Posted on May 27, 1996 in Washington Watch

This year’s Israeli election, like the peace process itself, could have been a dramatic and defining milestone in Middle East history. Tragic events and weak leaders have combined to lessen the significance of both.

What Israel could have been debating in this election were two diametrically opposed views of the future of the Middle East. What the Israeli people could have received from the Labor party was a vision of peace so attractive that they would have been compelled to support it. But the weak Labor leadership and the trauma caused by terrorist bombings have reshaped this election campaign and blurred the lines between the Labor and Likud parties and their candidates.

Weak leadership is nothing new to the Labor party. For two and half years, unable to forge a majority support base in the country, Labor has squeezed the life out of the peace process. Fearful of the reaction of Israel’s right wing political parties and refusing to confront the extremist settler movement, Labor stalled on negotiations with the Palestinians, extorted less than fair concessions out of their weaker negotiating partners and, even after completing agreements, refused to implement many of them (e.g., the Economic Protocols, the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, promised prison reforms and redeployment from Hebron, to name just a few).

It was this same weak leadership and susceptibility to pressure from their right-wing opposition that rendered Labor extraordinarily vulnerable to the deplorable tactics of suicide bombers.

Labor’s policy of economic closure of the West Bank and Gaza, for example, has been driven more by pressure from Likud than out of an urgency to save the peace process. The punishment imposed on Palestinians is collective without regard to guilt or innocence, severe and excessive in its effects and impact. Labor has insisted that the Palestinians be partners in the crackdown on terror, but they have not begun to treat the Palestinians as partners when it comes to pursuing other important aspects of the peace process – such as the economic benefits of peace.

In the wake of the recent suicide bombings, Labor’s election campaign has sought to blur the lines between their position and that of Likud. Shimon Peres has played up security issues, promised financial benefits to the settler movement; pledged an expansion of existing settlements; committed himself to maintaining a united greater Jerusalem under sole Israeli sovereignty; insisted that Israel would maintain the Jordan River as its “security border;” pledged to oppose the right of Palestinian refugees to return; and would submit any agreement with the Palestinians to a national referendum.

It is ironic that the Israeli public’s support for peace and realization of the benefits of peace (Israel is today, wealthier, more secure and more recognized than at any time in its history) has been most felt by Likud. Benyamin Netanyahu has been forced to promise that he would accept “what has so far been agreed to with the Palestinians.” While promising to add new settlements (as opposed to Peres’ position of only expanding existing settlements), and not recognize Palestinian self-determination in the final status negotiations, Netanyahu has been forced to recognize the popularity of peace for most Israelis. He therefore proposed a reconvening of the Madrid Conference in order to keep the peace process alive.

If Labor’s drift to the right were not enough to disturb Arabs and confuse even Israeli voters, Peres’ massive assault on Lebanon was a critical blow. Witnessing the savagery of the bombings, the deaths of innocent civilians, and the widespread and deliberate destruction of Lebanon’s economic infrastructure brought many to wonder what this “peace” was all about. And even in this instance, it was weakness that drove the Labor government’s policy.

For a month, Hezbollah, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the South Lebanon Army (SLA) exchanged attacks within the Israeli-occupied sector of Lebanon. While the IDF understood that Hezbollah’s attacks were legitimate under the 1993 understanding Israel had agreed to with Lebanon, Peres was under increasing pressure from Likud to act. It was only when Israel attacked civilians outside the “security zone” that Hezbollah began its rocket attacks on Northern Israel; and it was then that Israel responded with its destructive and disproportional assault.

It may be argued by some Israelis and their supporters that Peres’ responses to the terror bombings and the situation in Lebanon were necessary to save his electoral chances. But what has been lost as a result of these actions were the perceptual differences between his promised policy of peace and the policy of the Likud.

What Israel’s voters will be asked to judge this week is not the actual campaign rhetoric of Labor and Likud (they are too close at times to discern fundamental differences), or the security policies each would pursue (they have, here too, demarcated an equally hard line). If Israel wants peace, and it appears that a majority of the public still does, they will choose Labor based on a hope that Labor will return to the path of peace after May 29. They will vote for a vague hope and not for a compelling vision or a clearly defined difference.

The problem this poses for the Israeli electorate is especially critical for Israel’s Arab minority. For years they languished under a kind of internal occupation. They were Arab citizens of the Jewish state, with some rights but second-class citizenship. For many years they were denied even the right to join political parties or to form their own parties. Gradually, they have emerged to the point where, today, they have become the key swing vote in a national election.

Surely it is ironic that Israel, the powerful Jewish state, will likely have its election decided by Arab voters.

The figures are striking. There are 3.9 million voters in Israel, of whom 540,000 are Israeli Arabs – a total of 14% of the electorate! To show how critical their vote can be, one need only look to the following:

Before the assault on Lebanon, about 80% of the Arab voters were with Peres in the polls, but after the assault Arab support fell to 50% – a swing of some 4% of the total vote. In recent weeks Peres’ margin over Netanyahu has rarely been greater than 4%.

So important is the Arab vote that one analyst likened Peres to an American white Democrat from the South. It is a fact that in recent years no white Southern Democrat has won the majority of the white vote: when a white Southern Democrat wins it is because the black vote provided the margin of victory.

Lately, Peres has recognized the power of this Arab vote. At a recent campaign stop in an Arab city, Peres did what he had not done anywhere else – he apologized for the assault on Lebanon, saying (in part), “Believe me, I feel pain for every woman and child [who died in the assault].” He also promised to work for equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel and consider the appointment of an Arab to his cabinet.

Not only is the Arab vote important in the vote for Prime Minister, but in the Knesset elections as well. Most commentators have failed to note that in recent polling neither Labor nor Likud with their respective allies appear to be able to secure enough seats in this election for the Knesset majority of 61 needed to form a government. Labor and its allies appear poised to win 51 (of 120) seats while Likud and its allies get about 49. Even if Peres wins the Prime Ministership, he will be forced to add some of the religious parties to his government in order to have a ruling majority. This will further impede his ability to move forward toward peace.

Even more devastating for peace is the fact that Likud and its electoral allies would include the Molodet party which still calls for the “transfer of the Arab population” of the West Bank.

In the meanwhile, the Arab parties appear to be in a position to dramatically increase their numbers. If their vote is more unified than in the past, Arabs would end up with as many as 7 to 10 seats. With 8 seats (which is a stretch, but still a possibility), they would be in a position to determine the next Israeli government. That would pose a huge dilemma for Peres or Netanyahu. Labor has governed for years without 61 Knesset votes – the security and stability of their government has always depended upon the 5 votes they consistently get from the Arab parties. This has provoked Likud to attack Labor for making decisions without a “Jewish majority.” If Israeli Arabs realize their full electoral potential, this argument could never again be used.

A final note: despite the failings and weakness of Labor, it would be self-destructive for any Arab to ignore the real danger posed by a return of the Likud to power. As angry as one might justifiably be over Labor’s missed opportunity to define itself more sharply, to behave more prudently and to argue its vision of peace more courageously, the choice – even if based on hope alone – seems clear. Strip away Peres and Netanyahu and it becomes even clearer: it becomes a choice between Yossi Beilin, Yossi Sarid and Yael Dayan versus Ariel Sharon, Raphael Eitan and the Molodet party.

Given Labor’s failings, this election does not present a perfect choice, but it nevertheless provides a choice.

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