For eight consecutive terms, Menachem Begin served the State of Israel and its citizens in the opposition. Then, in 1977, his election as Prime Minister marked the first time since the birth of the State of Israel 29 years earlier, that the Likud Party became the ruling party. During his time in leadership, Begin was subject to extreme criticism, even dehumanization, not only by the international press but also from political opponents who described him as a fascist. Reflecting on his legacy four decades later, there is no doubt that Menachem Begin and the Likud Party changed the face of Israel. Israel pre-1977 is completely different from Israel post-1977.
One of Begin’s greatest accomplishments was establishing Israel as a true democracy. Under his leadership, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt, their greatest enemy. Although this required great sacrifice on the part of Begin, even compromising some of his own ideological beliefs, he did so willingly for the sake of peace. His efforts were recognized when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. At the same time, he expanded Israeli settlements throughout the country.
While the State of Israel was established as a Jewish and democratic state, various governments led by the Labor Party did not implement democratic values but rather semi-democracy. Moreover, they repressed the free market (sometimes even utilizing physical violence), demonized those who supported free markets and damaged the Israeli economy.
In one of Begin’s speeches during his later years as head of the Opposition Party, he remarked about the Labor Party: "They hate the capitalists but love capital." This sentiment holds true not only of Labor in his time, but for all leftist parties.
It was only once Menachem Begin and the Likud party came to power, that these immigrants were offered the opportunity to truly advance into Israeli society
The Labor Party should be applauded for handling the mass absorption of Jewish immigrants to Israel from all over the world. In the first decade of Israel’s existence, Israel absorbed three times the amount of people than their original population at the beginning of her existence. This unbelievable accomplishment makes Israel unique among the countries of the world. However, that accomplishment has been tainted by what followed. The millions of Jewish immigrants from all over the globe can be divided into two categories: those who came from European countries and were integrated into society (although often with much difficulty) and those who came from Arab countries, faced discrimination and were treated as second-class citizens. In fact, it was only once Menachem Begin and the Likud party came to power, that these immigrants were offered the opportunity to truly advance into Israeli society. In a relatively short time, those who were once on the outskirts of mainstream society, both economically and socially, became a significant political force.
Today, four decades later, it is an ideal time to examine in retrospect how Israel has changed since Begin’s leadership and the influence of the Likud Party.
The first major political change is Israel’s economic advancement. This was already symbolized and foreshadowed when Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with Professor Milton Friedman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and advocate for a free market economy.
Begin's first government led the "liberalization program", whose main goals were to encourage free trade, open Israeli trade markets to the rest of the world, abolish taxes on goods, and initiate a foreign currency reform. At the same time, in the project called “neighborhood rehabilitation,” the government invested in specific communities that had previously been discriminated against by former governments. On the one hand, this process eventually led to inflation and an economic crisis, but on the other hand, it turned Israel from a poor country into a country with wealth. To utilize the opposite of a paraphrase of the remarks made against Margaret Thatcher in the British Parliament, one could describe Israel’s transformation as follows: Israel transformed from a country where its population was poor and poorer to a country with a where its population was rich and richer. It is important to note that Begin’s policies were further developed a few governments later, in 2003, by Benjamin Netanyahu, in his capacity as Finance Minister.
Israel transformed from a country where its population was poor and poorer to a country with a where its population was rich and richer
We must not forget that in the last number of Israeli governments, especially under Prime Minister Netanyahu, a tremendous amount of research and development was invested in order to turn Israel into a technological high-tech superpower. Unfortunately, the power of the monopolies, destructive trade unions and cartels in Israel are still great. There is still much work to be done to have a complete free market society. Despite the current political structure in Israel which makes this goal very difficult, we are constantly striving for change.
The second major change since Begin’s time that took place simultaneously is social upheaval of Israel’s immigrants. Those who came from Arab countries, who were once discriminated against by the leftist governments, experienced a renaissance under Likud governments. It is impossible to ignore the new phenomenon that has been created. Many of these immigrants have become Israel's new elite in the world of economics, politics and in the Israel Defense Forces (where there is compulsory service) as well as leaders in the music industry and contemporary culture. This is because Begin never saw a difference between Israelis born in Israel and immigrants from Arab or Western countries. For him everyone was equal. With the rise of "intermarriage," especially among the second and third generations of the entire society, Israel today looks vastly different than it did forty years ago. It is more diverse, pluralistic, egalitarian and cooperative.
When Menachem Begin was prime minister, the world was divided between East and West. Shortly after his appointment he instructed the head of the Mossad, "Bring me Ethiopian Jewry." These were Jews who could not immigrate to Israel on their own. However, through secret operations of the Mossad, the Israeli government led nine operations bringing tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In addition, Begin (and others after him) made efforts to bring almost a million Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel. For 50 years they were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain, they were able to immigrate due to the hard work of the Likud Party. These immigrants, as well as second and third generations, came to Israel with higher education and excellence education from the home. Through Israel’s free market society, she has been able to utilize their talents and they have become one of the most important engines that drive the Israeli economy.
Begin never saw a difference between Israelis born in Israel and immigrants from Arab or Western countries
Though integrating immigrants from Ethiopia remains a challenge, these immigrants make up Israeli society and are the driving force of the Israeli economy, the developed economy which under Netanyahu’s government recorded the lowest unemployment in Israel's history and one of the lowest in the Western world.
Since its founding in 1948, through Begin’s leadership in 1977 and until today, Israel has certainly encountered challenges. But, one cannot deny that the country has drastically changed for the better. The political upheaval that took place 40 years ago was a critical element in creating this improvement for the better. We must complete what Begin began.