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Israel after the Election

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 3, Summer 1996

The Israeli election is over, but the shock is not. If we are committed to the peace process, how do we live with a Likud victory? What does the election of Benjamin Netanyahu mean? What are the consequences we need to confront? What is an appropriate response? 

The election took place amid a peace effort that had been going on for more than three years. Agreements had been signed with the Palestianian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan. Gaza had been evacuated. Six major urban areas and the the West Bank had been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. A Palestianian police force had been organized. An election for a Palestinian president and parliament had been held. Joint economic projects between Israel and Jordan had been launched. Dozens of Third World countries had ended their boycott of Israel. Investors were stimulating the economy. Israeli troops were about to depart from Hebron. 

The election took place amid still-fresh memories of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even more vivid memories of fundamentalist terrorism. The militants were determined to undermine the peace process. Israel responded by striking massively at Lebanon. A tragic accident turned retaliation into a public relations disaster. 

The election featured an innovation. Until 1996 the choice of prime minister was up to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The people elected members of the Knesset, and the Knesset, in turn, chose the head of the government. The prime minister was usually the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. This time there were two elections: one for the Knesset and one, American-style, for the head of the government. 

This change, which was intended to enhance the authority of the prime minister, should have been accompanied by an American- or British-style system of parliamentary constituencies. Such a move would have eliminated small parties, created a two-party system, and made the prime minister the leader of a majority party. But the small parties in the Knesset insisted on retaining proportional representation, and the result was a political monstrosity. As in the past, the victorious prime minister might end up as the leader of a minority party and would have to paste together a coalition of small parties in order to govern; but now, small parties would proliferate because the people’s vote for representatives in the Knesset was no longer connected to their preference for prime minister. 

That is exactly what happened. Netanyahu was elected prime minister, but his Likud party came in second in the parliamentary running, with only thirty-two members. Under the old system the Labor Party, with thirty-four members, would have been invited to organize the government, and the peace process would have continued. But Netanyahu is now the prime minister regardless of the size of his party in the Knesset. The election also enhanced the Orthodox representation because Orthodox Jews no longer had to vote Likud to get a Likud prime minister. The Orthodox vote in the Knesset is now at an all-time high of twenty-three. The Knesset is hopelessly fragmented. The new system is worse than the old. 

Furthermore, Netanyahu won by only one percentage point. While many observers point out that he won a clear majority of the Jewish vote, that observation illustrates the problemL the Arabs who voted for Peres are not regarded as “real” Israelis. This response, the closeness of the vote, and the rise of Orthodox political power have exacerbated the resentment and despair of supporters of the peace process. 

Certain realities seem clear. 

Israel is changing. The secular rein of the original Zionists is fading. The religious sector is growing in numbers and influence. The Oriental immigration and the Six Day War started a chain of consequences that undermined secular strength. Most Sephardic Jews are not pious, but they are religious by sentiment. And the acquisition of the West Bank, with its traditional shrines, brought the militant Orthodox to Israel. 

The Sephardic vote has returned to its familiar place on the Right. (In Israel, the rich vote liberal and the poor vote conservative; nationalism and religion are more important issues to many Israelis than economic ones.) Terrorism reawakened the historic distatse for and fear of Arabs among the Oriental Jews. The Shas party, the voice of the Sephardic Orthodox, jumped from six Knesset members to ten on the strength of sacred amulets and the promise of a better afterlife. 

The gulf between secular and religious Israel is widening. The secular want peace; the religious want land. The secular want personal freedom; the religious want conformity to traditional norms. The secular value science and democracy; the religious value faith and authority. In many ways Jewish fundamentalists are closer to Muslim fundamentalists then they are to Jewish secularists. The handing over of education and culture into Orthodox hands will aggravate the confrontation as secular Jews join forces against the revived power of militant Orthodoxy. 

Netanyahu does not believe in the peace process. But, because of external pressure, especially from the United States, he cannot avoid it. He has to publicly support peace, although he may privately oppose it. Without a Palestinian state there will be no peace. Netanyahu and his allies are unalterably opposed to such a state. No matter what is said, that reality undermines the peace process that Shimon Peres and Rabin began. Verbal courtesies will not be able to cover up the incompatibility of agendas. The Palestinians and the Arab world will not settle for cliches. 

The peace process will unravel. Hebron will not be fully evacuated. The “liberated” cities of the West Bank will become depressed ghettos surrounded and intimidated by Israeli troops. The departure of Orthodox settlers from the West Bank will stop, and new Orthodox settlements will be encouraged. The Palestinian economy will become the yo-yo of the Israeli government. The authority of Yasser Arafat will vanish. King Hussein of Jordan, fearful of his own Palestinians, will withdraw his enthusiasm for reconciliation. Arab moderates, unable to rely on Israeli cooperation, will turn back to militant Arab nationalists for safety, support, and solidarity. The confrontation in Lebanon will grow more intense. Likud will try to make a deal with the fundamentalist Hamas, exchanging access to Israeli jobs for an end to terrorism. Such an outrageous agreement would bring together two hard line opponents, which hate each other but are mutually opposed to the kind of Palestinian state that Arafat, Arab moderates, and Israeli “peaceniks” envision. 

Peace with Syria is out. It most likely would have been impossible even if Peres won. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad can justify his repressive government only by war with Israel. Peace would leave him exposed to the dangers of democracy and open borders. But now Assad will have a public justification of his confrontational position and his refusal to rein in the terrorist Shiites of Lebanon. He will also continue to cozy up to Arab moderates, who will become increasingly frustrated with the peace process, and he will simultaneously continue his liaison with Iran. 

Arab moderates will be in great danger. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek has to face a continuing civil war with fundamentalists. Hussein of Jordan has to contend with militant Palestinians. Maintaining their power will not be easy. They are very vulnerable to radical takeovers. One of the main reasons for Israeli support of the peace process has been to guarantee a friendly Egypt and a friendly Jordan. If they become hostile, no successful repression of the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza can provide for Israeli security. Forty million Egyptians mobilized by fundamentalist propaganda would spell the end of the Jewish state. Only deluded Jewish militants imagine that an Israei atomic bomb will prove a deterrent. 

Terrorism will continue. Even if Likud and Hamas make a deal, the Hezbollah in Lebanon will continue its campaign, supported by Iran though not by public opinion. Likud will point to terrorism  as justfication of its reluctance to make concessions. And the refusal to make concessions will, in turn, fuel more terrorism. 

The Israeli economy, currently booming because of the peace process, will slow down. Foreign investors will grow afraid. Military expenditures will rise. Many Third World countries will gradually withdraw their support. Many Diaspora Jews, alienated by Orthodox control, will cease their financial subsidies. 

The United States remains the only real force that can restrain Netanyahu and his allies. The American alliance is not trivial. It is the only firm foreign connection that Israel possesses. Netanyahu knows that Clinton preferred Peres, but he also knows that he needs American good will and that American strategic interests in the Middle East dictate support of the peace process. The unraveling of peace would enhance the power of Muslim fundamentalists and threaten American access to oil. Still, there is no guarantee that American pressure can sustain the peace process. Netanyahu has to find a balance between American pressure and the demands of his own extremists. Foreign minister David Levy is a moderate, but Arik Sharon, who managed to enter the cabinet at the last minute, is not. 

The peace process began during the Bush administration through American pressure on a reluctant Shamir. To avoid the no-win results of continuing a war, such pressure is needed again. American Jews need to encourage their government to apply it.