Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Israel's Leadership Vacuum

Veteran Israeli political reporter Ben Caspit, who has co-authored biographies of both the recently deceased Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, had this interesting column for the Israel Pulse of the Al Monitor of the  Christian Science Monitor. I agree with it in general with one major disagreement: Caspit groups both Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir together with the Likud princes. The Likud princes were the children of prominent Revisionist Zionist and Herut figures and include figures like Netanyahu, Benny Begin, Ron Milo, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni. Shamir and Sharon were from a different generation--that of the princes' parents who served in the underground and founded Israel. Shamir was a contemporary and colleague of Benny Begin's father, Prime Minister Menahem Begin, and arrived in mandatory Palestine several years before Begin did. Shamir became of the trio leading the Lehi underground from 1943 to 1948 when Begin was leader of the Etzel (Irgun) underground. Shamir did, however, head the faction within the Likud that the princes belonged to. Sharon was in opposition to that faction as the head of his own faction within the Likud after 1983. 

Caspit's thesis is that the demise of the generation of Israel's founding fathers (and mothers in the case of Golda Meir and some other women) due to mortality has left Israel with a leadership gap. Actually the founders consisted of three separate generations: that of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister from 1948-53 and 1956-63, who arrived in Palestine during the Second Aliya or wave of immigration following the abortive Russian revolution of 1904-05; the generation of Moshe Sharett, Pinhas Sapir, and Golda Meir, who arrived in Israel in the 1920s; and finally the 1948 generation that fought Israel's War of Independence and were born in Israel from 1915 to 1930 or who arrived in Palestine as children during the 1930s in the case of Shimon Peres. The first two generations ruled Israel and the Zionist Yishuv from 1935 to 1974. The third generation took over in 1974 when Yitzhak Rabin was elected leader of the Labor Party and prime minister to replace Meir. Sharon and Peres are the last members of that generation. Sharon left office due to his stroke in March 2006 and Peres was elected president by the Knesset in July 2007 and is set to leave office later this year at age 90.

This is comparable to the situation in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. The last two members of the American Revolutionary generation were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Adams, the son of second President John Adams, was a teenage diplomat during the American Revolution and died in the House of Representatives in February 1848 at the end of the Mexican War, which he had opposed. His bitter political opponent Jackson had served as a messenger boy in the Revolutionary War in South Carolina at age 13. He was seven years younger then than Sharon during the 1948 war. Adams served as secretary of state under President James Monroe during the early 1820s. He was then elected president in a very controversial multi-candidate election in which no single candidate received an electoral majority in 1824, but in which Jackson had a plurality of both electoral and popular votes. Adams, like his father before him, served one term as president and then had a second career in the House of Representatives from 1833 to 1848 where he was the leader of the antislavery faction of the Whig Party. Jackson was elected in his own right in a direct two-man race against Adams in 1828 and served for two terms.

After Jackson left the presidency in March 1837 (in the 19th century the presidential term began and ended in March), he was followed as president by his vice president, Martin Van Buren, who was the creator of the modern Democratic Party in the late 1820s. Van Buren was a regional politician from New York who had his career in Albany. Jackson then intervened in 1844 to replace Van Buren, who had lost to William H. Harrison, another hero from the War of 1812 like Jackson, with another protege James K. Polk because Polk like Jackson favored the annexation of Texas and Van Buren did not. The opposition Whig Party consisted of members of Adams's National Republican faction and former Democratic supporters of Jackson who fell out with Jackson. Between Jackson in 1837 and Lincoln in 1864, no president was elected to a second term and most modern presidential historians rate these presidents, with the exception of Polk, very low compared to the founding generation and presidents during the Cold War. There were 24 years between Jackson and Lincoln and then 36 years between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. I expect that the same will be true of Netanyahu and his immediate successors.

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