Posted on February 01, 1999 in Washington Watch

It is generally assumed that the election currently underway in Israel can be of critical importance to the peace process. The decision facing Israeli voters is whether to choose a leadership that can move in the direction of a comprehensive and just peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, or to continue the current government’s policies of obstructionism and confrontation.

Despite the significance of this choice, serious questions can be raised as to whether or not a substantial enough majority of Israeli voters will be able to elect a government strong enough to move the country in the direction of peace. This is not a new problem, however. Creating such a decisive consensus for peace has been a difficulty in Israel since the beginning of the current peace effort.

From the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993 until the election of Netanyahu’s Likud-led government in 1996, the Labor governments of Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres were unable to forge such a decisive consensus. Although they held a slim majority in the Knesset, they remained vulnerable to pressure from rightist elements. This shaped their governments’ thinking and limited their flexibility, producing a distorted implementation of the agreements they reached with the Palestinians.

Israeli apologists point to extremist violence as the reason why the peace process moved so slowly during its first three years, but this in no way can explain both the hesitation of the Rabin and Peres governments to implement peace and the hostile anti-peace policies they pursued.

For example, during those Labor years, settlement expansion, road-building and land confiscation in the West Bank accelerated to record high levels. The Labor government also made extensive use of prolonged economic closure of the West Bank and Gaza and an embargo of Palestinian goods and services that had devastating consequences for the Palestinians’ standard of living. While these practices were publicly explained as necessary for security, outright protectionism played an even more significant role. Also during this period, Israeli government sponsored death squads continued to operate in the Occupied Territories. The summary and brutal executions carried out by those squads not only violated law and the spirit of the peace agreements, but served to enflame Palestinian emotions.

Across the board, Israel failed to implement even the most basic requirements of the peace agreements and economic protocols reached with the Palestinians, all the while Israel, itself, was receiving the maximum benefits of peace. For example, more nations recognized Israel in that three-year period than in any other period since the founding of the state. Israel’s isolation in the Arab and Muslim world ended as Israelis celebrated their participation in regional economic conferences and even witnessed the opening of trade offices in some Arab countries. With the end of the Arab secondary boycott against Israel, foreign investment in the country reached record highs, producing a dramatic increase in the per-capita standard of living. And during this period, Israel’s already strong relationship with the United States became even stronger.

Despite these benefits, the Labor government failed to confront right-wing pressure in order to take more dramatic steps towards the Palestinians. Timetables were broken and negotiations deteriorated into Israeli dictation of terms to the Palestinians.

Even with these difficulties, the process continued and agreements continued to be implemented, albeit in a distorted and asymmetrical fashion. This only served to further enrage Israel’s strong right-wing movement. Toward the end of his life, Rabin, it will be recalled, faced huge and angry protests filled with violent incitement that many believe set the stage for his assassination by a right-wing extremist.

Netanyahu’s victory in 1996 ended virtually all forward movement. The right-wing’s ever-so slim victory was the result of several factors. First, was the support of a solid core of extremist hard-core voters who were determined to stop the process. Then there was the fear of some moderate Israeli swing voters who were moved to support Netanyahu’s call for a “secure peace” in reaction to the horrible terror that killed dozens in the months before the elections. Finally, there was the fact that tens of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel abstained from voting in this election. They were so angered by Peres’ massive bombing of South Lebanon, including the massacre of almost one hundred innocents at Qana, that they refused to cast their ballots for him.

Even with these factors, Netanyahu’s victory was one of the narrowest in history–a mere 30,000 votes. And his ability to form a strong governing coalition in the Knesset was made virtually impossible by the near even split between supporters and opponents of the peace agreements.

During the past two-and-one-half years, Netanyahu has attempted to adhere to his philosophical commitment, and that of his strongest base of supporters, to maintain control over the Occupied Territories and avoid any substantial concessions to the Palestinians. At the same time, however, he has been compelled to make some accommodations to broader political realities.

Whether he liked it or not, his government had inherited a peace process with agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and witnessed by Israel’s main ally, the United States. International pressure from the United States, the Europeans and the Arab world forced him to at least modify his rhetoric of opposition to the peace process.

Netanyahu’s obstructionism and his flair for provocation (as in the digging of the tunnel in Jerusalem or the start of a new settlement at Jabal Abu Gheim) brought tremendous pressure to bear on his flimsy hold over the reins of the state. At the same time, as international anger mounted, foreign investment in Israel dropped precipitously, creating a new economic downturn.

In order to protect his position, Netanyahu was forced to feint in both directions–accommodation, to appease this international pressure, and obstructionism, in order to maintain his slim right-wing coalition.

The result was that Netanyahu lost the trust of both leaders on the right, who felt that he was betraying them and had no core principles, and more moderate pragmatic politicians who came to believe that he could never be trusted to make peace or keep his word. This is, in the end, why his government collapsed and why Israel is now holding new elections.

The new electoral system in Israel requires that two separate ballots be cast–one for Prime Minister and one for the Knesset slate of candidates preferred by each voter.

Without going into the thinking that produced this system, it suffices to say that its results in the last election have shown that its results have been less than satisfactory. Instead of strengthening the two main blocs, Labor and Likud, as it was intended to do, this new system has diminished the strength of the major parities and created a proliferation of smaller parties. It has also created a personalization of the race for Prime Minister.

This year there will be at least four major contenders for the post of Prime Minister and while 11 parties currently split the 120 seats in the Knesset, this year it is predicted that as many as 19 different parties may win seats.

Even with all of this movement of candidates from party to party and new parties being created–polls still show that whoever wins the next election will be faced with the same deeply and almost evenly divided Israeli society.

Twenty percent of Israeli voters are Russian Jews, the vast majority of whom have come to the country in the past ten years. They have virtually no experience in the Middle East and no feeling for the Palestinian reality. Most do not speak Hebrew and yet have developed a hard-line attitude of entitlement. They do not favor concessions to Arabs. They want only to ensure their own rights. In the last election, two-thirds of these new immigrants voted for Likud. With their numbers increasing this year, the margin of votes they will give to Netanyahu is expected to be even greater. More hard-line still are the Haredim and other fundamentalist religious elements among the Orthodox Jews. These also compromise at least 20 percent of Israel’s population. They believe that they alone are the inheritors of the Land of Israel and many even use the biblical description of Arabs as “strangers” in their land with no rights. Polls show that 95 percent of these Haredim will support the far-right candidate. In addition to these two powerful groups, there are also secular ideological nationalists who share similar hard-line views. This combination of hard-line immigrant, religious, and nationalist voters forms a bloc of at least 45 percent.

The sheer weight of these groups alone will present real difficulty to any movement toward peace.

Look closely at the most recent polls. After eliminating the less successful candidates and presenting the electorate with a choice of two, Netanyahu loses against all of his opponents–whether it is Labor’s Barak or Mordichai. But in each case none of Netanyahu’s opponents can get more than 51 percent of the vote! The split is very deep and very even. And when asked to state their preference for the Knesset–Israeli voters indicate that they will elect a Knesset as evenly divided as the current one–with no clear majority going to either the pro-peace or anti-peace camps.

Further compounding the problems that Israel’s voters will face in this election are a number of divisive domestic issues. The role of the Orthodox Rabbinate and the domination by religious Jews of several aspects of Israeli life are issues that are deeply felt in Israel today. The biggest protest, for example, to Netanyahu’s announced plan to expand the municipal borders of Jerusalem both east and west did not come from Israelis objecting to the annexation of more Palestinian land to the east of the city. It came from Israelis living in the suburbs to the west who did not want to be integrated into the fundamentalist dominated western part of the city.

Then there is the nagging problem of integration. Sephardic Jews, despite individual success stories, still feel discriminated against. Israel’s Russian citizens are a community unto themselves. Ethiopians also feel they have never been fully accepted by mainstream Israeli society. And the most discriminated against are the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who form almost 18 percent of Israel’s population and almost 12 to 13 percent of the vote.

Extremist settlers will continue to pose a well-funded challenge to any movement toward peace, with Americans like Irving Moskowitz pouring millions of dollars annually into buying Palestinian land and constructing new provocative settlements, forcing the hand of whatever government is in power.

The problem posed by these settlers will remain an acute one. The fact that they are well armed and supported and have not hesitated, in the past, to use violence when pushed makes them an especially lethal political and security threat. Any future government serious about peace will of necessity have to confront these groups and disarm them. Until now, neither Labor nor Likud, lacking the political strength and resolve, have been willing to risk such an effort.

And so we are left with a fairly bleak picture of an Israeli society apparently too deeply divided to form the kind of consensus needed to move toward real peace. It is possible that in the weeks to come the political configuration could change or that domestic developments could alter the landscape, but, at the present, the demographics of Israel make any shifts unlikely. Barring any dramatic change, this election is about faces and personalities. The leadership may change, but the basic divisions in Israel’s society will remain the determining factor in shaping the possibilities available to the next Israeli government.

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