Thursday, February 7, 2013

Does History Repeat Itself? Eshkol Forms a Government, 1961

Last Saturday night, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, asked the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government. However, the situation resulting from the elections to the 19th Knesset last month is a complex one. The combined ruling party, Likud-Yisrael Beitenu, remains the largest single party, but according to media reports, two of its possible coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi, are planning to coordinate their stand during the coalition negotiations. Together, they have the same number of seats as Likud-Yisrael Beitenu--31--and could make things difficult.

This latest episode of political "musical chairs" reminds us at the ISA of one of the most interesting stories in the history of Israel's coalition jigsaw: how Finance Minister Levi Eshkol set up a government for Ben-Gurion in 1961. The elections of August 1961 were called as a result of a political crisis arising from the "Lavon Affair" and the campaign of Prime Minister Ben-Gurion against Histadrut secretary general Pinchas Lavon. The crisis weakened the ruling party, Mapai, which lost 5 seats, and had only 42 members, or 46 with the satellite Arab parties. Four of its rivals – the Liberals, the National Religious party, and left-wing Mapam and Ahdut Ha'avoda formed a bloc, "The Club of Four," which also had 46 seats. They demanded that Mapai give them equal status and the same number of ministerial posts as a condition for joining the coalition. Since 1949, Mapai had always had a majority in the government.

On September 5, President Izhak Ben-Zvi started consultations with the parties which were to recommend a candidate to form the government. Mapai naturally recommended Ben-Gurion. The right-wing Herut party which had 17 seats, the same as the Liberals, asked Ben-Zvi not to allow Ben-Gurion to delay. If he did, they should be given a chance. In theory, the Club of Four could have asked Herut to join them and formed a coalition of 63. Herut's leader, Menachem Begin saw an opportunity to remove Mapai from power. In a letter from October 1961, he urged that any citizen who wanted to change the government should ask the four parties to join with Herut. But in view of the deep differences between them there was no chance for such a scenario.

On September 6, Ben-Zvi asked Ben-Gurion to form a government, but the following day he returned the mandate. "I regret to say that in the present circumstances I cannot take upon myself to form a government," he wrote. Levi Eshkol, a rising force in the party, took over, and laboriously, over six weeks managed first to obtain the support of two more MKs, from the religious Poalei Aguda party, and then to wear down and dismantle the Club of Four, assuring Mapai of a majority in a coalition with the NRP and Ahdut Ha'avoda. Ben-Gurion was dubious about these moves because he wanted the Liberals in the coalition, and wrote to him later "I am full of admiration for your good will, your honest intentions, your devotion and patience, even when you are mistaken..."

Eshkol explains to the president the formation of the government
Early in November, Eshkol finally reported to the president that he had formed a government headed by Ben-Gurion. "We brought the Club of Four on all fours…into the government," he added with a smile.

You can read more about Eshkol and the crisis of 1961 in the volume on Eshkol edited by Arnon Lammfromm and Hagai Tsoref in the Commemorative Series (in Hebrew) of the Archives, and in the volumes on Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi and Moshe Sharett.

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