The day after tomorrow, on March 17th, 2015, Israelis will go to the polls for the twentieth Knesset elections. The general sentiment is that the outcome of the race is uncertain, that critical issues are at stake and that the fate of the country hangs in the balance.
Except this isn’t the first time that we’ve felt that way. 50 years ago, the 1965 elections for the 5th Knesset took place in an atmosphere of crisis. Leading up to the elections was a political scandal that put the Prime Minister in direct conflict with his party leadership; a political party was disqualified from running — the first such disqualification in the State’s short history — for the first time; and a charismatic peace activist entered the political arena.
In addition, the national mood was also overshadowed by fears for the country’s very existence when reports came out that German scientists and technicians — former Nazis — were developing long-range missiles in Egypt.
Unlike today, with peace treaties in place with Egypt and Jordan, Israel at that time was surrounded by enemies on all fronts. According to Wikipedia, “Israel became increasingly concerned with [Egypt’s rocket] program after a disaffected Austrian scientist involved with it approached the Israeli secret service, and claimed the Egyptians were attempting to equip the missile with radioactive waste as well as to procure nuclear warheads. In mid-August, the Mossad managed to obtain a document… [detailing] the number of rockets being built (900), and additional, weaker evidence that there were plans to develop chemical, biological and gas-filled warheads for these rockets”.
According to the National Library, “The Israeli public was terrified by reports of weapons of mass destruction in Egypt, especially given the German involvement.”
The successful covert campaign, Operation Damocles, along with diplomatic pressure, drove the scientists out of Egypt by the end of 1963 but also caused a wave of resignations within the Mossad and ultimately had Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion quitting as well.
The National Library of Israel has put together an online collection of historical documents from Israeli elections throughout the years. The curators state that the issues which concern Israelis in every national election are “manifest in the election propaganda presented in its online collection. “We have elected to focus on four such issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict, including wars and peace agreements; economic policy, from Socialism to free enterprise; the internal tension inherent in Israel’s status as a Jewish state; and various social issues that have arisen at different times, including ethnic, nationalist and class-based conflicts”.
The National Library summarizes the 1965 elections as the aftermath of “a clash of titans” over the 1954 Lavon Affair — also known as “the Unfortunate Business” — a failed covert operation by Israeli intelligence in Egypt that resulted in a commission of inquiry, government upheaval, and internal strife within the ruling Labor party that put Ben-Gurion in direct conflict with party leadership.
“In the summer of 1963, David Ben Gurion resigned [from the government] once again. The principal reason was a struggle between the elderly leader and representatives of the ‘middle generation’ – Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Pinchas Sapir and Zalman Aran. Ben Gurion did his utmost to undermine Eshkol’s leadership. Eshkol, in turn, sought to fortify the party by establishing a new Ma’arach – a merger of Mapai and Achdut Haavodah“.
“The [inquiry] Commission of Seven cleared Pinchas Lavon’s name in the ‘unfortunate business’. For Eshkol, that was the end of the affair. Ben Gurion however, continued to call for a legal commission of inquiry. Eshkol refused emphatically. In December 1964, Eshkol resigned. He was given another mandate by the president and established another government, identical to its predecessor”.
“In February 1965 the major conflict occurred at the Mapai convention. [Moshe] Sharett and Golda Meir made strong speeches against ‘the Old Man’ and Eshkol rose to the occasion in a historical speech in which he demanded that the ‘affair’ be put to rest and the Ma’arach established. Eshkol garnered support and Ben Gurion was pushed out. He established Rafi, his last political home”.
1965 was also the year that the Al Ard party – the Arab Socialist List — was disqualified from running by the Central Elections Committee which declared it “an illegal association, because its initiators negate the [territorial] integrity of the State of Israel and its existence.” (The next time a party would be disqualified was in 1988 when Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party was removed on grounds of racism, and the Progressive List for Peace for identifying with activities with enemies of the State).
A direct effect of the parliamentary system was that Israel election campaigns tended to emphasize party platforms, rather than individual politicians, as in this Herut-Liberal party poster showing not party leader Menachem Begin but rather, a series of outstretched hands with the slogan “Ma’arach will take your profits, your rights, your freedom”.
Meanwhile, Ma’arach, now headed by the rather drab Eshkol, concerned itself with uniting the workers.
Providing a new, personality-driven twist to the 1965 elections was colorful man-about-town Abie Nathan — who later founded the offshore radio station The Voice of Peace.
The National Library states, “Born in Iran, raised in India and a veteran of the Royal Air Force, Abie Nathan volunteered as a pilot in the War of Independence. After serving in the air force and working as an El Al pilot, Nathan opened Café California in Tel Aviv. He decided to run for election in the 1965 elections in order to advocate the importance of reaching peace agreements with the Arab countries. He ran on a one-man ticket called Nes and obtained 2,135 votes”.
“Abie Nathan continued to promote his agenda. In February 1966, he flew to Egypt in his private plane ‘Shalom 1’, landing in Port Said. A day later he was deported to Israel. Nathan garnered international renown and undertook a capital city tour to campaign for peace. In July 1967, he flew to Egypt again and was, once again, deported. In 1969 he flew to Egypt on a commercial flight and was deported for a third time. After that, Nathan established a radio station that broadcast from a ship in the Mediterranean, which he utilized to campaign for regional peace”.
More Israeli election campaign ephemera — posters, press, photos and more – from 1949 onwards can be found at the National Library website which points out that “The lively campaign that characterizes the weeks and months leading up to election day itself nurtures Israel’s democratic culture.”