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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.”

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