Israel's political make-over

Experts discuss Ehud Barak's sweeping victory.


Daryl Lindsey
May 19, 1999 5:00PM (UTC)

"The nation has decided and we respect that decision. That is the way it has to be in a democracy," a bleary-eyed Benjamin Netanyahu declared Monday. He was conceding his defeat to Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, Yitzhak Rabin protegi, one-time foreign minister and heavily decorated former general whom exit polls showed had unseated the prime minister.

It was an odd twist for two longtime friends who had once served together (Barak as Netanyahu's commander) in the elite Sayeret Matkal anti-terror force that in 1972 safely liberated 92 hostages on a Sabena airliner that had been hijacked by Palestinians, and in the process became the stuff of Israeli myth.

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Typically, victory margins in Israeli elections are slim. But in a historical shift, Barak pulled in 56 percent of the vote with Netanyahu trailing at 43.9 percent -- a 12-percent lead that obviated the need for a runoff vote. The election turned out to be a referendum on both Netanyahu and his Likud Party, which lost nearly a third of its 32 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament. Barak's Labor Party did not gain enough votes to form a majority, but enough centrist and leftist parties scored seats to enable the incoming prime minister to create a center-left coalition.

Barak now has 45 days to patch together a government, and speculation is rife that he will build Israel's first ruling secular coalition, which would bring about profound social changes after years of conservative religious rule.

Salon News spoke to observers of Israeli politics on the causes of Netanyahu's crushing defeat, what to expect from Barak and how the elections will affect the flagging Middle East peace process.

Allan Solomonow is the director of the Middle East peace program at the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco.

Ehud Barak's victory represents a repudiation of Bibi Netanyahu. He was brought down because Israelis felt he was not honest and did not appeal to voters. Israel has moved from center to left in a more dramatic way than has ever happened before. For the first time in history, an Israeli government may come into existence that is not dependent on the Orthodox religious community. Because of its parliamentary system, all [Israeli] governments have been cobbled together in small pieces. At times, a religious party with only three or four members in the Knesset has had veto power over major internal policies of the government. Once that is eliminated, it raises possibilities of proposals that have been made for decades, like the idea of an Israeli constitution, defining who is a Jew and providing for secular institutions for marriage, divorce, burial and conversion.

Netanyahu caused Netanyahu's defeat. It started just before last elections when he announced that even though he was powerfully opposed to the Oslo peace process in principle, for tactical reasons, his party would support it to get elected. He was willing to fill out any principle for tactical advantage. But he ran out of promises to give and agreements to implement. Israelis have shown they are tired and bored with old-style politics.

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Netanyahu's closest and senior ministers felt that, although they had been appointed, they were not listened to, that Netanyahu formulated policy despite them. He lost all credibility with the people he needed to maintain a coherent political coalition. It may be possible for Barak to put together a secular coalition that would go to the left of Labor. If they do this, it could result in new legislation that would secularize aspects of Israeli society for the first time. Another route they may take would be for Barak to
include the Shas, the non-European Orthodox religious party. It would be easier for an Israeli government to move on peace with the inclusion of the Orthodox community than without it. Will it want to move on secular issues or peace? It would be very difficult to put the two together.

The peace process specifically and to a large extent most of the political issues, including religion, were not heavy-duty factors in the campaign. It was mostly a referendum on Netanyahu's leadership and collaborating parties. The peace issue did not come out strongly in the campaign and consequently we don't have a clear idea where Ehud Barak is headed on the issue. We know it will be better, but how much is uncertain.

Barak is an interesting, bright, solid, consistent guy. He's an Israeli Al Gore -- not a charismatic individual, but dependable and open to persuasion and change. Most Israelis look at Barak as a chance to have a leader who will maintain a steady, rational hold on Israeli affairs, a stark contrast to Netanyahu. The Israelis want peace, a steady economy and they hope Barak can move them in that direction.

Israeli politics have often been described as tribal politics. European Jews, black Jews, etc., have always been seen as immutable groups who would only vote for one party. That seems to have begun collapsing with these elections, which may create much more hope of openness and democracy in Israeli politics.

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Amir Cheshin is co-author of "Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem" and former aide to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

There is no doubt that the Likud Party got a real answer from the Israeli public. The Likud is in decline, but I'm sure it will recover. I don't know how long this recovery process will last, but it will enable Barak and the Labor Party to start a new movement toward peace. Barak's victory marks a significant change in Israeli policy toward the international community, especially the Arab world. Netanyahu proved himself as a person you cannot trust. His closest friends defected, and started to act against him.

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Netanyahu's coalition was comprised of the right-wing parties, and I want to believe that Barak will be smart enough to establish a coalition that will be comprised of the left-wing and center parties.

The election was, in a way, a referendum. The people are sick of the frozen peace process and would like to move it forward. Talks with the Palestinians and Syrians will be renewed, and the joint committees with the Palestinians will renew their activities. Barak has a lot of work to do in Israeli foreign policy. He has to repair and cure the Israeli-American relationship, which was almost destroyed during Netanyahu times. Then he has to cure Israel's foreign policy with the Arab world. I believe our neighboring Arab countries are celebrating tonight.

David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

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It's clearly a decisive victory for Barak and his party. Most American Jews will celebrate this latest expression of Israeli democracy. Two-thirds of American Jews will support the outcome. But Ehud Barak is largely unknown among American Jews -- he has not been a familiar figure in the United States, much less on U.S. television. There will be a familiarization curve here to get to know and understand him.

In the last seven months Barak came out of his aloof (some would say lonely), stiff public persona and began to establish a rapport with people and developed a momentum that carried him through. Netanyahu, the consummate campaigner, just seemed to have the wind taken out of his sails during the past few months.

Many in Israel said there was an issue of trust and credibility with Netanyahu. It was not as much a question of his policy as it was a sense that he could no longer be trusted. If you look at number of people who jumped ship and had bitter things to say -- all of them said that this is a man you can't hold to a promise or pledge. In the end, maybe he was too much of a loner who lost too many of the key people around him.

Many Israelis yawned throughout the electoral period because they didn't see substantial differences between the major three candidates. All three strove to claim the center, and many complained there were not substantial differences between them. Most Israelis are looking for peace and security and a leader who can find a balance between the two.

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They want a prime minister who can make peace, and is aware of security risks and danger zones Israel inevitably faces. They saw Barak as eminently qualified on both counts. There is no question about his military credentials -- he's the most-decorated soldier in Israeli history. He speaks the language of peace and will be able to speak with the United States and, hopefully, the Arabs to move the faltering process forward. Netanyahu was unable to navigate all of the shoals of the peace process.

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Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.

This was a landslide repudiation of the morass the peace process had become under Benjamin Netanyahu, a rejection of the divisive aspects -- including strains between Israel and the U.S. and strains in the religious and ethnic communities. Netanyahu lost because people felt he was responsible for the failing peace process and the escalating divisive rhetoric in Israeli civic life. Americans may assume this election was about religion or peace, but it was at least as much about economic issues. In 1959 Israel and Sweden had lowest differences between rich and poor, and Israel was one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. In 1999, however, it is second only to the U.S. in having the largest gap between rich and poor.

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People really resonated with Ehud Barak's message of one Israel, seeking consensus answers to issues and moving ahead in the direction of peace. Yitzhak Rabin was a mentor and inspiration to him. He's one of the most decorated military heroes in Israeli history, and he has Rabin's credibility to clarify the importance of peace process and the need for security to the Israeli people. Barak has clarified that he wants to move ahead, not just with Palestinians, but also to withdraw troops still in Lebanon, to get some movement with Syria and develop broad-based government. Rabin moved ahead with the peace process with too narrow a government, and that exacerbated the strains. To do this successfully means bringing in the Shas or Likud party. This is the first time it has been possible to bring together a secular government, but Barak will want to pull part of the religious community into his government coalition if possible. And while Barak took a tough position against some of the protections the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel has gotten, he did so in a way that showed how a prime minister candidate could take that position and still get backing of the majority of Israelis. That will have a psychological impact in Israel that will lead to the protection of rights for non-Orthodox Jews as well.

Still, the division between the secular and religious parties in the Knesset is going to grow, and Barak needs to find balance between both. And while he wants to go ahead with the peace process, the hardest issues have yet to be negotiated. Will Palestinian autonomy lead to a Palestinian state? What will happen with water rights? It's going to take a strong leader who can galvanize trust and support of more than a simple majority of the Israeli people. But if anyone can, it's Barak.

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James Zogby is director of the Arab American Institute in Washington.

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When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, we [the Arab-American community] were told to wait and see, to give him time. The settlements increased at more rapid rate, land confiscations also increased, the situation of the Palestinians deteriorated and the economy worsened.

We now have an opportunity to move forward. Will land confiscations be scaled back? Will there be an end to development and a rollback of settlements? Will the daily lives of Palestinians improve? We won't only look at negotiations, but also at whether the damage that' s been done [by Netanyahu] can be stopped and undone. Barak certainly has every interest in doing this, and we would hope that he will listen to those elements in his own party who will press him to do it. I hope the Clinton administration will also. But if they decide a honeymoon is in order, and that Barak should be given time and they allow more negative developments to occur so as not to undermine him, there will be less hope.

There are people saying this wasn't a referendum on the peace process, but I think it was. The people had a lack of trust for Netanyahu and, as Barak said, Israel had become stuck in the peace process, alienated and isolated in the region and was losing prestige because it hadn't moved forward. The Israelis voted for peace.


Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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