Israel: Why Barak Won


In Israel’s new electoral system, which brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 1996 and then brought him down in May 1999, each voter casts two ballots. One is for the prime minister, and the other is for one of the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. This system is an electoral mongrel. It is a cross between the American presidential system and the European parliamentary system.

The way the Israelis used their two votes in the 1999 election led to two contradictory results, embodied in the two winners of the election. Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu by an amazing 12-percent gap (56 percent to 44 percent). The other winner is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party called Shas, composed largely of poorer Israelis deriving from North Africa and other parts of the Middle East. Shas, which seeks, in a country that is largely secular, “a revival of glorious religious Sephardic tradition,” gained seven seats, from ten in 1996 to seventeen in 1999. This makes Shas the third-largest party in the new parliament, just after Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which now has nineteen seats (down from thirty-two), and Barak’s Labor Party, which now has twenty-six seats (down from thirty-four).

Barak’s personal victory was based on the forces pulling the electorate toward Israel’s political center; Shas’s victory was based on the forces pulling it away. What makes the election results so confusing is the difficulty of reconciling these two conflicting forces in Israeli politics. On the face of it, this contradiction is built into the electoral system itself. It gives the voters one ballot to choose a prime minister who may “unite” the country. It gives them another ballot to vote for a party that represents their sectarian doctrines and distinctive group interests.

There were always a large number of parties in the Knesset because of the system of proportional representation and the low threshold for getting in (1.5 percent of the total vote). In the old system, where each voter cast only one ballot, there were ten parties in the parliament in 1992. Now, in 1999, the number of parties has gone up to fifteen; they include three religious parties, Shas among them, with a total of twenty-seven seats, three Arab parties with ten seats, and two parties of Russian immigrants also having ten seats.

Yet the conflicting victories of Barak and the Shas Party are not to be explained only by the technicalities of the odd Israeli electoral system. In the 1996 elections, which were conducted under the same two-ballot system, Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres by a margin of less than one percent, a result that clearly showed the virtual tie that had existed between the left and the right since 1977. Thus Barak’s landslide calls for some other explanation, and so does the spectacular rise of Shas among voters who are by no means all ultra-Orthodox. In my view both victories derive largely from one source—Netanyahu’s politics of resentment and the collapse of this politics.

Netanyahu built up a coalition of “the rejected”—Israelis who felt left out by the secular Labor Party establishment, mainly Ashkenazi Jews of European descent, that had founded the state. The groups he appealed to included ultra-Orthodox, Sephardic Jews, and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, called in Israel “the Russians.” Netanyahu tried to cement this heterogeneous coalition together by fostering bitter resentment toward the secular Ashkenazim, whom he called the “old elites.” He also both counted on and cultivated hatred of the Arabs, with whom the “old elites” were allegedly collaborating and colluding to sell out the interests of the “true Jewish people.”

But his coalition of the rejected broke down. The hatreds within it—between Russian and Sephardic Jews, between the Russians and the ultra-Orthodox, and especially between the Russians and the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox—became more intense than their hatred of the “common enemy,” the secular Ashkenazim. The politics of resentment that Netanyahu promoted—both as a strategy and as an expression of his own resentful temperament—turned out to be self-defeating. The Russians moved away from him because they saw him as being dangerously close to the ultra-Orthodox, especially the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who, as relatively poor and underprivileged Jews, resent the economic success of the recently arrived secular Russians.

On the other hand, the politics of resentment served the Shas Party well. Its leaders directed their supporters’ hostility toward both the Russians and the Ashkenazim identified with the old secular Labor establishment from the time of David Ben-Gurion to that of Shimon Peres. The resentment fostered by Netanyahu also helped Barak, for it produced a counterresentment against him from the Ashkenazim on the left, and, more importantly, those in the center. Angered with Netanyahu’s tactics, such Ashkenazi Jews—not only in the Labor Party but in the center parties as well—worked all the harder to defeat Netanyahu in the elections. Thus the collapse of Netanyahu’s politics of resentment exposed his political life as solitary, nasty, brutish, and short—the shortest of any prime minister elected in Israel.

The elections weren’t about plans, platforms, or programs, or even about the “peace process.” They were full of resentment, and even loathing and lasting hatreds. The election results are already affecting the peace process—as shown by Barak’s recent round of meetings with President Mubarak, Chairman Arafat, and King Abdullah—but the word “peace” was barely mentioned during the election campaign, nor even was the word “war.”

On the day of the elections, Netanyahu, knowing that he was going to lose, went from one “pirate,” or unlicensed, Shas radio station to another to appeal to the Sephardic voters. He was quite aware that this was doubly illegal, since even a legitimate station may not broadcast campaign propaganda on Election Day. This was a desperate move, calling to mind Richard III’s cry, “My kingdom for a horse.” It was Netanyahu’s last apocalyptic ride on the radio waves.

Yet only half an hour after the polls closed, before the results were in, Netanyahu stepped down upon hearing the results of an exit poll on television. He is reported to have said, “I do not marry well [his current wife is his third] but I divorce well.” His resignation was in the same vein.

What calls for explanation is not merely the loss of an election. Since 1977 Israel had become accustomed to a fairly even division between the left and the right, with a slight edge to the right. This was illustrated in Netanyahu’s victory in 1996, when he received only 30,000 votes more than Peres. Yet now, in 1999, he was defeated by a twelve-times-greater margin—363,000 votes out of about three million.

Moreover, Barak beat Netanyahu by 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent even among the Jewish population, which makes up about 81 percent of the total population of Israel, whereas in 1996 Netanyahu had a solid 10-percent lead over Peres in the Jewish vote. Both Rabin and Peres had been subject to the constant, undemocratic claim that they had “no mandate” for their policies because they had not received a majority of the Jewish vote, as if only that vote counted. In the circles frequented by Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer, the claim of “no mandate” was common.

But now Barak received not only 94 percent of the Israeli Arab vote; he achieved a clear majority among the Jews. Even among the settlers on the Golan Heights, Barak got a clear majority of 58.5 percent. So what needs to be explained about the election is the extent of Netanyahu’s defeat, and not just the fact that he was defeated.

Israel’s demographics favored Netanyahu. Between 1996 and 1999 the constituencies of the parties in his coalition outnumbered those of Barak’s. The flow of Russian immigration, the natural growth in the ultra-Orthodox community, and the Sephardic majority among newly eligible voters all seemed to be working for him.

Moreover, during the first three and a half months of the four-and-a-half-month-long campaign, the polls mostly showed a tie between Barak and Netanyahu. When Barak had a slight edge, this was dismissed with comments that Labor candidates always peak too early. In the tribal atmosphere of Israeli elections, people often vote for the party they identify with rather than on the basis of a candidate’s competence or performance. Netanyahu had reason to believe that his “tribes” would keep him in power. About five weeks before the elections Barak was trailing in the polls among Russian voters—he was predicted to get 17 percent of their vote to Netanyahu’s 57 percent. In fact, however, Barak ended up with 58 percent of the Russian vote.

A month before the elections the general feeling was still that Barak, who lacked television charisma, was not “taking off,” that he was unable to break the tie with Netanyahu. Two successive candidates of a newly organized “Center” party seemed the only ones who could beat Netanyahu in a runoff election if neither Netanyahu nor Barak obtained a majority in the first round. The first was the former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who subsequently withdrew in favor of Yitzhak Mordechai, who had been popular as the defense minister in the Netanyahu government. But Mordechai failed to catch on with voters.

Why did Barak win so decisively? One blunt explanation is “It’s Bibi’s personality, stupid.” This theme was stressed in the Center Party’s campaign, particularly by Dan Meridor, who had resigned from Netanyahu’s government, in which he had served as finance minister. In both looks and manner Meridor reminds one of the young Walter Mondale. Although he was raised in the same leafy Jerusalem neighborhood as Netanyahu, went to the same school, and had the same sort of right-wing ideological background, his character is the very opposite of Netanyahu’s. For one thing, Meridor has a reputation for integrity.

Meridor argues that there is no genuine ideological difference between Labor and Likud. In his opinion they do not differ seriously on social or economic policy, or even about the future status of the entire West Bank. The Oslo Accords, the Hebron Agreement, and even the Wye Accords were all at least formally accepted by the Likud. Taken together, they give up the idea of the “Greater Israel”—that is, the intention of annexing the entire West Bank. In the Labor Party, too, Meridor claims, there has been a shift since even the doves have accepted the idea that large groups of settlements will remain in Israel’s hands. They have become so established as facts of life that no one in his political senses believes that all or even most of the settlements could be dismantled.

Thus, in Meridor’s view, there is no apple of discord between Labor and Likud, except for the rotten apple Netanyahu. But then Netanyahu was exposed as a hopelessly flawed leader by the resignations of prominent people in his own party—the former defense minister Mordecai, the former foreign affairs minister David Levy, the former science minister Benny Begin (son of Menachem), and Meridor himself. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak said he joined the Center Party to warn the Israelis against Netanyahu, whom he called “dangerous to Israel.” Yossi Peled, a much-respected ex-commander of the Northern Front, who was one of the few former generals to join the Likud, deserted Netanyahu on the ground that he was an untrustworthy leader. Even Yitzhak Shamir joined the long list of former supporters of Netanyahu who now told the voters not to trust him. At the same time, foreign leaders from Clinton to Mubarak to Hussein were describing him as “unreliable.”

In short, then, it was not Barak who toppled Netanyahu, but Netanyahu’s own character flaws that did him in politically—with no little help from his former friends. Netanyahu’s “unreliability” is indeed perceived by many people as pathological. No one, or at least no one who counts, came to believe him or in an agreement made with him. Netanyahu had lost power by breaking virtually every promise he made, or so most of the people around him believed.

But Netanyahu’s pathological tendencies explain why he lost his standing among military leaders and professional politicians, not why his government was eventually brought down. Naive as it sounds, I believe that many politicians felt that Netanyahu was giving the profession a bad name. Otherwise it is hard to explain why so many Likud members of the Knesset voted to hold early elections, knowing very well that their chances of returning to power were small. But this is only true of the professionals and does not explain why Netanyahu lost so badly in the elections.

Opposed to the account of Netanyahu’s defeat as caused by his defects of character is the claim that it was politics rather than personality that brought him down. In this view Netanyahu is no worse morally than other current or former politicians. He might not have scored as well on a polygraph test as Rabin, but this would not have made him remarkably different from Shimon Peres, the previous Israeli holder of the title “most unreliable politician.” On this account Netanyahu was caught in an unresolved contradiction between his ideological convictions as a true believer in the Greater Israel—the son of a high priest of that faith—and his intense personal ambition to run the country. To keep his job he had to move away from the extreme right, where he belongs ideologically, to the center, where the votes are. Moving to the center meant compromising on the issue of turning over land to Palestinians. So he made contradictory promises and followed contradictory policies, and this was fatal—thus it was politics, not his personality, that brought him down.


These two accounts of Netanyahu’s downfall—the personal and the political—assume that it was Netanyahu who lost rather than Barak who won. In the account of Barak’s supporters, however, Netanyahu’s blunders may have helped, but the decisive factor was Barak’s carefully planned and tactically brilliant campaign.

Throughout his military career Barak has been the victim of high expectations; thus, for example, as chief of staff he was expected to re-create the army in his own image—“small and smart.”1 However, hardly anyone thought he would prove to be an attractive candidate; and nothing in the way he ran the Labor Party indicated that he was up to the task. To everyone’s surprise, he brought remarkable powers of concentration to working out a winning strategy. He talked quietly to one constituency after another, always showing cool self-control, in contrast to Netanyahu’s tirades, and he ran an amazingly efficient campaign, enlisting thousands of volunteers to work for him. It was quite excitingly unexciting, and it called for considerable self-discipline on the part of Barak, of whom it was often said that he constantly tries to prove how clever he is. Exciting campaigns arouse emotions; Barak’s task was to damp them down.

As for Netanyahu, while he showed himself to be an embarrassingly incompetent prime minister, he was regarded by both friend and foe as a superb campaigner, a true magician of demagogy. With his authoritative-sounding, resonant baritone, he had, people believed, an uncanny ability to summon up the evil spirits of a negative campaign through the airwaves and win the election. The higher the expectations, the greater the amazement at how sloppy, unfocused, and badly organized his campaign actually was. Even on television he was a flop, to the point where his American campaign adviser, Arthur Finkelstein, asked him not to make a closing speech at the end of the campaign. Netanyahu on television had become a liability.

Barak, on the other hand, for all his unassuming appearance, gave the impression of a man of authority who seemed more like a statesman than a politician. There was one defining moment when Netanyahu’s television spell vanished; the occasion was the television debate that was supposed to include all three candidates for prime minister. Barak avoided it, in what was later seen as his best move in the entire campaign. He left Netanyahu to face his own former defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, now leading the Center Party, hoping that they would damage each other—which they did.

Netanyahu plainly didn’t think Mordechai would be a match for him in a television contest. He was all set to attack Barak’s empty seat, but Mordechai didn’t give him the chance. His most effective tactic was a sardonic grin of disbelief, as if to say: “Bibi-don’t-try-to-sell-it-to-me-I-know-you-all-too-well.” Mordechai’s Cheshire-cat grin made a lasting impression on many Israelis.

But Netanyahu also exposed Mordechai as someone with very little to say about how he would govern the country. Thus the absent Barak was the only one who clearly gained from the debate. For Barak is an obsessive “explainer” who likes to talk as if he is briefing a group of officers; and he is famously vain about his intellectual abilities. For him to say that he chose to avoid the debate “because I am not good at it” called for a great deal of shrewdness and self-restraint on his part. He gambled that Mordechai, as a Likud insider, would cause far more damage to Netanyahu, and he did.

Important as the debate was, it was still a sideshow. Barak created a formidable organization of 18,000 enthusiastic volunteers that rose to 50,000 on Election Day. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in Israel, even in the days of Ben-Gurion, whose system of local party bosses resembled that of Tammany Hall. Netanyahu, by contrast, had no organization to speak of. He had to pay the people working for him, and they hardly seemed enthusiastic. Now he complains that it was money that did him in, that peace-mongering millionaires contributed hugely to Barak in the expectation of making money out of a peace settlement. With this kind of money, he said, you can always buy an election.

Barak may indeed have collected more money than Netanyahu did for his campaign, but it had only a marginal effect. It was his armies of volunteers that made a difference, particularly some three hundred veterans of Barak’s elite commando group (known as “The Unit”), who created a network of very able people strategically located throughout his campaign organization. They displaced the Labor Party campaign organizers, whom they, like Barak, believed to be utterly useless. When some of Barak’s volunteers were physically attacked, the former commando volunteers stopped the younger ones from making a big issue of it, since this would present the left as weak in the eyes of the public. Wailing about unfair treatment does not build support for an Israeli leader—a point that was apparently unknown to Peres.

The veterans from the Unit suspected that the ultra-Orthodox, in a Gogol-like move, were allowing dead souls to vote by handing out defunct identity cards. The veterans then descended on Israel’s cemeteries to update the list of eligible voters. The macabre earnestness of Barak’s commandos could become deadly serious if they form a Jewish version of Opus Dei, a secret order in the service of Pope Barak. There is a yearning for transparency in Israeli politics that doesn’t go well with a quasi-secret lodge of true believers.

Barak’s strategy for getting votes, worked out with his advisers James Carville, Robert Shrum, and Stan Greenberg, all of whom had worked for Clinton, was simple. First Barak had to get a “security clearance” from the floating voters—committed neither to Labor nor to Likud—as someone who could be trusted to defend them against terrorism. Once this was done, he could clinch their votes with proposals to deal with urgent domestic issues such as high unemployment, the collapse of the health system, and the continuing deterioration of public schools, as well as the deep recession in the ordinary (non-high-tech) economy. In short he would promise to remedy the serious failures of the Netanyahu government.

In order to get this security clearance, forceful reminders were sent to the public that Barak was the most decorated fighter in the Israeli army and the chief of staff under Rabin. For the Russian immigrants, a Russian version of Barak’s biography was distributed saying Barak is a true military hero, not a mere party commissar with the rank of general (“Politruk”).

The young Barak, in white overalls, was shown on television rescuing the passengers on a hijacked Sabena plane in 1972; he looked on the screen like a terrifying avenging angel rather than the plumpish middle-aged politician he is today. I doubt that any of the “civilian” Labor politicians would have received a security clearance from the floating vote. Only Barak could do so.

Barak made another shrewd gamble in agreeing with Netanyahu on a prolonged race lasting four and a half months. His hope was that the two attractive candidates in the Center Party—first Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and then Yitzhak Mordechai—would turn out to be sprinters, unable to run a marathon. The gamble succeeded. Mordechai quit a day before the elections, dreading the humiliation of obtaining only 3 percent of the votes. The center did not hold, but it helped move resistant voters from Netanyahu’s camp to Barak’s in two stages. First they switched to the less scary Center Party, then to Barak.


How convincing is the account of Barak’s campaign as an explanation of Netanyahu’s debacle? Here it is worth asking what Netanyahu’s supporters believe. I mean their more sober explanations, not the fantasy circulated by one of his close aides that the CIA mounted a grand conspiracy to get rid of him.

Netanyahu’s supporters take Pickwick’s advice: “Never mind character, stick to alibis.” And their alibi is that “the media are to blame for Bibi’s downfall.” They claim that the members of the Israeli press and televi-sion, who belong to the “old elite,” hated Bibi from his very first day in office. They say the press believed he was a usurper who had “practically” murdered Rabin, and therefore tried to dwarf Bibi’s achievements, such as reducing terrorism and inflation, and lowering Palestinian expectations and the budget deficit. All the media did was to denigrate Bibi in an uninhibited campaign verging on character assassination.

Is there any truth in this charge? When Netanyahu and his supporters refer to “the media” they mean the established Israeli press, radio, and television. They conveniently forget that the groups that make up Netanyahu’s “coalition of the rejected” have their own publications and broadcasts. The ultra-right Russian-language newspaper Vesti, widely read by the Russian immigrants, saw Barak as a dangerous Socialist. The ultra-Orthodox Hebrew newspapers were all ferociously pro-Netanyahu. The Shas Party runs over forty pirate radio stations as well as a thriving videotape industry. And then there are magazines put out by the settlers, especially one called Nekuda, (“Point”). Moreover, Netanyahu installed Uri Porat, an official sympathetic to him, as overseer of the state television channel, and this was no small help to him.

But it is true that there was a great deal of animosity toward Netanyahu among journalists from the principal newspapers and TV and radio news programs. Many of them could barely disguise their contempt for him. Thus the Hebrew press had a part in his downfall, but not the one his supporters claim. The greatest shift of votes away from Netanyahu occurred among the Russians, who had their own publications.

My own view is that to understand the election we must first look at the swing vote that tipped the scales so heavily against Netanyahu, with many former Netanyahu voters and many Russians turning against him. My friend Gabriel Motzkin suggested a name for many of these voters—“national liberals”—recalling the national liberals who supported Bismarck in his campaign against political Catholicism during the Kulturkampf in Germany. This was a struggle against the clerical control of education in parts of Germany, and in general against the independence of the Roman Catholic Church from the rule of the nation-state.

The culture war in Israel between the secular and the religious is not unlike that which took place in Germany. For Israel’s national liberals, as with the German ones, the national element is stronger than the liberal one. In times of crisis with the Arabs the national liberal becomes intensely nationalistic and may vote for a rightist party; but in calmer periods he favors an urban, Westernized Israel, anti-clerical if not wholly antireligious. He (more often he than she) favors a free economy, free trade, and low marginal taxes—at least in his own income bracket.

The Israeli national liberals are divided between two attitudes—the primordial and the futuristic^2. The primordialists believe that throughout history there have always been enemies of the Jewish people, whose genocidal intent is the only historical constant, from Pharaoh and the Amalekites to the Greeks and the Romans, then the Crusaders, the German Nazis, and now the Arabs. For each outside enemy, there are two kinds of internal enemies. One is the “decadent hedonist,” from the Hellenized Jews of Herodian times to the Westernized Jews of today. The second is the “self-hating Jews,” who import into Israel alien notions such as democracy and human rights, thus undermining the Jewish people’s resolve to continue their eschatological war against their mortal enemies. If only, say the primordialists, we could rid ourselves of the enemies from within—the left—and create Jewish unity, then no one could destroy us.

The futurists want a “normal” Israel that would be like other well-ordered nations—a country in which individual rights and minority rights are respected, including the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, and in which private economic investment will eventually increase growth and resolve many of the country’s tensions.

The national liberals vacillate between the paranoia of the primordialists and the optimism of the futurists. In the last election the mood of the national liberals was represented by the Center Party, the Shinui (“change”) Party, and the Russian party led by Natan Sharansky, each of which got six seats in the Knesset. It was their voters who brought about Netanyahu’s colossal defeat. The upset was led by the Russians, who are the epitome of the national liberals.

This was surprising. After all, only five weeks before the elections the polls gave Netanyahu 57 percent of the Russian vote, to 17 percent for Barak. Moti Morel, the public relations man for Sharansky’s Russian party (“Israel in Ascent”) put questions to a group of activists, hoping to select a central issue for the party’s campaign. The obvious subjects—unemployment, housing, education—left them cold. But then, when Morel mentioned the Ministry of the Interior, the interest among the activists went up dramatically. For many years this ministry, which deals with immigrants, has been in the hands of the Shas Party. The Russians have felt systematically humiliated by Shas officials who strongly insinuated that they were not Jews, and that the Russian immigrant women were prostitutes. This resentment was cleverly transformed by Sharansky’s strategists into a rhyming slogan in Russian that goes roughly as follows: “Ministry of Interior in control of Shas? No! Our Control!” The “Our Control” slogan became a battle cry. After it was used in the campaign by the Russians, the Shas Party took it up in its own political ads—saying it would keep control. This controversy benefited both the Russians and Shas, while causing havoc to Netanyahu, since both parties belonged to his coalition.

The slogan expressed the tensions in the towns where Russian immigrants and Israelis of Moroccan origin (who are the largest component of Shas) live side by side. The Russian newcomers are much better educated than the Moroccans, who arrived in Israel in the Fifties. The difference between them somewhat resembles the one between Asian immigrants and blacks in the United States. The hostility between the two communities was smoldering throughout Netanyahu’s term, but it erupted at the worst time for him, a month before the election, badly hurting his own prospects. How did this happen?

For most of his tenure, Netanyahu had as one of his principal aides Avigdor Liberman, which was something like having Haldeman and Ehrlichman combined in one adviser. A Russian Jew, ruthless and intelligent, who perceived politics through the prism of a provincial party boss of the Yeltsin era, Liberman apparently saw no distinction between the methods of politics and those of the Mafia. The press viewed him as a sort of Rasputin with a sinister hold on Tsar Bibi. Liberman, who was investigated by the police on various charges, was also involved in fierce party infighting on Netanyahu’s behalf. In the end, having become a liability to the boss, he resigned.

Liberman then decided to form a new Russian party. It is still unclear to what extent Netanyahu collaborated in this move, but the result was disastrous for him. Liberman did well for himself, his party ending up with four Knesset seats. But introducing a new party on Sharansky’s turf lost Netanyahu his most important ally. Sharansky is reported to have said to Netanyahu, “Liberman will hurt me but he will bury you.” He was right. Sharansky shifted toward Barak, and it seems that the two worked tacitly together—and Sharansky was indeed later appointed minister of the interior. When the extent of the Russian desertion became clear to Netanyahu, he panicked. He blundered badly by sending an open letter to the Russian immigrants disassociating himself from Liberman and calling for them to vote for Sharansky. The Russians saw this as a double betrayal. Netanyahu lost on both counts—his letter didn’t help him with Sharansky’s supporters, and it hurt him with Liberman’s.

The two political problems within Netanyahu’s own camp—conflict between the Russian newcomers and the Moroccans and the split within the Russian community itself—came, disastrously for Netanyahu, at almost exactly the same time. Netanyahu has a remarkable capacity for bringing out the worst in others. Indeed, the story of his double betrayal of Sharansky and Liberman, which he regarded merely as “politics” and nothing personal, led to a vehement reaction from people who had previously been willing to serve him.

As for the Shas Party, its leader, Aryeh Deri, arguably the most brilliant of Israeli politicians, is likely to end up in jail for several years, unless the guilty verdict he has received on charges of taking bribes while he was an Interior Ministry official is overturned by the Supreme Court. For years Deri’s trial on these charges dominated and tainted Israeli public life. There is no aspect of Israeli politics, including the Shas vote in favor of the Oslo Accords, that is not involved in Deri’s efforts to get himself off the hook. But in the end—after serving under four prime ministers, Shamir, Rabin, Peres, and Netanyahu—he was found guilty as charged shortly before Election Day. This was convenient for Barak, who had said he wouldn’t include Shas in a coalition so long as Deri headed it.

Deri made his own case the main issue of the Shas campaign. He presented himself as Agnus Deri, the sacrificial lamb for his community. The Ashkenazi elite, he said, were ganging up on him not for his bribery but for his success. That two of his judges were Sephardic Jews made no difference. Deri, like Liberman, focused his constituency’s resentment not just against the obvious targets—the press and television—but even more so against Israel’s judicial system. This hurt Netanyahu. National liberals basically support law and order—at least law for the Jews and order for the Arabs. The more Deri and Liberman attacked the court, the police, and the public prosecutor, the more Shas and the new Russian party were strengthened; but the national liberals in the center became more estranged from Netanyahu, who continued to work with Deri’s party.

Menachem Begin, not Netanyahu, was the inventor of the politics of resentment and the coalition of the rejected. But Begin was a great defender of the law in Israel, with an almost excessive respect for the judicial authorities. Though he was paternalistic as well as a demagogue, he was also a genuine democrat. In his own strange way he tried to educate the country in both the rule of the law and the democratic rules of the game, even though some Israeli communities had no tradition of either. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is a cynic, and he equivocated on both. He thus became suspect on both counts among the national liberals.


Shas has risen from four seats in 1984 to six in 1988, ten in 1996, and now seventeen in 1999. Calling Shas an ultra-Orthodox party is misleading. It has a core of Sephardic Jews who received an ultra-Orthodox education and conduct their lives in submission to the total authority of Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader. This way of life was unknown among Sephardic Jews in the past, being an imitation of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox customs. Surrounding the ultra-Orthodox core of believers among Shas followers there are the adherents of a more loosely defined popular religion, one that attracts many “traditionalists” from the Sephardic community and reflects some of the practices of the Moroccan Jews. The center of this popular religion is magic—including visits to the tombs of holy people for the purpose of healing and obtaining talismans from practical Cabalists. Those who are attracted to such popular religion know little of traditional Halachic Judaism.

What then do ordinary Shas voters vote for? They want respect for religion and tradition. They want a government that will do exclusively what is “good for the Jews,” with no other considerations such as “democracy.” They vote for a proud Sephardic identity, and they demand not just religious schools but a long school day, hot meals at school, and their own school buses. Although hostile to the Arabs, they are indifferent to the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

But more than religion and resentment drive Shas voters. The rise of the middle class once served as a ubiquitous explanation for every social phenomenon. Now it has been replaced by “globalization.” If the Russian immigrants, thanks to their education and inclinations, are adaptable to the global economy—and particularly to working with computers in high-tech businesses—Shas voters are the victims of this economy. They lack such skills and are becoming more and more economically irrelevant.

Most people in Israel now live in an illusionary atmosphere of “post-peace”—as if there were actually peace between Israel and the Arabs. But there is no peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians, or the Hezbollah. Here I believe there was a marked difference between the candidates. Netanyahu, who presented himself as a tough negotiator, was really a non-negotiator; even when he signed agreements, such as the Wye agreement to give up more land, it was clear that he was not going to respect them. Barak will be a genuine negotiator—but of what kind?

Among the negotiators in Israel there are two schools—the tough and the tender. The tough school says that Israel must take advantage of its strength at the negotiating table and extract all possible concessions from the Palestinians that are still compatible with reaching an agreement. Such concessions include Jerusalem under the sole sovereignty of Israel, and the maximum amount of territory with the maximum number of settlers and the minimum of Palestinians. The tender school says that an agreement of this sort may not be feasible, and even if it could be reached it would not be wise. It is a recipe for disaster because it will stir up all the irredentist elements in Palestinian society, especially the Islamists. It would be as great a mistake as the Treaty of Versailles, which contributed so much to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. It is important to reach an agreement that can block the forces of irredentism. I suspect that Barak, like Rabin, belongs to the tough school—partly by temperament and conviction, and partly in the belief that no one could sell an agreement of the tender sort to the Israelis.

Barak has promised to withdraw the Israeli army from the south of Lebanon within a year, and he insists that this is a high priority for him. This seems to mean he envisions an agreement with the Syrians concerning the Golan Heights and Lebanon. But Barak is in a difficult situation. Even though he himself won handsomely, his party lost badly. Owing to the rise of a number of small parties, it went down from thirty-four to twenty-six Knesset seats. To make agreements with the Syrians and Palestinians he must convince more than two dozen of his coalition partners to support him, apart from his own party and the liberal left party Meretz (which obtained ten seats). It is true that more than at any time since 1967, President Assad is playing his part in reassuring Israelis he wants an agreement. But for all Barak’s energy in announcing a new drive for regional peace, his difficulties in holding together a coalition including the religious parties and national liberals are just beginning.

July 14, 1999

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    See my account of Barak in my Views in Review (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).