- This article is about the political party. For other uses, see Herut (disambiguation).
|Leader||Menachem Begin (1948–1983)
Yitzhak Shamir (1983–1988)
|Founded||15 June 1948|
|Most MKs||17 (1959-1965)|
|Fewest MKs||8 (1951-1955)|
|Politics of Israel
Herut was founded by Menachem Begin on 15 June 1948 as a successor to the Revisionist Irgun, a militant paramilitary group in Mandate Palestine. The new party was a challenge to Hatzohar party established by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Herut also established a newspaper by the same name, with many of its founding journalists defecting from Hatzohar's HaMashkif. Herut's political expectations were high as the first election approached. It took credit for driving the British out and as a young movement, reflecting the esprit of the nation, it thought its image was more attractive than the old establishment. By winning 25 seats, they expected to come in second, and become leader of the opposition, with potential for future gain of government power. This analysis was shared by other parties.
Objection to IDF withdrawal and negotiations with Arab states was the party's main platform in Israel's first elections. The party vigorously opposed the ceasefire agreements with the Arab states, both before and after the election. Herut differentiated itself by refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Jordan after the armistice, and frequently used the slogan "To the banks of the Jordan River" in claiming Israel's right to the whole of Eretz Israel/Palestine. According to Joseph Heller, Herut was a one-issue party intent on expanding Israel's borders.
In the socio-economic area, Herut's platform represented a clear shift to the right, with support for private initiative, but also for legislation preventing the trusts from exploiting workers. Begin initially was careful not to appear anti–socialist, stressing his opposition to monopolies and trusts, also demanding that “all public utility works and basic industries must be nationalized”. Herut was, right from the beginning, inclined to sympathise with the underdog and “tended to serve as a lodestone for society’s misfits”. Herut won 14 seats with 11,5% of the votes, making it the fourth largest party in the Knesset; Hatzohar, on the other hand, failed to cross the electoral threshold of 1% and disbanded shortly thereafter.
The party was renowned for its right-wing views and militia actions, and considered outside the mainstream. The practical differences between Herut and Mapai, however, were less dramatic than the rhetoric suggested; factors to consider include the establishment's interest in ostracizing its Herut rival, and Herut's need, as an opposition party, to emphasize those differences and reflect palpably their core voter's instincts.
Opposition to Herut
The party and its leader Menachem Begin had met fierce resistance from the Labor Zionist establishment in Israel and abroad. They were sharply criticised by Jewish intellectuals on the occasion of Begin's visit to New York City in an open letter to the New York Times on 4 December 1948. The letter condemned Herut as well akin to Nazi and Fascist parties as a Terrorist party and was signed by over two dozen prominent Jewish intellectuals including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Zellig Harris and Sidney Hook.
Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the "Freedom Party" (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine. (...) It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin's political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents. (...) Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state. It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character; from its past actions we can judge what it may be expected to do in the future.
The hostility between Begin and Israel's first Prime Minister and Mapai leader, David Ben-Gurion which had begun over the Altalena Affair was evident in the Knesset. Ben-Gurion coined the phrase "without Herut and Maki" (Maki was the Communist Party of Israel), a reference to his position that he would include any party in his coalition, except those two. Actually, Herut was approached at least three times (1952, 1955 and 1961) by Mapai for government negotiations, but Begin turned down the offers each time, suspecting that they were designed to divide his party. The ostracism also expressed itself in the Prime Minister's refusal to refer to Begin by name from the Knesset Podium, using instead the phrase "the person who sits next to MK Badar", and boycotting his Knesset speeches.
Ben-Gurion's policy of ostracizing Revisionism was performed systematically, as seen in the legal exclusion of fallen Irgun and Lehi fighters from public commemoration and from benefits to their families. Herut members were excluded from the highest bureaucratic and military positions.
In the municipal elections of 1950 Herut lost voters to the centrist General Zionists, who also attracted disillusioned voters from Mapai and established themselves as a tough opposition rival to Herut. At the second national convention, Begin was openly challenged by more radical elements who wanted a more dynamic leadership and thought he had adapted himself to the system. At the convention, Begin's proposal to send children abroad for security reasons, although there were precedent for such a measure, sounded defeatist and was unanimously rejected. It was considered to have hurt the party's image. In March 1951 Herut lost two of its seats, with the defection of Ari Jabotinsky and Hillel Kook from the party to sit as independent MKs. Referring to previous written commitments, the party sought to revoke their Knesset membership, but the issue was still not settled by the next election three months later.
Critics of the party leadership pointed out that the party had changed its face and lost its status as a radical avant-garde party. Uncopromising candidates had been removed from the party list in the upcoming elections, economic questions loomed large in the propaganda and Mapai had co-opted some of the Herut agenda, not least by declaring Jerusalem Israel's capital. Herut seemed irrelevant, these critics and outside commentators agreed.
In the 1951 elections Herut dropped to eight seats. Begin resigned (a move he had considered before the election, in face of the internal criticism). He was replaced by Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, whose leadership was nipped in the bud, as he suffered a heart attack in late 1951. Ya'akov Rubin became party chairman in his stead.
As a young party without institutions paralleling those of Mapai, who held a hegemony on most areas of social life, Herut was at a serious disadvantage. Its own leaders were politically inexperienced and clinging to the principle of not – as representatives of the entire nation – accepting financial support from any interest groups, they were prevented from building a strong and competent party structure.
The Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany of 1952 bought Begin back into politics. It gave the party new momentum and it proved an effective weapon against the General Zionists. The Reparations Agreement awoke strong sentiments in the nation and Begin encouraged civil disobedience during the debate on the affair. The largest demonstrations gathered 15,000 people, and Herut reached far beyond its own constituency. The party let the issue fade from the agenda only after having wrested a maximum of political capital from it.
The third national convention included a fierce debate about democracy and legitimate political actions. There was strong sentiment in favor of using the barricades, but Begin vigorously resisted it. The government of the nation, he claimed, could only be established via the ballot box. The convention gave Begin important legitimacy by giving a message to the public that the party was law–abiding and democratic. At the same time, it secured the support of the hardliners who would not compromise on its principles.
Economic and fiscal policy were given greater emphasis, and the party attacked the Histadrut for its double role as employer and trade union. Such concentration of power was to be outlawed; party control of agricultural settlements would also be abolished. Workers were empowered by private enterprise, Herut reasoned. A 25 per cent tax cut was also envisioned.
In the 1955 election the party nearly doubled its seats to 15 and became the second largest party in the Knesset after Mapai. Apart from an improved campaign, the accomplishment was attributed to the activist party platform in a situation of deteriorating security, to more support from recent immigrants and other disgruntled elements, and to the disillusionment with the economic situation. The Kastner trial also played into Herut’s hands, when, together with Maki, they helped bring down Moshe Sharett's government in 1954 through a motion of no-confidence over the government's position in the trial.
Herut added another seat in the 1959 elections, growing slowly, while feeding on feelings of resentment against the dominant left, mainly among new Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrants. The party failed however, to maintain the momentum of the previous election and to make substantial gains, as hoped. As the young nation grew stronger, the public did not feel the same existential dread, lessening the impact of Herut's activist message, especially after the Suez crisis, in which Ben-Gurion's performance was perceived favorably. The Wadi Salib riots a few months before the election made the government play the role of maintaining law and order, which resonated well among the middle class. Mapai exploited the constellation successfully by depicting Begin as dangerous.
Herut helped bring down the government again in 1961 when they and the General Zionists tabled a motion of no confidence over the government's investigation into the earlier Lavon Affair; in the resulting 1961 election, the party maintained its 17 seats. Toward the end of the Fifth Knesset in 1965, and in preparation for the upcoming election, Herut joined with the Liberal Party (itself a recent merger of the General Zionists and the Progressive Party) to form Gahal (a Hebrew acronym for the Herut-Liberal Bloc (Hebrew: גוש חרות-ליברלים, Gush Herut-Libralim)), although each party remained independent within the alliance. The merger helped moderate Herut’s political isolation and created a right wing opposition bloc with a broader base and more realistic chance to lead the government. The full alliance did not survive however, because seven members of the Liberal Party, mostly former Progressives, soon defected from the Liberals and formed the Independent Liberals; they disagreed with the merger, identifying Herut and Begin as too right-wing. Mapai also experienced defections at the time, and the Knesset session closed with Gahal holding 27 seats, second only to Mapai's remaining 34.
Over time the public perception of both Herut and its leader had changed, despite the ostracism imposed by Prime Minister Ben–Gurion. Begin had remained the main opposition figure, against the dominant politicians of the left, particularly in debates regarding such heated issues as the Lavon investigation and Israel's relationships to Germany. This prominence evaded much of the ostracism's impact, and Ben–Gurion’s hostility became ever more savage. He eventually started to liken Begin to Hitler – an attitude that backfired, making Begin to stand out as a victim. The political climate took a favourable turn for Revisionism and Herut in mid-1963, when Levi Eshkol replaced Ben–Gurion as Prime and Defense Minister. A government resolution in March 1964 calling for the reinternment of Zeev Jabotinsky’s remains in Israel attests to this. Fallen Irgun and Lehi militants also began to be commemorated more equally, with their reputations being rehabilitated.
In the 1965 elections, Gahal won only 26 seats, well below that of the left's new Alignment, which won 45. In Herut's search for a scapegoat, its leadership was questioned by many; they considered that Begin, despite his achievements, brought an indelible stigma from his militant days before and around independence, scaring off voters. Internal opposition arose and Herut's eighth convention in June 1966 became turbulent. The opposition group sensed that Begin’s leadership position was too strong to challenge, so they concentrated on winning control over the party organization. They won overwhelming victories in all votes for the composition of party institutions. Begin responded by putting his own political future at stake. He threatened to leave the party chair and maybe also his seat in Knesset. Begin's move mobilized delegates in emphatic support for him, but the party convention still ended with great internal tension, and without a party chairman; the chair would be vacant for eight months. Party opposition to Begin' leadership came to a showdown a month after the convention, when Haim Amsterdam, an assistant to one of the opposition leaders, Shmuel Tamir, published a devastating attack on Begin in Ha'aretz; this led to the suspension of Tamir’s party membership. The leaders of the opposition then established a new party in Knesset, the Free Center, with the loss of three seats for Herut. After this revolt, Begin returned to party leadership.
Gahal joined the government on the first day of the Six-Day War, with both Begin and the Liberal's Yosef Sapir becoming a Minister without Portfolio; Ben-Gurion's Rafi also joined, with Moshe Dayan becoming Defense Minister. The national unity government was Begin’s own brainchild. This had a significant positive effect on his image. Critics agree that it was a major turning point in Herut's road to power, since it granted it the legitimacy it had been denied up until then. The national unity government was more than an emergency solution in a time of existential danger; it reflected a relaxation of ideological tension, which enabled the government to outlive the emergency. Moreover, Begin and Ben-Gurion were reconciled. Ben-Gurion needed him in his bitter rivalry with Eshkol and Begin surprised his adversary by proposing to Eshkol that he should step aside in favor of Ben-Gurion as the leader of an emergency government. The proposition was turned down, but Ben–Gurion, who recently had compared Begin to Hitler now praised his responsibility and patriotism.
The outcome of the war strengthened Herut. The principle of the indivisibility of the land had seemed as an archaic principle with little practical significance, but now it emerged from the fringe of consciousness to the core of national thought. Begin saw it as his first mission in the government to secure the fruits of the victory by preventing territorial withdrawal and promoting settlement.
Despite the breakaway of the Free Center, Gahal retained its representation in the Knesset in the 1969 elections, and several of their candidates were elected as mayors. Herut was included in the new government of Golda Meir with six ministers (out of 24). The recruitment of Major–General Ezer Weizman, the first general to join Herut and a nephew of Israel’s first President, was a considerable public relations achievement. The Government participation did not last long, since Gahal left in early 1970 over the acceptance of the Rogers Plan, which included an approval of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, a move that was largely dictated by Begin.
In September 1973 Gahal merged with the Free Centre, the National List and the non-parliamentary Movement for Greater Israel to create Likud, again with all parties retaining their independence within the union. Within Likud, Herut continued to be the dominant party. In the 1973 elections, Likud capitalized on the Governments neglect in the Yom Kippur War and gained seven seats, totalling 39.
In the following years, Likud sharply criticized the Governments accords with Egypt and Syria. Stormy demonstrations where organized in conjunction with Gush Emunim, signifying an important political alliance. In the 1977 elections, Likud emerged victorious with 43 mandates, the first time the right had won an election. Begin became Prime Minister, retaining his post in the 1981 elections. In 1983 he stood down, and Yitzhak Shamir took over as Herut (and therefore Likud) party leader and Prime Minister.
The party was finally disbanded in 1988 when Likud dissolved its internal factions to become a unitary party.
Herut – The National Movement
In 1998 Benny Begin (son of Menachem Begin), Michael Kleiner and David Re'em broke away from Likud in protest at Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to the Wye River Memorandum and the Hebron Agreement, which had ceded land to the Palestinians. They named their new party Herut – The National Movement, and tried to claim it as the successor to the original party. However, in reality it was a new and separate party.
- Yechiam Weitz: "The Road to the 'Upheaval': A Capsule History of the Herut Movement, 1948-1977", in Israel Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 10, No. 3.
- Joseph Heller: The Birth of Israel, 1945-1949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics p. 277–79. University Press of Florida, 2000 ISBN 978-0-8130-1732-7
- Hannah Torok Yablonka: “The Commander of the ‘Yizkor’ Order; Herut, Holocaust and Survivors”, in Selwyn Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas: Israel: The First Decade of Independence p. 220. SUNY Press, 1995 ISBN 978-0-7914-2259-5
- Gideon Doron: "Right as Opposed to Wrong as Opposed to Left: The Spatial Location of 'Right Parties' on the Israeli Political Map" Israel Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 10 Issue 3.
- "New Palestine Party: Visit of Menachem Begin and Aim of Political Movement Discussed". The New York Times. 4 December 1948. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
- Colin Schindler: Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream p. 53. I.B.Tauris, 2002. ISBN 978-1-86064-774-1
- Jonathan Mendilow: Ideology, Party Change and Electoral Campaigns in Israel, 1965–2001 p. 36. SUNY Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7914-5587-6.
- Udi Lebel: "'Beyond the Pantheon’ Bereavement, Memory, and the Strategy of De-Legitimization Against Herut", in Israel Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 10, Issue 3.
- Tamar Herman: “New Challenges to New Authority: Israeli Grassroots Activism in the 1950s”, in Selwyn Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas: Israel: The First Decade of Independence. p. 109. SUNY Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-7914-2259-5.
- Colin Shindler: A History of Modern Israel p.132. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-521-85028-5.
- Factional and Government Make-Up of the Sixth Knesset Knesset website
- Jonathan Mendilow: Ideology, Party Change and Electoral Campaigns in Israel, 1965-2001 p. 67. SUNY Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7914-5587-6
- Party history Knesset website (English)