The Wars of the Jews

The Wars of the Jews

The cease-fire of October 22, 1973, was followed by what Israelis often refer to as the “wars of the Jews”—internal political conflicts and disagreements. The initial impact of the Yom Kippur War on Israeli politics was to bring about the postponement of the elections, originally scheduled for October 30, to December 31, and the suspension of political campaigning and electioneering for the duration of the conflict.

The war interrupted the campaign for the Knesset election and provided new issues for the opposition to raise, namely the conduct of the war and the “mistakes” that preceded it. A new word entered Israel’s political lexicon: mechdal.

The word, meaning “omission” or “failure,” was used to refer to the failures of the government and of the military to be fully prepared for the outbreak of the war and to respond to the initial attacks. Prior to the war, a right-wing opposition bloc, Likud (Union), composed of several parties and groups including Gahal, Free Center, State List, and the Land of Israel Movement was formed.

The basic campaign theme was, it is “time for a change.” Although Likud seemed to falter prior to the war, the conflict allowed its resurgence. General Ariel “Arik” Sharon, who had retired from the army and had been a major force in the consolidation of Likud, was mobilized in the war and emerged as a popular hero for leading Israeli forces to the west bank of the Suez Canal. Menachem Begin, the leader of Gahal, criticized the government for accepting the cease-fire, saying it was detrimental to national security and would invite rather than prevent further Arab aggression.

He also criticized the failure of the government to meet the Egyptian-Syrian threat at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and called on Prime Minister Meir to resign. General Sharon was critical of the Israeli high command for their delay in crossing the canal and subsequently in reinforcing his troops and their advanced positions on the west bank of the canal, a delay that he felt cost Israel some important military accomplishments. Sharon was also critical of the military posture that allowed the initial Egyptian crossing of the canal.

Within the government there were also voices of dissatisfaction. There were challenges within the Labor Party to Prime Minister Meir and in particular to two of her closest advisers—Israel Galili and Moshe Dayan—on the questions of defense, security, and the occupied territories. There were demands that the election be postponed, that the party revise its platform, and that the election lists be reopened for the addition of new candidates. There were clear indications in the weeks following the war that Labor had lost an element of popular support and that this would be reflected in the polls.

Partly to quiet internal political complaints, the cabinet decided on November 18, 1973, to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the events leading up to the war (including information concerning enemy moves and intentions), the assessments and decisions of military and civilian bodies in regard to this information, and the IDF’s deployment and preparedness for battle and its actions in the first phase of the fighting. The commission of inquiry consisted of the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Shimon Agranat; the state comptroller, Yitzhak Nebenzahl; Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau; and two former chiefs of staff, Yigael Yadin and Haim Laskov. All were widely respected and enjoyed public confidence.

Political Change

The war accelerated the momentum for political change, which was only partly reflected in the election held at the end of December 1973 for the Eighth Knesset. Despite last-minute preelection polls that suggested important shifts in voting patterns, the results seemed to indicate that nothing had changed significantly. The Labor-led Alignment lost six of its 57 seats, while the Likud increased its strength by eight seats, to 39. The religious parties lost two of their 17 mandates. There were also shifts within the parties, as younger elements began to assert themselves and sought to affect political positions.

After initial difficulties, Golda Meir was able to form a coalition cabinet very similar to the previous cabinet. The new government was confirmed by the Knesset on March 10, 1974, by a vote of 62 to 46 (with nine abstentions). But on April 10, Meir resigned, in large measure because of the debates within the Labor Party on the political responsibility for Israel’s lapses at the outset of the Yom Kippur War. Her resignation set the stage for the selection of a new Labor Party leader and prime minister and the formation of a new coalition.

The major member of the Alignment, the Labor Party, had to choose a successor to be nominated by the president to form a new government. The choice was between General Yitzhak Rabin, the IDF chief of staff during the Six-Day War who later served as ambassador to the United States and subsequently as minister of labor in Meir’s cabinet, and Shimon Peres, who was then minister of information but who for a long time had run the Defense Ministry. Rabin and Peres were relatively young (in their 50s) and belonged to the new generation, not the group of pioneers who came to Israel at the beginning of the 20th century and had controlled Israeli politics since.

Rabin was chosen, but it was not clear that the coalition could achieve sufficient strength to endure. Rabin’s qualifications were also questioned. There was the so-called Weizman document, in which former general Ezer Weizman (now a member of the opposition) argued that in 1967, Rabin had been unfit to make important decisions at a critical juncture. Rabin’s experience was questioned because his major posts prior to 1973 were that of a general in the army, chief of staff, and ambassador to the United States, positions that hardly prepared him for the rough and tumble of Israeli politics. He was also called to task for accepting speaking fees while serving as ambassador to the United States.

In Rabin’s government, Yigal Allon replaced Abba Eban as foreign minister, Shimon Peres replaced Moshe Dayan as defense minister, and Yehoshua Rabinowitz replaced Pinhas Sapir as finance minister. The coalition that supported Rabin in the Knesset had a new composition. The National Religious Party (NRP) did not participate and was replaced by the Citizens’ Rights Movement (CRM), which had campaigned in part against the special position of religion in the state. However, by the first anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the internally split NRP agreed to join the coalition while the CRM withdrew. Despite Rabin’s slim margin, his government showed a remarkable stability during its initial months in office.