By winning a landslide victory this week, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has been given a mandate greater than any of his recent predecessors to forge a lasting peace in the Middle East and to heal the divisive rifts that have polarized Israeli society.
His task now is to decide which of the other 14 parties that won seats in the Knesset he will invite to join his newly created Israel One coalition in forming a government. In so doing, the Labor Party chairman will chart a course to the right, the left or — as appears most likely — down the center by developing a broad coalition of parties. On numerous occasions during the campaign Barak said he wished to fashion an alliance of 65 to 80 of the 120 Knesset members.
Such a move would keep him from being a captive of any single party, something the man he defeated, Benjamin Netanyahu, was unable to do when he formed his government three years ago with a mere one-vote majority in the Knesset. That arrangement handcuffed Netanyahu, forcing him to please each of the disparate members of his coalition.
Barak, 57, capitalized on that paralysis in his five-month election campaign, stressing over and over that the country had come to a standstill in the peace process, economically and socially. By defeating Netanyahu with 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent, analysts said Israelis had resoundingly repudiated a prime minister who was widely despised.
“What happened here was an impeachment,” wrote Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus. “What happened here was the final expulsion from political life of an unfit man, a man who disappointed and lied to everyone.”
Just 35 minutes after the polls closed Monday night, Netanyahu, 49, conceded defeat based on exit polls that fairly accurately forecast the returns. And he also announced his withdrawal as leader of his weakened Likud Party — it lost three seats in this election — and a “timeout” from public life.
His political retirement stunned both supporters and foes. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, a close ally of Netanyahu who watched the announcement on television at the Israeli Consulate in New York, said it caught him by surprise.
“It shows courage,” he said.
Others suggested that Netanyahu withdrew from party politics to pave the way for Likud to more easily form a unity government with Barak’s One Israel coalition, comprised of Gesher (which was formed by Sephardic leader David Levy) and Meimad, a Modern Orthodox group. Sephardim are of North African descent.
A policy adviser to Barak, Alon Liel, said Barak plans to offer Likud a place in the coalition. Natan Sharansky, founder of the Yisroel B’Aliyah Party, said he has counseled Barak to do just that, and that Netanyahu’s departure makes it easier. His party, formed to be a voice for new immigrants, retained its seven Knesset seats in Monday’s election. It had remained neutral in the Barak-Netanyahu race.
“We would like to see a broad, national unity government with different parts of Israeli society represented,” Sharansky said in a phone interview from Israel. “We can and we should play a special role in that government because we are the only real centrist party. Today it is clear that we are not only the strong voice of new immigrants, but also the party of moderation. And we have a unique role to connect the different groups in Israel — the left and the right, the religious and the secular.”
The coalition must be broad enough, Sharansky added, so that there could be dialogue and decisions made by “broad consensus.”
“It is clear that this may have been the first election in which peace and security were secondary to the issue of Israeli society itself, and it is very important that we use this new awareness to build bridges,” he said.
It won’t be easy.
Barak’s Big Tent?
The Israeli right was stung by this election, which was seen as support for the land-for-peace principle developed by the Labor Party and, under Netanyahu, by Likud as well. The National Religious Party, which speaks for Israeli settlers determined to hold onto all of the West Bank, dropped from nine Knesset seats to five. And the new National Unity Party, started by eight right-wing legislators, was able to attract only enough votes for three seats. On Wednesday its leader, Benny Begin, resigned.
Undaunted, Jewish settlers began work Tuesday on a stalled housing complex in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The project, financed by American millionaire Dr. Irving Moskowitz, has drawn protests from Palestinians and Clinton administration officials.
Another issue facing Barak is whether to bring into his government groups with diametrically opposing views. On one side would be the secular-liberal Meretz party, which garnered nine seats, and the new Shinui Party, which amassed six seats on a platform opposed to religious coercion in the state. On the other would be Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party that wants to maintain Orthodox hegemony over such things as conversions, marriages and burials.
Shas increased its Knesset representation from 10 to 17 seats — two shy of the 19 now held by the once formidable Likud and 10 behind One Israel, which received the most votes. Observers said one reason for the impressive gain by Shas was the way it used the corruption conviction last March of its leader, Rabbi Aryeh Deri — portraying him as the victim of a witch hunt because of his Sephardic heritage and religious lifestyle. And it was said that the anti-religious rhetoric of Shinui leader Tommy Lapid played into its hands.
“There’s greater polarization” in the Knesset now than before, observed Malvina Halberstan, a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York. “There are strong views for religion and, unfortunately, strong anti-religious views. Hopefully that will lead to a compromise rather than a civil war.”
But Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, interpreted the vote for Shinui as one “that was not a rejection of religion but of religious coercion.”
Hebrew University political science professor Ehud Sprinzak said the “big debate now is whether or not Shas will be included in the coalition.”
Before the election, Barak vowed not to negotiate with Shas as long as the party was headed by Deri. But just one day after the election, Deri resigned as head of Shas’ political operation and said he would not take his seat in the new Knesset. The move, which Israel Radio reported was prompted by a call from Barak, was seen as a bid to open the door to talks with the prime minister-elect.
Israeli journalist Shmuel Segev recalled that shortly after he assumed leadership of Labor two years ago, Barak apologized to Sephardim for their perceived mistreatment by prior Labor governments headed by Ashkenazim of European ancestry. Segev said he therefore could not see Barak refusing to include Shas in his government because with 17 seats, it is irrefutably the party of Sephardim.
“If he didn’t include Shas, everyone would say he was a hypocrite,” said Segev.
Shas With Strings?
Sprinzak, however, said Barak may impose a condition on Shas’ entry into the government: that it abide by the decisions of Israel’s High Court of Justice. In recent years, Shas has derided court decisions that have forced non-Orthodox Jews onto religious councils, and directed the government to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel. An estimated 250,000 Shas supporters staged a demonstration earlier this year in Jerusalem to voice their displeasure. And the chief justice was forced to travel with bodyguards because of threats on his life.
A senior Shas figure was quoted by Haaretz as saying that before Shas agreed to join the coalition, it would demand that it not be disqualified in advance from any ministry — including Interior. Shas has controlled the Interior Ministry for all but three years since 1984 and would like to retain it, but Sharansky said his party would like that ministry because Shas has used it to deny the registration of former Soviet Jews as Jews. And Sharansky said his party also would like the housing ministry.
The Shas official said also that Barak would have to pledge to negotiate a solution to the issue of yeshiva draft deferments, something Barak proposed and Shas opposed.
But several observers pointed out that Shas strenuously campaigned for Netanyahu, and that 94 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews voted for him. Therefore, Barak owes Shas nothing and can negotiate from a position of strength.
Sprinzak pointed out that even if Shas becomes part of a Barak government, it would have greatly reduced clout and its “ability to be coercive” would be diminished.
“It would be an uncritical minority with reduced power to challenge the system,” he said.
The Cabinet Shuffle
There was also speculation about whom Barak would tap for key cabinet positions. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, some suggested, might be asked to remain in that post were Barak to ask Likud to join the coalition. Others said the job might go to Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert were he to succeed Netanyahu as the leader of Likud. Others mentioned were David Levy, Yossi Beilin and Professor Shlomo Ben-Ami.
There was talk, as well, that Yitzchak Mordechai, the Center Party’s candidate for prime minister, might be asked to become defense minister, a post he held until recently. Mordechai’s decision on Sunday to withdraw from the race and support Barak clinched a first-round victory for Barak, and the Center Party is expected to join the coalition. But others have said Barak will keep the defense portfolio for himself, just as his mentor, the late Yitzchak Rabin, did when he served as prime minister.
On another subject, Barak adviser Liel said Barak was wary of breaking the unbroken tradition of keeping Arab parties out of the government, but that he was committed to appointing an Arab minister, perhaps one from the Zionist parties. Two major Arab parties endorsed Barak and the Arab candidate for prime minister, Azmi Bishari, withdrew two days before the election. Although he did not endorse Barak, his withdrawal was seen as a signal to Arab voters to support him.
“It wouldn’t be right to bring Israel’s Jews together while leaving Israel’s Arabs out,” said Liel.
There has been some suggestion that Barak may wish to increase the number of ministers beyond the 18 now permitted by law. But the Center Party’s Dan Meridor counseled Barak in a TV interview to keep in mind that the purpose of a government is not to have as many members as possible but to get things done.
“He has to bring in people on the basis of their political outlook, not because they simply agree to join,” Meridor said.
Military Hero Turned Pol
Ehud Barak rose to political power quickly, having only retired from the military in 1995 after an illustrious 35-year career. He retired as army chief of staff and was the most decorated soldier in Israeli history. Born Feb. 12, 1942 on a kibbutz, Barak earned a degree in physics and math from the Hebrew University and a master’s degree in economics-engineering systems from Stanford University in California. He is an accomplished classical pianist and speaks English and Arabic.
Throughout the campaign, Barak, who is said to be shy, brilliant and driven, stressed his military achievements. He was commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit by the time he was 28; led the successful storming of a hijacked plane in Tel Aviv; directed the daring rescue of Israelis hijacked to Entebbe, Nairobi; and, dressed as a woman, participated in the assassination of three PLO leaders in Beirut, Lebanon.
He also oversaw the redeployment of Israeli troops from Gaza and Jericho as part of the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians. He participated as well in peace talks with Syria and played a critical role in negotiations with Jordan.
After leaving the military, he served briefly as Interior Minister under Rabin and as foreign minister after Rabin’s assassination in 1995. He was elected to the Knesset in 1996.
‘Red Lines’ On Talks
Although not a fan of the Oslo Accords or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, Barak reluctantly embraced the peace process and the Labor Party’s decision last year to support a Palestinian state. Arafat is seen as likely to want an early meeting with Barak to ask him to continue implementing the Wye agreement hammered out in October. Netanyahu placed it on hold, claiming Arafat failed to fulfill his end of the deal.
Political scientist Gerald Steinberg suggested that Barak may want to delay implementing the Wye agreement, which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from more West Bank land, and instead concentrate on “developing ideas on final-status issues.”
But in his victory speech, Barak spelled out four “red lines” he vowed not to cross in those talks:
# No return to the pre-1967 borders.
# No Palestinian army.
# No evacuation from major blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
# No concessions on Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to establish as the capital of their future state.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration is anxious to see the peace process resume and is expected to send its special Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, to Israel in two weeks. Barak is expected to tell Ross that he plans to resume negotiations with both the Palestinians and the Syrians.
In order to fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from the self-imposed security belt in southern Lebanon, Barak must hammer out a deal with Syria, which controls the Hezbollah forces fighting Israeli troops there.
As if to remind Barak of their presence, Hezbollah terrorists fired Katyusha rockets into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona just one hour before Barak delivered his victory speech. Eight Israelis suffered minor injuries and there was some property damage in the attack.
President Bill Clinton, who would like nothing more than to see an overall Middle East peace accord concluded on his watch, has had strained relations with Netanyahu and is said to be overjoyed that Barak won the election.