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This article is about the political party. For other uses, see Herut .

Herut ( , Freedom) was the major right-wing political party in Israelmarker from the 1940s until its formal merger into Likud in 1988, and an adherent to Revisionist Zionism. It is not to be confused with Herut – The National Movement, a party which broke away from Likud in 1998.

Formation and setback

Herut was founded by Menachem Begin on 15 June 1948 as the political successor to the Irgun, a paramilitary group in Mandate Palestine. The party's foundation was a challenge to the old and increasingly weakened Hatzohar party founded by Begin's late mentor, Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Nevertheless, Revisionist "purists" alleged that Begin was out to steal Jabotinsky's mantle and refused to defect from the old party. The party also established a newspaper by the same name, many of whose founding journalists defected from the Hatzohar-affiliated HaMashkif.

One week after the foundation of the party, the Altalena affair highlighted the tension between the Government and its revisionist rivals. The Prime Minister feared a military coup and Herut’s image was hurt.

Herut MK:s Uri Zvi Greenberg, Esther Raziel Naor Menachem Begin, at the first meeting of the Knesset in Jerusalem
The main issue on the Herut agenda was expanding the borders, and the party vigorously opposed the ceasefire agreements with the Arab states. Herut profiled herself by refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Jordanmarker and frequently used the slogan "To the banks of the Jordan River" in claiming Israel's right to the whole of the Judea and Samaria. In the economic area, Begin initially was careful not to appear anti–socialistic, stressing his opposition to monopolies and trusts, also demanding that “all public utility works and basic industries must be nationalized”. The election platform represented a shift to the right on the socio-economic side. Herut was, right from the beginning, inclined to sympathise with the underdog and “tended to serve as a lodestone for society’s misfits”.

The expectations where high when Israel's first elections approached. Herut hoped to win power, when given a chance in public elections. They took credit for having expelled the British from Israel and thought the public would reward them for that. As a young movement, reflecting the esprit of the nation, they thought their image would be more attractive than the old establishment. By winning 25 seats, they expected to become the second-largest party and leader of the opposition, with potential for future gain of government power. This analysis was shared by other parties.

The elections, however, became a bitter disappointment. Herut won 14 seats with 11,5 % of the votes, making it the fourth largest party in the Knessetmarker, whilst Hatzohar failed to cross the electoral threshold of 1% and disbanded shortly thereafter.


The party and her leader Menachem Begin had met fierce resistance from the Labor Zionist establishment, in Israel and abroad. They were sharply criticised by Jewish intellectuals on the occasion of Begin's visit to New York City in an open letter to the New York Times on 4 December 1948. The letter condemned Herut as well akin to Nazi and Fascist parties as a Terrorist party and was signed by over two dozen prominent Jewish intellectuals including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Isidore Abramowitz and Sidney Hook.

Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the "Freedom Party" (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.
It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.
(...) It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin's political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.
(...) Today they speak of freedom, democracy and anti-imperialism, whereas until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state.
It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character; from its past actions we can judge what it may be expected to do in the future..

The party was considered outside the mainstream, and renowned for its right-wing views. The practical differences between Herut and Mapai, however, were less dramatic than the rhetoric from both sides suggested. Factors having to be taken into consideration are the establishment's interest in ostracizing a rival and the need of Herut, as an opposition party, to emphasize differences and reflect palpably their core voter's instincts.

The hostility between Begin and Israel's first Prime Minister and Mapai leader, David Ben-Gurion which had begun over the Altalena Affair was evident in the Knesset. Ben-Gurion coined the phrase "without Herut and Maki" (Maki was the Communist Party of Israel), a reference to the fact that he would include any party in his coalition other than those two. In fact, though, Herut was approached at least three times (1952, 1955 and 1961) by Mapai for government negotiations, but Begin turned down the offers, suspecting that they were designed to divide his party. The ostracism also expressed itself in the Prime Minister's refusal to refer to Begin by name from the Knesset Podium, using instead the phrase "the person who sits next to MK Badar", and boycotting his Knesset speeches.

The policy of ostracism was performed systematically, as seen in the legal exclusion of fallen Irgun and Lehi fighters from public commemoration and from benefits to their families. Herut members were excluded from the highest bureaucratic and military positions.


The subsequent years brought more afflictions. In the municipal elections of 1950 Herut lost voters to the centrist General Zionists, who also attracted disillusioned voters from Mapai and established themselves as a tough rival to Herut. At the second national convention, Begin was openly challenged by more radical elements who wanted a more dynamic leadership and thought he had adapted himself to the system. At the convention, Begin's proposal to send children abroad for security reasons, although there were precedent for such a measure, sounded defeatist and was unanimously rejected. It was considered to have hurt the party's image. In March 1951 the party lost two seats when Ari Jabotinsky and Hillel Kook left the party to sit as independent MKs. Referring to written commitments, Herut sought to revoke their Knesset membership, but the issue was still not settled in the elections three months later.

By this time, the party was in deep crisis. Critics of the party leadership pointed out that the party had changed its visage unreconizably and lost its status as a radical avant-garde party. Uncopromising candidates had been removed from the party list in the upcoming elections, economic questions loomed large in the propaganda and Mapai had co-opted some of the Herut agenda, not least by declaring Jerusalem Israel's capital. Herut seemed irrelevant, these critics and outside commentators agreed.

The 1951 elections were a disaster for Herut, as their support was almost halved, and they were reduced to just eight seats. Davar captured a general impression of what the country should prepare for: “To wait for their total liquidation in the years to come: as a party, as people.” Begin took the consequences and resigned (a move he had considered before the election, in face of the internal criticism). He was replaced by Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, whose leadership was nipped in the bud, as he suffered from a heart attack in late 1951. The leaderless party appointed Ya'akov Rubin as its new leader. He was not a member of Knesset, let alone of the party leadership.

As a young party without institutions paralleling those of Mapai, who held a hegemony on most areas of social life, Herut was at a serious disadvantage. Its own leaders were politically inexperienced and clinging to the principle of not – as representatives of the entire nation – accepting financial support from any interest groups, they were prevented from building a strong and competent party structure.

Ascendancy and stagnation

Menachem Begin addressing a mass demonstration against negotiations with Germany in Tel Aviv 1952
An issue that turned out to have great significance was the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany of 1952, where Herut opposed all negotiation with Germany. This brought Begin back into politics, it gave the party an identity and new momentum and it proved an effective weapon against the General Zionists. The Reparations Agreement awoke strong sentiments in the nation and Begin encouraged civil disobedience during the debate on the affair. The largest demonstrations gathered 15 000 people, and here Herut reached out far beyond its own constituency. The party let the issue fade from the agenda only after having wrested a maximum of political capital from it.

At the third national convention, there were fierce debate about democracy and legitimate actions. There were a strong sentiment in favor of using the barricades, but Begin vigorously resisted it. The government of the nation, he claimed, could only be done via the ballot box. The convention gave Herut important legitimacy by giving a message to the public that the party was law–abiding and democratic. At the same time, it secured its support by the hardliners who would not compromise on its principles.

Economic and fiscal policy were given greater room, and the party attacked Histadrut’s double role as employer and trade union. Such concentration of power was to be outlawed; party control of agricultural settlements would also be abolished. Workers were empowered by private enterprise, Herut reasoned. A 25 per cent tax cut was also envisioned.

The 1955 elections were a big success, with the party almost doubling their seats tally to 15 and becoming the second largest party in the Knesset after Mapai. Apart from an improved campaign, the accomplishment was attributed to the activist party platform in a situation of deteriorating security, to the votes of recent immigrants and other disgruntled elements, and to the disillusionment with the economic situation. The Kastener trial also played into Herut’s hands. Together with Maki, they helped bring down Moshe Sharett's government in 1954 through a motion of no-confidence over the government's position on the trial of Malkiel Gruenwald, who had accused Israel Kastzner of cooperating with the Nazis.

Herut added another seat in the 1959 elections, gradually growing, feeding on feelings of resentment against the left, mainly among new Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrants. It failed, however, to maintain the momentum from the previous election and make substantial gains, as they had hoped to do. As the young nation had consolidated, the public did not feel the same existential dread as previously, which made the activist message less significant, especially after the Sinai war, where Ben–Gurion performance was perceived favorably. Riots among immigrants in Wadi Salibmarker made the government play the role of maintaining law and order, which resonated well among the middle class. Mapai exploited the constellation successfully by depicting Begin as dangerous.

Gahal alliance

The party helped bring down the government again in 1961 when they and the General Zionists tabled a motion of no confidence over the Lavon Affair. They maintained its 17 seats in the 1961 election, and soon after joined with the Liberal Party (itself a recent merger of the General Zionists and the Progressive Party) to form Gahal (a Hebrew acronym for the Herut-Liberal Bloc (Hebrew: גוש חרות-ליברלים, Gush Herut-Libralim)), though each party remained independent within the alliance. The merger also led to the formation of the Independent Liberals, a group of former Liberal Party members who disagreed with the merger (most of whom had been Progressive Party members). The merger helped brake Herut’s isolation and created a Right–wing block with quite realistic chances to reach the Government.

Monument in memory of the 8 members of Irgun and the 2 members of Lehi hanged by British authorities between 1938 and 1947.
Under Ben-Gurion, public commemoration of fallen Irgun and Lehi fighters was strictly refused.
Under Levi Eskhol, they began to be rehablitated, indicating a new status for Herut.
The image of Herut and its leader changed by and by. Begin had been a main figure, along with politicians of the left, in issues as the Levon affair and relationships to Germany, thus evading the ostracism imposed by the Prime Minister. Ben–Gurion’s hostility became ever more savage; he eventually started to liken Begin to Hitler – an attitude that backfired, making Begin to stand out as a victim. The political climate took a favourable turn for Herut when Ben–Gurion was replaced as Prime and Defense Minister by Levi Eshkol. A Government resolution in March 1964 for the reinterment of Zeev Jabotinsky’s remains in Israel attests to this. Irgun and Lehi soldiers also began to be rehabilitated.

In the 1965 elections, Gahal ended up with 26 seats, compared to Labor’s 45. In a search for a scapegoat, Begin’s leadership was questioned by many. The idea was that he, despite his achievements, brought an indelible stigma from the days before and around independence, scaring off voters. An opposition group arose and the eighth convention in June 1966 became turbulent. The opposition group sensed that Begin’s position was too strong to challenge and they concentrated on winning control over the party organization. They won overwhelming victories in all votes for the composition of party institutions. Begin responded by putting his own political future at stake. He treated to leave the party chair and maybe also his seat in Knesset. This mobilized delegates in emphatic support for him, but the convention ended with the party lacking a chairman and with great tensions within the party. The chair would be vacant for eight months. It came to a showdown when Haim Amsterdam, an assistant to one of the opposition leaders, Shmuel Tamir, a month later published a devastating attack on Begin in Ha'aretz, which led to the suspension of Tamir’s party membership. The leaders of the opposition responded by establishing a new faction in Knesset with three members, the Free Center. After that Begin returned to party leadership.

Government participation

When the Six Day War broke out, Begin entered the government together with Yosef Sapir of the Liberal Party as Ministers without portfolios. The national unity government was Begin’s own brainchild. This had a radical effect on his image. Critics agree that it was a major turning point in Herut’s road to power, since it granted it the legitimacy it had been denied up until then. The national unity government was more than an emergency solution in a time of existential danger; it reflected a relaxation of ideological tension, which enabled the government to outlive the emergency. Moreover, Begin and Ben–Gurion were reconciled. Ben–Gurion needed him in his bitter rivalry with Eshkol and Begin surprised his adversary by proposing to Eshkol that he should step aside in favor of Ben–Gurion as the leader of an emergency government. The proposition was turned down, but Ben–Gurion, who recently had compared Begin to Hitler now praised his responsibility and patriotism.

The outcome of the war strengthened Herut. The principle of the undivisibility of the land had seemed as an archaic principle with little practical significance, but now it emerged from the fringe of consciousness to the core of national thought. Begin saw it as his first mission in the government to secure the fruits of the victory by preventing territorial withdrawal and promoting settlement.

Despite the brakeaway of the Free Center, Gahal retained its representation in the Knesset in the 1969 elections, and several of their candidates were elected as mayors. Herut was included in the new government of Golda Meir with six ministers (out of 24). The recruitment of Major–General Ezer Weizman, the first general to join Herut and a nephew of Israel’s first President, was a considerable public relations achievement. The Government participation did not last long, since Gahal left in early 1970 over the acceptance of the Rogers Plan, which included an approval of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, a move that was largely dictated by Begin.

In the 1977 elections, Herut - now as a part of the Likud - finally reached power and Menachem Begin rose to Prime Minister
In September 1973 Gahal merged with the Free Centre, the National List and the non-parliamentary Movement for Greater Israel to create Likud, again with all parties retaining their independence within the union. Within Likud, Herut continued to be the dominant party. In the 1973 elections, Likud capitalized on the Governments neglect in the Yom Kippur War and gained seven seats, totalling 39.

In the following years, Likud sharply criticized the Governments accords with Egypt and Syria. Stormy demonstrations where organized in conjunction with Gush Emunim, signifying an important political alliance. In the 1977 elections, Likud emerged victorious with 43 mandates, the first time the right had won an election. Begin became Prime Minister, retaining his post in the 1981 elections. In 1983 he stood down, and Yitzhak Shamir took over as Herut (and therefore Likud) party leader and Prime Minister.

The party was finally disbanded in 1988 when Likud dissolved its internal factions to become a unitary party.

Herut – The National Movement

In 1998 Benny Begin (son of Menachem), Michael Kleiner and David Re'em broke away from Likud in protest at Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to the Wye River Memorandum and the Hebron Agreement, which had ceded land to the Palestinians. They named their new party Herut – The National Movement, and tried to claim it as the successor to the original party. However, in reality it was a new and separate party.


  1. Joseph Heller: The Birth of Israel, 1945-1949: Ben-Gurion and His Critics p. 277–79. University Press of Florida, 2000 ISBN 9780813017327
  2. Hannah Torok Yablonka: “The Commander of the ‘Yizkor’ Order; Herut, Holocaust and Survivors”, in Selwyn Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas: Israel: The First Decade of Independence p. 220. SUNY Press, 1995 ISBN 9780791422595
  3. Yechiam Weitz: "The Road to the 'Upheaval': A Capsule History of the Herut Movement, 1948-1977", in Israel Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 10, No. 3.
  4. The New York Times, Letter to the editor, 4 December 1948.
  5. Gideon Doron: "Right as Opposed to Wrong as Opposed to Left: The Spatial Location of 'Right Parties' on the Israeli Political Map" Israel Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 10 Issue 3.
  6. Colin Schindler: Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream p. 53. I.B.Tauris, 2002. ISBN 9781860647741
  7. Jonathan Mendilow: Ideology, Party Change and Electoral Campaigns in Israel, 1965-2001 p. 36. SUNY Press, 2003. ISBN 9780791455876
  8. Udi Lebel: “’Beyond the Pantheon’ Bereavement, Memory, and the Strategy of De-Legitimization Against Herut,” in Israel Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 10 Issue 3.
  9. “What Has Changed? Devar ha-Yom,” Davar, Aug. 2, 1951. Quoted from Weitz 2005.
  10. Hannah Torok Yablonka: “The Commander of the ‘Yizkor’ Order; Herut, Holocaust and Survivors”, in Selwyn Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas: Israel: The First Decade of Independence p. 211f, 218. SUNY Press, 1995 ISBN 9780791422595
  11. Tamar Herman: “New Challenges to New Authority: Israeli Grassroots Activism in the 1950s”, in Selwyn Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas: Israel: The First Decade of Independence p. 109. SUNY Press, 1995 ISBN 9780791422595
  12. Colin Shindler: A History of Modern Israel p.132. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 9780521850285.
  13. Hannah Torok Yablonka: “The Commander of the ‘Yizkor’ Order; Herut, Holocaust and Survivors”, in Selwyn Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas: Israel: The First Decade of Independence p. 222. SUNY Press, 1995 ISBN 9780791422595
  14. Jonathan Mendilow: Ideology, Party Change and Electoral Campaigns in Israel, 1965-2001 p. 97. SUNY Press, 2003. ISBN 9780791455876
  15. Jonathan Mendilow: Ideology, Party Change and Electoral Campaigns in Israel, 1965-2001 p. 67. SUNY Press, 2003. ISBN 9780791455876

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