Posted on December 28, 1998 in Washington Watch
In Israel they are calling it the “big bang” and by that they do not mean merely the collapse of the Netanyahu government. More significant than that are the contentious upcoming elections and the expected demise of Israel’s two major electoral blocs–Labor and Likud.
The Prime Minister, in reality, brought down his own government. In two and one half years, Netanyahu has managed to alienate most of the leadership in his own party. His machinations can be maddening. He has played the proverbial shell game, but with an interesting twist. No matter how he moves the shells, they remain in place–and none of them hide any pea.
There has been a remarkable consistency to Netanyahu’s inconsistency–and so he has been irritating mostly to those who have allowed themselves to be deceived by his antics. In fact all of his moves have been designed mainly to confound his opponents while masking his real interests–to remain in power and do as little as possible to advance the peace process.
In this regard he has made prophets of his sharpest critics–like Uri Avnery, a leftist pro-peace former Member of the Knesset. Before leaving for Wye, Avnery wrote that Netanyahu’s strategy would be either to not go to Wye, or if he went, to not agree to anything. Finally, Avnery wrote, that if Netanyahu was forced to sign an agreement at Wye, he would, upon returning to Israel, find a way not to implement that agreement.
And so it came to pass that the Prime Minister had no choice but to go to Wye and sign an agreement, and so the only option left was to not implement what he had signed – even to the point of bringing down his own government.
Immediately upon returning from Wye, Netanyahu turned his rhetoric against the agreement and the Palestinians with whom he had negotiated the deal. He added new conditions and sought to unilaterally change what had already been negotiated.
Even to the last minute of his farcical rule, he continued to play such games, offering to form a coalition government with the Labor Party (which he could have done at any point had he been honest) on the condition that they accept the five new conditions he wanted to impose on the Palestinians.
Labor refused and so he had no choice but to support a call for new elections–a deliberate ploy to stop implementation of Wye and take the risk of saving his own head in a new electoral contest.
Despite the views of some of Netanyahu’s apologists, the Prime Minster has never wavered from the principles of his ideology. Even his agreeing to limited withdrawals and allowing some Palestinian self-rule did not violate his commitment to maintain control over “Eretz Israel.” That Palestinians govern themselves in ghettos, without sovereignty, fits within the model laid out by Jabotinksky, the founder of the Revisionist school of Zionist thought. This much he would do, but no more. When pushed to do more, he brought on the “big bang.”
With new elections, Netanyahu is counting on winning with the support of the far right whom, be believes, in the end, see him as their only hope to defeat a real peace with the Palestinians.
Armed with his inflammatory American propagandist and media advisor Arthur Finkelstein, a war chest of campaign funds supplied by his American right-wing Jewish supporters and his ability to incite passions of division and fear–he will wage a hard campaign. Netanyahu will count on the support of extremist settlers, his natural base, and he will seek to provoke a Palestinian backlash or (as in recent days) a Lebanese backlash to support his politics of fear.
But the election of 1999 will not be a simple replay of this narrow victory over Shimon Peres in 1996. First of all, the Likud bloc itself is in disarray. The traditional leaders of the party have always seen Netanyahu as an interloper and outsider whose rise to power they opposed and feared. Now with his government’s collapse, they too will challenge him. Benny Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachim Begin will bolt Likud and he may also run for the Primer Minister’s post. Dan Meridor, former Finance Minister has left Likud and may join a new centrist party to challenge Netanyahu.
It is even rumored that the popular and somewhat moderate Defense Minister Mordechai might also bolt Likud and may even support Labor’s candidate Ehud Barak.
The formation of a centrist party made up of former Likud leaders like Roni Milo, former mayor of Tel Aviv, who is deeply disturbed by the power that Orthodox religious elements have assumed in the government, may be a serious and complicating factor in these elections. Likud secularists will have the option of supporting this new party if it can gain momentum.
Another complicating factor is the awaited announcement of Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. He is expected to leave his military post soon and announce for the prime minister’s race–either as an independent or within one of the existing parties. Not much is known about Lipkin-Shahak’s views, other than he is a moderate critic of Netanyahu. The strong support he receives in opinion polls is a sign of the weakness of Labor’s candidate, Barak, and the hopes that many Israeli’s have for someone, anyone, to save them their current morass.
Another important consideration in this election will be the attitude of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens. They are 20 percent of the population and can be the deciding factor in defeating the right wing. It was the decision of more than 100,000 of this bloc not to vote for Peres, because of his bombing of Lebanon, that lost his reelection in 1996. To win the Arab vote, however, a candidate will have to be serious about peace and protection of Arab rights. Up until now Barak, the Labor candidate, has not inspired the Arab community–a factor that may present his candidacy with a real problem.
Regardless, however of who wins this confusing and crazy election, when the dust settles real difficulties will remain. The imperatives of peace will continue to face the next government as well the intransigent demands of the extremist settlers. Palestinians will require justice and the settlers will have to be confronted. For that to occur the next government will be required to demonstrate more courage and strength than Peres and more justice and honesty than Netanyahu. That will be a tall order for an Israeli body politics that is divided as it is now.
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