Home / Articles / Israel Picks a General…and a General Picks a Government
Ehud Barak’s victory over Benjamin Netanyahu in the May 17 Israeli election has been interpreted widely to mean the triumph of a secular, Oslo-supporting majority over a religious and nationalist opposition. But this fails to explain either the large increase in votes for Shas, the most controversial religious party, or Barak’s deliberate quest for a very broad coalition, including those who dislike Oslo. A better understanding may be obtained by analyzing three elements: the actual election results, including the Knesset; the choice of coalition partners; and Barak’s diplomatic challenges, including U.S.-Israeli relations.
1. Election Results: The One and the Many
The current Israeli political system, combining a direct vote for a prime minister and a separate tally for parliament was intended to diminish the ability of smaller parties to extort favors from coalitions with narrow pluralities. This election, the second under the system, again had the opposite effect. While Barak devastated the once invulnerable Netanyahu by a margin of 56% to 44% (52% to 48% in the Jewish vote), he must govern from a fractured, factional Knesset. The two major parties, Labor and Likud, muster together only 45 of 120 seats versus 66 in 1996 and 76 in 1992. Likud’s spectacular drop from 32 to 19 should not disguise Labor’s drop from 34 to 26. Labor’s real total may have been even lower because the party ran as a mini- coalition called “One Israel” and included the former Likud David Levy’s Gesher (Sephardim) and Meimad’s moderate religious, each of whom probably added a seat or two.
The contest for prime minister was distinguished by the “American consultants” who directed both campaigns at the strategic level and emphasized the importance of polls in shaping the candidates’ public image. Barak, a highly decorated but shy former chief of staff, abandoned his public persona of the patient analyst and with great discipline preached the slogans of integrity, unity, and peace in carefully contrived settings. He made several pledges, among them: no deals with other parties before the elections; ending the blanket draft exemption for religious school students; and an exit from Lebanon within a year’s time. That left Netanyahu to grapple with his own “negatives,” reinforced by attacks from the new Center Party, headed by the former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai. The Likud itself split over Netanyahu’s record and he could not convincingly attack Barak as soft on security.
The popular vote “against” Netanyahu, while it also harmed the Likud, did not repudiate all of his coalition partners. Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah Party (and the Russians in general) held their own. Most spectacular, the Sephardic religious party Shas— its leader, Aryeh Deri, sentenced to four years for bribery — went from 10 to 17, borne aloft on communal resentment and the party’s social services for the needy. But the larger religious vote also called forth a counter-reaction. Shinui tapped secular resentment of religious party prerogatives through the inimitable mouth of TV personality Tommy Lapid and earned six seats. Still, if one tallies together the Left-Center at 56 seats and the Right-Religious at 54 (27+27), the Israeli political landscape looks familiar enough: half the population tugged toward the socialist-secular Labor bloc and half tugged toward the nationalist-religious bloc.
2. Odd Couplings
Barak’s big victory over Netanyahu did not quickly translate into a government. The new prime minister, educated in Kibbutz and Army, is no post-Zionist, but he is post-Rabin and sought to avoid the narrow coalition approach that bedeviled his mentor. Barak took his time and his own counsel, quickly lowering the political temperature. But the broad “healing” coalition, said to number over eighty seats that was his first objective, fell victim to a hard reality: not all of the Likud, the second largest party smarting from its defeat, would follow Ariel Sharon into the government and, in any event, Sharon was demanding control of the peace process. That left the third largest party, Shas, still loyal to its jail-bound leader, Aryeh Deri. Taking Shas even without Deri invited major trouble from the secularists and the Russians, who deeply resented Shas control of the Interior ministry under Netanyahu. But Shas offered Barak a freer hand than the National Religious Party on settlements and peace negotiations.
For over a month the Prime Minister-elect worked the flanks of his potential coalition partners in order to strengthen the center, threatening at one point to create a minority government if necessary. In the end, however, he succeeded in assembling a broad coalition numbering seventy-five including Shas and two other religious parties that can also rely on sixteen more outside votes (10 Arab, 6 Shinui) to backstop peace deals. Most remarkably, half the new government is drawn from parties and personalities who also participated in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Following all of this “outreach,” Barak will now have to perform some “in-reach” to assuage clearly unhappy Labor politicians, who rejected his nominee for Knesset speaker, choosing instead the veteran Avraham Burg. Others, such as Nobel Laureate and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, will resist assignment to honorable but marginal posts.
Barak’s key ministerial appointments suggest a policy of tightly controlled change. The Prime Minister, like Rabin, will serve as his own Defense minister. He has also assembled a security management team of former military men that will relegate the new-old Foreign minister David Levy to a secondary role. Natan Sharansky, his new Interior minister from the Russian Yisrael B’Aliyah party, has to issue identity cards with religious affiliation; he will face the country’s most pressing religious problem, which is not the demands of Conservative and Reform rabbis for recognition but rather the 250,000 Russians not Jewish by any standard but who want to be full Israelis. Barak’s Education minister, Yossi Sarid from the secular Meretz party, presumably will not afflict him the way the religious-baiting Shulamit Aloni hurt Rabin. The biggest surprise turned out to be Barak’s choice of Avraham “Beiga” Shohat for the Treasury, a repeat from Rabin’s time with a penchant for overspending. This may presage a sharp struggle with the anti-inflationary policy of the Israel Central Bank, which, along with budget cuts, has been widely blamed for Israel’s recent slow growth and high unemployment.
3. Two Mistrusts and One Map
Barak’s desire for a broader coalition derived not only from his analysis that after the Netanyahu years the country needed to “come together” (peace at home) but also because of international challenges (peace abroad).
Barak faces immediately two tricky situations. He inherits Netanyahu’s legacy of mistrust with both Arafat and Clinton. The breakdown of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the last three years has sucked Washington into a powerful mediation that at Wye became a substitute for direct dealing between the parties. More recently, to head off Arafat’s threat to declare unilateral independence, Clinton has virtually posed as the patron of the Palestinian state-to-be.
While an advocate of a negotiated settlement with Arafat, Barak is no great enthusiast for the original Oslo agreement. As chief of staff, he criticized the security provisions and later opposed the Oslo II agreement in the Cabinet because he felt some of its withdrawals would reduce Israel’s leverage on final status talks. Now that the Oslo process is virtually over, he has an opportunity to make his own mark.
Barak has begun by advocating a broadly popular map. To the Palestinians’ dismay, he reaffirmed Rabin’s four “red lines:” no return to the 1967 geography; Jerusalem united under Israeli control; no large-scale removal of Israeli settlements; and no “modern army” in the Palestinian- controlled areas. This is, in fact, the commonly shared map among most Israelis, including the military: Israel controlling the ridge line and the buffer zone along the Jordan; its official borders to include some 85% of the settlers organized into several “blocs”; and the Palestinian government’s military power strictly limited. The great strength of this map is that it reflects a strong Israeli consensus. But it is not readily apparent why Arafat would agree to the “statelet” it gives him. Moreover, the “map” will force Clinton to clarify his own position: when the Palestinians begin to complain, is he going to get between Arafat and Barak or run the risk of stalemate in order to get the parties to do most of the negotiating themselves?
Then there is the Lebanon-Syrian front. Barak has pledged to get the Israeli army out of South Lebanon in a year’s time. A barrage of Hezbollah rockets on northern Israel followed by a heavy Israeli air assault on Lebanese targets in late June were reminders that this area has now become Israel’s sorest point. The question is whether Barak can fix Lebanon without also committing Israel to leave the Golan Heights, making Syria a partner for peace both there and along the Lebanese border.
Meanwhile, the dance with Damascus has already begun. There are rumors about a deal nearly struck between Netanyahu and Assad that would be easy for Barak to pick up; Assad, adding fuel to the rumors, has refused to join ranks with Arafat, Mubarak, and Abdullah II of Jordan in a united front; and both he and Barak exchanged public compliments about each other. Barak has also emphasized the security aspects of a Golan deal, playing down the notion of a “warm” peace with a Syria that does not want it. The Palestinians, fearful that a Syrian move will preempt the urgency of their case, and disturbed over further Israeli efforts to complete the ring of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem, are clearly anxious. There are rising expectations on all fronts none of which will tolerate a stalemate for much longer.
Ehud Barak begins his journey with the smallest political base— 26 seats — of any Israeli prime minister but with positions on the Palestinians and Lebanon that resonate broadly across the political spectrum. After a month of steady effort, he translated that into a broad coalition that will be held together more by the Prime Minister himself than by the weight of the Labor party. The success of this initial campaign now strengthens him for the next one: repairing relations with Washington as he tackles direct negotiations with two Arab leaders — Arafat and Assad— neither of whom wish Israel well. It will be a struggle on multiple fronts, and the new Prime Minister has begun by assembling an apparent surplus of domestic political power.