The 1981 election campaign was a long one, extending nearly six months, and featured some new techniques adapted from the United States by the two main blocs’ consultants. Labor sought to focus the voters’ attention on the failures of the Begin government, especially the weak economy and triple-digit inflation. Security and foreign policy issues seemed to benefit the Likud, which trumpeted its peace efforts and the treaty with Egypt.
Likud’s campaign highlighted Begin’s abilities. Begin projected a charismatic appeal to large segments of the electorate and made skillful use of his incumbency. Likud stressed that it was not the party of war, as it had been portrayed by the Labor Alignment, but rather a party that brought Israel both peace and security. It also campaigned on a platform that hailed Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
Likud emphasized its policy of establishing settlements with the slogan “We are on the map” (anachnu al hamapa). In its first four years in office, the Likud government had established 155 new settlements, of which 55 were in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank); it argued that every one of them strengthened Israel’s security, and it pledged to continue its settlements in those areas.
The Labor Alignment, on the other hand, supported Shimon Peres’s Jordan option, which suggested that Israel negotiate with Jordan instead of the Palestinians to determine the future of the West Bank and Gaza. Likud maintained that this position sought to return 70 percent of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) to Jordan, which in turn would hand these territories over to yasser Arafat, who would establish a Palestinian state. The Likud suggested that voters were therefore required to choose between the security of Israel or a Palestinian state.
On May 7, Begin spoke at the West Bank settlement of Ariel before a crowd of 35,000. he vowed no withdrawal from the territories: “I, Menahem, the son of Ze’ev and hasia Begin do solemnly swear that as long as I serve the nation as prime minister, we will not leave any part of Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip and the Golan heights.
” (Kieval 1983, p. 165) he warned that the Jordan option proposed by Peres meant surrendering to the terrorists (and to “Arafatism”) the Samarian mountain ridge on which Ariel was situated.Labor, under the leadership of Peres, focused instead on the urgency of assuring Israel’s future as a Jewish state that is democratic and secure within defensible borders.
Labor argued that the permanent absorption of 1.25 million Palestinian Arabs, as advocated by Begin, would eventually turn Israel into a second Lebanon, while his autonomy program would lead to a Palestinian state. Labor supported the concept of territorial compromise. The Jordan option was based on the assumption that there is an integral connection between the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians in Jordan.
Labor opposed both the Likud policy of annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the PLO policy of establishing an independent and sovereign Palestinian state in those areas. It offered instead a policy of compromise. The Jordan option was seen as the solution to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip problem, and Peres made clear his opposition to the PLO as a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel.
Likud and Labor overshadowed the other parties and dominated the campaign. The other parties devoted their attention primarily to religious matters (particularly the nrP and the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Agudat Israel Party), to ethnic and personal appeals (especially the Traditional Movement of Israel, or Tami), and to more specific concerns such as the revocation of income tax, Arab issues, and so forth.
Telem (Movement for national renewal) and Tehiya (Israel renaissance Party) headed by Moshe Dayan and yuval ne’eman, respectively, included foreign policy and security themes as important segments of their public appeals, as did the nrP. Telem argued that it was necessary to reinforce the process of active peacemaking with Israel’s neighbors, and its leader, Dayan, suggested that his position was closer to Labor than to Likud.
Tehiya focused its concern on the land of Israel. The party was established after the signing of the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty primarily by defectors from the Likud who believed that Begin had sold them out and that Israel needed to retain full possession of all the territories occupied in the Six-Day War.
The foreign policy sections of the nrP’s political platform called for making it possible for the settlements in Sinai to remain in Israel’s hands; it proposed legislation to prevent the removal of settlements from Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and the Golan heights and recommended that suitable conditions be found for extending Israeli law to the Golan.
On the issue of the autonomy negotiations, at which nrP leader yosef Burg led the Israeli team, the nrP noted that Israel must insist that responsibility for security—both internal and external—remain in Israeli hands in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza and that the existence, expansion, and development of the Israeli settlements, as well as the right to set up more settlements, be safeguarded.
In early June 1981, Egyptian president Sadat held a meeting with Begin (at the latter’s invitation) for the first time in almost a year and a half at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The summit meeting boosted Begin’s position, especially among voters committed to neither Labor nor Likud, but contributed little to the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. Later that year, in October 1981, President Sadat was assassinated in Cairo. Despite his past role as a warrior against Israel, at the time of his death he was eulogized by Israel as the first Arab leader to recognize, negotiate with, and make peace with Israel. Israelis also expressed the hope that his commitment to peace would be sustained by his successors.
On June 8, 1981, Israel announced that the Israeli air force had attacked and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor, near Baghdad, in Iraq. Israel justified the strike with the argument that the reactor was meant to produce nuclear weapons, posing a danger to its existence. Preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons was seen as essential for Israel’s survival. A negative reaction worldwide followed. The United States condemned the attack, temporarily suspended the delivery of F-16 aircraft to Israel, and joined in a United nations Security Council resolution strongly condemning the raid.
Despite international criticism, the destruction of the reactor had an electrifying effect on the Israeli voters as it conjured up images of regional threats and of Israeli capability. Although the circumstances and the timing were debated, few Israelis questioned the raid itself. Begin and his supporters declared the raid to be in the national interest and insisted that it had been necessary for Israel to act how and when it did.
Begin’s Second Government
The election of June 30, 1981, returned a Likud-led coalition government to power—contrary to early predictions of a significant Labor victory— but it was different from its predecessor in party composition, participating personalities, and policy perspectives. For the first time, the two major parties emerged approximately equal in parliamentary strength, and the small parties in parliament lost votes and seats.
Between them, Likud and Labor won nearly 100 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Begin put together a coalition of four parties controlling a slim majority of 61 seats in the Knesset. This coalition, consisting of Likud, the nrP, Agudat Israel, and Tami, was approved by the Knesset on August 5, 1981, after substantial bargaining that culminated in an 83-clause agreement.
The government’s program submitted to and approved by the Knesset on August 5 was general in nature and not too dissimilar from those of its predecessors. It spoke of the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Among other points, it noted, “The autonomy agreed upon at Camp David means neither sovereignty nor self-determination. The autonomy agreements set down at Camp David are guarantees that under no conditions will a Palestinian state emerge in the territory of Western ‘Eretz yisrael.”’ Begin continued to see autonomy as primarily administrative in nature with Israel responsible for security.
Specifying that “settlement in the Land of Israel is a right and an integral part of the nation’s security,” the government reiterated its position regarding Jewish settlements, promising to “strengthen, expand, and develop settlements.” It also noted, “Equality of rights for all residents will continue to exist in the Land of Israel, with no distinction (on the basis) of religion, race, nationality, sex, or ethnic community.” Begin also foreshadowed future action concerning the Golan heights in the program: “Israel will not descend from the Golan heights, nor will it remove any settlements established there.
It is the Government that will decide on the appropriate timing for the application of Israeli Law, jurisdiction, and administration of the Golan heights.” Finally, the government program reiterated the long-standing policy of Israel concerning Jerusalem: “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, indivisible, entirely under Israeli sovereignty.
Free access to their holy places has been and will be guaranteed to followers of all faiths.”Begin’s 1981 government was narrower and less pragmatic in nature than his previous government but also more firmly under his control. It presented a harder line concerning the West Bank and related negotiations.
Although willing to include Jordan and representatives of the Palestinians in future negotiations, as called for in the Camp David Accords, Begin continued to rule out any dealings with the PLO on the grounds that it was a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel. On the other hand, the new Begin government saw the renewal of the autonomy talks and the expansion of the peace and normalization process with Egypt as important elements of policy.