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  • 1977: The Mahapakh:Its Causes and Implications for Contemporary Israeli Politics
  • Avi Shilon

"Ladies and gentlemen, mahapakh!" announced the television anchor Haim Yavin the moment he was informed of the Likud victory in the Israeli elections of May 1977. The exclamation of mahapakh (political upheaval) expressed astonishment as well as anticipation of dramatic change in the political system: for the first time in the annals of Zionism and Israel, the Likud party, the political incarnation of the Revisionist Zionist movement founded in 1925 and now under the leadership of Menachem Begin, had taken over the government. Indeed, the Mahapakh, as these events came to be called in general parlance, deeply affected Israel's political trajectory but must not be understood as surprising or unforeseen. It was the outcome of historical, sociological, and political developments that unfolded over an extended period. I will address briefly the main reasons for the Mahapakh, focusing chiefly on its ethnic underpinning, and conclude with a discussion of its ramifications in current Israeli political life.

The Yom Kippur war, which erupted in October 1973 and caught the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) unprepared for the Egyptian and Syrian assaults, led to unprecedented and widespread protests that crossed all sectors and parties. These protests were directed against the failures of the Israeli political leadership, then headed by senior members of the Labor Party Alignment (Ha-Ma'arakh). Even though the Alignment still won the elections that were held immediately after the war ended (in December 1973), it turned out that the trauma of the war lingered, as it typically does. It would take the public another four years to give full voice to their protest at the ballot-box.

The Mahapakh must also be understood against the background of changes that were taking place in the political system. Begin had come a [End Page 545] long way from his days as a founder of Herut in 1948 to the formation of Likud in 1973.1 In Israel's first elections, held in 1949, Herut focused on calling for the enlargement of the state's borders even at the price of another war. It failed to achieve its goal of becoming the country's main opposition party, winning only fourteen seats; in 1951 the party fell to just eight seats. From the mid-1950s Begin played a key role in consolidating the center-right and broadening his electoral base.2 In order to pave the way for an alliance with the religious parties, Begin abandoned previous efforts to create a constitution, even though such a goal had originally appeared in the Herut political platform. In 1965 Herut merged with the Liberal Party. In June 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, Herut joined the unity government of Levi Eshkol (appointed prime minster after Ben-Gurion resigned in 1963), who presented a more inclusive approach toward the Revisionists.

Ideological changes also influenced the Mahapakh. Before 1967, Begin's maximalist attitude toward the Land of Israel was viewed as radical and almost irrelevant. But the conquest of territories in 1967 turned Begin's position into a more mainstream view. The "Movement for Greater Israel"—which was founded in November 1967 and included personalities from the Labor, Revisionist, and Religious Zionist movements—is a prominent example of the change. Yet among the various factors that led to Likud's victory, ethnicity is the most important. The sociologist Yona-than Shapiro found that "starting from 1955, Mizrahi Jews [i.e., Jews originally from Middle Eastern countries] constituted about 55 to 60 percent of all Herut voters," but that "until 1973, most Mizrahi Jews, about 55–60 percent, voted for Mapai."3 However, in 1977 more than half of the Jews from Middle Eastern countries and their second-generation descendants voted for Likud.4

How can we explain the support of Mizrahim for the Likud, a phenomenon that is still relevant today?5 A conventional explanation posits an [End Page 546] "alliance of the downtrodden." Just as the Revisionists faced political discrimination from the Mapai establishment, so too Mizrahim faced economic and cultural discrimination for ethnic reasons. The problem with this theory is that it is difficult to prove empirically and...