Interpreting Israel's 1999 Election Campaign

by Joel Beinin | published April 16, 1999

The current election campaign in Israel is often portrayed as a struggle over the future of peace with the Palestinians. But according to Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, "this great debate is over."[1] Most Israelis believe a Palestinian state is inevitable and that even a Likud government will accept some form of Palestinian political autonomy.

Labor and Likud disagree on how much of the West Bank Israel should hand over to the Palestinians. Labor embraces the Oslo process, while the Likud seeks to delay its implementation as much as possible. When Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon visited Washington on April 9, Madeleine Albright sharply rebuked him because Israel has expanded settlements in the West Bank since signing the abortive Wye Accords. Labor would endeavor to avoid such an unpleasant scene. But neither Labor nor Likud envisage a sovereign and economically independent Palestinian entity.


Although five candidates are competing in the direct ballot for Prime Minister, there are only three serious contenders: Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, leader of the newly formed Center Party and former Minister of Defense in the current Likud government. None is likely to win an outright majority in the first round of the elections on May 17. Barak and Netanyahu each receive 30-40 percent of public support in recent polls. Mordechai trails behind with about 20 percent. Netanyahu and Barak are likely to face off in the second round on June 1.

The other two candidates for prime minister cannot win, but may influence the outcome. Benjamin Begin, son of former Likud leader Menahem Begin, bolted from the Likud protesting Netanyahu's lack of personal and political principle. He calls for abrogating the Oslo accords and may receive 5-10 percent of the vote from hard-liners who oppose giving any of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Azmi Bishara--Knesset member for the National Democratic Alliance, an Arab party advocating autonomy for Israel's Arab citizens--may receive 1-2 percent of the vote. These candidates may garner enough of the votes that would otherwise go to Netanyahu, Barak, or Mordechai to make a difference in the first round results. If Mordechai, who was born in Iraqi Kurdistan, were to advance to the second round, polls show him winning comfortably over Netanyahu based on his ability to mobilize ethnic support from Middle Eastern Jews, who comprise over 40 percent of Israel's total population. But if Mordechai does not reach the second round, as seems likely, polls show Barak and Netanyahu neck-and-neck. Netanyahu could be returned to office in June, although he is not the first choice of some 60 percent of the voters, since most of those who supported Mordechai or Begin in the first round are likely to vote for Netanyahu in the second.

Thirty-three parties will contest the parliamentary election, which also takes place on May 17. The entire country is a single constituency. Voters select a party list comprised of 120 names-representing the number of seats in the Knesset. Lists receiving at least 1.5 percent of the valid ballots receive Knesset seats in proportion to their share of the vote. At least twelve lists have a realistic chance of winning seats.

The list headed by Labor leader Ehud Barak, One Israel, includes former Likud Foreign Minister David Levy and his Gesher faction, which is supported largely by Moroccan and other Middle Eastern Jews, and the dovish Jewish orthodox party, Meimad. This coalition is designed to appeal to constituencies alienated by Labor's Ashkenazi and secular image. Labor has abandoned its social democratic roots and favors privatizing the public sector and integrating Israel into the global economy. Amir Peretz, the head of Israel's trade union federation, leads the new One Nation Party, which he hopes will fill the vacuum created by Labor's abandonment of its historic constituency and social democratic outlook.

There is little difference in political positions between One Israel and the Center Party. Both Barak and Mordechai are former army generals with similar personalities and histories. Barak represents the hawkish wing of Labor, whereas Mordechai was the leading pragmatist of the Likud. Other prominent figures on the Center party list include former Likud cabinet ministers Dan Meridor and Roni Milo and former Labor figures, such as Yitzhak Rabin's grand-daughter.

Benjamin Begin's New Herut is running a joint list with Moledet, which advocates ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, and a breakaway faction of the orthodox National Religious Party, Tekuma, which represents the most intransigent West Bank settlers. This list criticizes Netanyahu and the Likud because they handed over 80 percent of Hebron to the Palestinians, signed the Wye memorandum and are likely to make similar agreements if they return to power. This list may win 5-10 seats.

The system of separate ballots for Prime Minister and the Knesset encourages the proliferation of small parties. Politicians appealing to the same relatively small constituencies are competing against each other in the hopes of winning the minimum 1.5 percent of the vote rather than uniting.

Four lists appeal primarily to Israel's Arab citizens, who comprise 12 percent of the electorate. The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, led by the Communist Party, is demonstrating its commitment to Jewish-Arab coexistence by placing a Jew, Tamar Gozansky, in the safe third position on its list behind Muhammad Baraka and Isam Makhul. Baraka and Makhul replaced two of the Front's current Knesset members at the head of the list, giving the Front a youthful and democratic face. It may win 3-5 seats.

Azmi Bishara's National Democratic Alliance has joined with Yasir Arafat's advisor on Israeli affairs, Ahmad Tibi, in an alliance of convenience. Bishara is a critic of Arafat and the Oslo process and Tibi is a vocal supporter. Their list may win two seats. The Arab Democratic Party may win 3-4 seats. The proliferation of primarily Arab parties fragments the Arab vote, ensuring that the number of Arab Knesset members will be less than the community's proportion of the electorate. The Organization for Democratic Action, a small, predominantly Arab list that opposes the Oslo process, has little chance of entering the Knesset.

If Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister, he will have to form a national unity government with One Israel and perhaps also with the Center Party. Another less likely possibility is a coalition comprised of the Center Party, the New Herut-Moledet-Tekuma alliance, the National Religious Party, the Mizrahi orthodox Shas Party and several smaller parties. Such an unwieldy coalition, similar to the outgoing government, would be politically unstable and might prevent Netanyahu from implementing the Wye accords and the Oslo process even if he wanted to.

If Barak forms the next government, he may invite the dovish Meretz and one or more Arab parties into a coalition. Such a government would have a more conciliatory face towards the Palestinians than Barak's campaign rhetoric would suggest. But since 1992 Meretz has largely been an adjunct of Labor. It had only limited influence on foreign policy and security issues in the 1992-96 Labor government.

The campaign so far has been a bland affair shaped by the media strategies of the American consultants of the two largest parties: Arthur Finkelstein for the Likud and James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum for Labor. The most substantial development was Mordechai's surprising victory over Netanyahu in a televised debate, which Barak chose to sit out. Mordechai announced he will remain in the prime ministerial race, making a second round almost certain.

The election campaign has yet to address the issues that have most sharply divided Israelis recently. The most prominent of these has been the extent to which Jewish orthodoxy will be allowed to impose itself on public life. Meretz has militantly defended secularism. But this has reinforced the party's image as secularist, Ashkenazi, urban upper-middle class and kibbutz-based.

The debate over the role of Jewish orthodoxy is linked to the question of how, if at all, Israel can be both a Jewish and a democratic state. What rights and obligations can Arab citizens expect to have in a Jewish state?

Of all the parties, Shas has played the ethnic card most strongly, combining religious obscurantism with the resentment of Middle Eastern Jews who feel economically underprivileged and culturally excluded. During the post-Oslo economic boom, "development" towns populated largely by Middle Eastern Jews registered unemployment rates of 10-20 percent. The Shas network of schools and social institutions provides badly needed services to a largely neglected sector of the population. Although Shas leader Arye Deri has just been sentenced to jail for corruption, this does not diminish the party's popularity.

Behind the superficial consensus on the necessity of carrying through with the Oslo process lies a huge discrepancy between the maximum that most Israelis are willing to give the Palestinians in terms of territory, political rights and economic control and the minimum that even moderate Palestinians consider acceptable.

The difficult and related issues of Israel's Jewish ethnic tensions and Palestinian-Israeli coexistence have not been at the center of this made-for-media campaign. But they are not likely to disappear.

ENDNOTE [1] Jerusalem Post, reprinted in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Mar. 19, 1999

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