic principles of peace and justice.

That Labor itself and ultimately Israelis themselves were not prepared to swallow this Robespierran utopianism was proven last November when Labor dumped Beilin. Relegated to a lowly position on the Knesset party list, he indignantly resigned his party membership and joined Meretz on the far left.

Ariel Sharon came to power two years ago with an understanding of the damage wrought by years of this ideological erosion. He realized that without fortifying Israeli morale - without, in fact, instilling in the general population a reason for Israel's existence and the justice of its cause - the struggle with the Palestinians could not be won. He therefore wisely chose Limor Livnat , a vocal advocate of educational reform as his minister of education. She has done much to restore Zionist and Jewish education in the school curriculum. He renewed the dormant campaign for Jewish immigration and has made an active commitment to restoring Zionist values of self -reliance and selflessness.

Sharon's great popular success forced the Labor Party to make changes in its platform. But it all came too late. A party so publicly associated with failure, so riven with internal fissures and confused about its own ideological orientation posed little obstacle to Sharon's crushing sweep at the polls. Humiliated by its political reverse, it may take years of redefinition for the party to find its way back into the political mainstream.

The Likud victory therefore represents a watershed in Israeli history. By refocusing his nation on its purposes, by drawing on the ideological resources of his people, Ariel Sharon has proven himself not only a skilful politician but a leader of both character and vision. It is an example future Israeli opposition leaders may well wish to emulate.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles.

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