Begin and Likud Party Are Elected to Head Israeli Government in Landslide Victory

May 17, 1977

For the first 29 years of Israel’s existence (with the exception of June 1967, when a national unity government was put in place before the Six-Day War), one political coalition, composed of left-wing, Labor-oriented politicians, dominates the young Jewish state’s government. As a result, a relatively narrow range of political ideologies, secular leanings and Ashkenazi cultural orientations is represented in Israel’s ruling coalitions. The 1977 election, known as the “Mahapach (upset),” changes this reality, forever altering politics in Israel.

Before the 1977 election, the dominant Alignment coalition, composed of the MapaiAhdut Avodah and Mapam parties, faces no real electoral competition. With its roots in David Ben-Gurion’s socialist-Zionist political and ideological frameworks, the coalition eventually forms the Israeli Labor Party in 1968.

The Likud coalition, with its roots in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, is led by Menachem Begin, an outspoken opposition politician active in Israeli and Yishuv politics beginning when he moves to the Land of Israel in 1942. An adversary and critic of Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionist establishment, Begin forms the Herut party in 1948 with members of the Irgun defense organization as an opposition political party in the Knesset. Herut makes its ideological positions clear early on, opposing the 1949 cease-fire agreements with Arab states in the aftermath of the 1948 war.

The 1977 election is called after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigns and dissolves the government in December 1976. The move is partly made to oust the National Religious Party from the government after it refuses to oppose a no-confidence vote in the Knesset in a dispute over new fighter planes being delivered to Israel on Shabbat. The Alignment is further hurt when, in April, Rabin is forced to withdraw as party leader and “retire” from the caretaker government he creates in December 1976 when it is discovered that his wife, Leah, maintains an American bank account, at the time a violation of Israeli law.

Likud, created in 1973 by the initiative of Ariel Sharon, proves to be a more formidable political force against the Alignment coalition than previous right-wing parties. With the country in the midst of a severe economic crisis, Likud is bolstered by the support of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews who feel marginalized and underrepresented by the Labor establishment. Likud gains 33.4% of the vote to the Alignment’s 24.6%. The results lead to Likud winning 43 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. A government is formed with the National Religious Party (12 seats), the Democratic Movement for Change (15 seats) and Shlomzion (2 seats). The Likud victory results in Begin becoming the country’s sixth prime minister.

The orderly, peaceful transfer of power between political parties is a major milestone for Israeli democracy. Begin is credited with bringing the historic 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt to fruition with the help of the United States. The Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu, who becomes Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, maintains its political and ideological connections with the Revisionist Zionism of Jabotinsky and the Herut party, officially dissolved in 1988.

The photo shows Menachem Begin casting his ballot in the 1977 election with his wife, Aliza. Credit: Ya’acov Sa’ar, Israeli Government Press Office, CC BY-SA 3.0