The Propitious Rise of Israel’s little Napoleon

Avi Shlaim on why peace with Syria and the Palestinians is getting closer

Ehud Barak’s landslide victory in the general election of 17 May marked the beginning of a new era in Israeli politics. The election was critical for the future shape of the country’s chronically divided society as well as for its relations with the Arab world. Under the reformed electoral system, each voter casts two ballots – one for the prime minister and one for the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. In the contest for the premiership Barak defeated Binyamin Netanyahu by 56 to 44 per cent and his victory has produced a political earthquake comparable to the upheaval of 1977, when the Likud swept to power under Menachem Begin. Some Israelis saw it as the sunrise, after three dark and terrible years of Likud rule.

The election campaign, one of the most vitriolic in Israel’s history, highlighted the growing animosity between secular and religious Jews, immigrants and veterans, Jews and Arabs, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Netanyahu had greatly exacerbated these divisions by his paranoid personal style, by his duplicity and deviousness, and by exploiting the prejudices and resentments of the various groups for his own ends. Along the way he alienated most of his senior colleagues and all but destroyed his party. Barak, by contrast, set out to heal wounds, to bridge the gap between the different sub-cultures, and to reunite the nation. His aim was to capture the middle ground and to this end he reinvented the Labour Party as One Israel, jettisoning much of its ideology and reaching out to groups traditionally ignored by the Ashkenazi élite.

The underlying question was whether Israel was going to become a liberal, Western-orientated society or succumb to the growing influence of the fundamentalists. Initially, the election results seemed to represent a triumph of the secular Left over the reactionary Right. But this ignores the fact that both major parties did badly. Likud dropped from 32 seats in the Knesset to 19, while the Labour Party, in its new guise as One Israel, dropped from 34 to 26. It also ignores the success of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, composed largely of poorer Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, which now has 17 seats, compared to ten in 1996. Many secular Israelis are deeply disturbed by the growth in the power of Shas, whose leader Aryeh Deri was recently sentenced to four years in prison on charges of bribery and corruption.

Direct election of the Prime Minister was first introduced in 1996 in order to increase the leader’s power and reduce that of the smaller parties, but the result has been a decline in the power of the main parties and a proliferation of slates representing narrow interests. This year, 15 parties gained representation in the Knesset. The secular left-wing party Meretz, Labour’s natural ally in government, won ten seats. Israel B’aliyah, a Russian immigrants’ party led by Nathan Sharansky, won six. Shinui, an assertively secular liberal party, won six seats on an anti-Orthodox ticket. A new Centre Party, led by Yitzhak Mordechai, a defector from the Likud, also won six. The splintered Knesset complicated the task of forming a governing coalition, although Barak himself was in a relatively strong position to mould a coalition to suit his agenda.

The scale of Barak’s victory, exceeding all expectations, indicated a change in the mood of the nation, in favour of reaching a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians by granting them a state on land occupied by Israel since 1967. Likud’s duplicitous policy of pretending to accept the Oslo Accords while doing everything to undermine them was rejected by the electorate. During the campaign Barak pledged to honour all previous agreements with the Palestinian Authority but insisted that Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders, that the whole of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control, and that large blocs of Jewish settlement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be preserved. These were his ‘red lines’. He promised to restart the stalled talks with Syria and to reach within a year a peace deal that would include an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The difference between Barak and Netanyahu was the difference between a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator. A majority of Israelis had voted for the tough negotiator.

Despite his sweeping victory, it took Barak some fifty days to form a government that would command a majority in the Knesset. He could have simplified the task, and reduced the cost in concessions to potential coalition partners, by settling for a narrow majority. But he wanted a government which would be more representative, more stable, and afford him more latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. From the experience of Yitzhak Rabin, his mentor, and Netanyahu, he had learnt that the country cannot be governed when only half of the people are on your side. He therefore brought on board, in addition to Meretz and Israel B’aliyah, the three Orthodox parties – which involved sacrificing some of Labour’s domestic agenda.

Barak’s bid for national unity did not, however, include Israel’s one million Arabs, who constitute a sixth of the population. Having won 94 per cent of the Arab vote, he studiously ignored the three Arab parties when it came to forming a government. They had been keen to join the Government, so as to mark a new chapter in their relations with the Jews. They have a combined strength of ten seats, and would have given unequivocal support to a programme of equality at home and peace abroad. Barak, however, spurned their advances because he wanted to have a ‘Jewish majority’ behind him in handing over land to the Arabs. On 6 July, he stood at the podium and announced that he had secured the support of 75 of the 120 Parliamentarians: Israel’s largest ever peace-making government was born.

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