The Upcoming Elections in Israel

by Yoav Peled | published December 4, 2002

On November 19, 2002, Amram Mitzna, a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) general who now serves as mayor of Haifa, soundly defeated another retired general, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the incumbent Labor party leader and former Defense Minister, in the Labor party primaries. Mitzna will face yet another general, his old nemesis Ariel Sharon, when Israel holds general elections for the Knesset on January 28, 2003.

Mitzna's meteoric rise from the periphery of Labor politics right to the top was based on a promise to revive the peace process with the Palestinians, under whatever leadership they choose, including that of Yasser Arafat. Echoing David Ben-Gurion, he also promised to "negotiate as if there was no terror, and fight terror as if there were no negotiations." If negotiations fail, Mitzna vowed to extricate Israel from most of the Occupied Territories unilaterally, with a specific deadline of one year from the day he is elected for the evacuation of the Gaza Strip and of Hebron.

Because of these positions, Mitzna is emerging as a cult figure for Israeli liberals, the lifestyle left, and the domestic and foreign media as the voting approaches. He is liked and respected equally by the business tycoons who are behind his candidacy (and whom he served faithfully as mayor of Haifa) and by the slum dwellers who are certain to vote for Sharon. The atmosphere is perhaps reminiscent of the McGovern-Nixon presidential race of 1972, if only instead of Richard Nixon the Republican candidate had been Barry Goldwater or, better yet, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was George Wallace's running mate in 1968. A wide swath of Israeli opinion admires Mitzna's personal integrity, like those many Americans across the political spectrum who admired liberal Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972. But just like McGovern, Mitzna is going down to certain defeat, for two main reasons: the burden of Labor's social makeup and its collapsed policies, and the tremendous popularity of Sharon.

Reputation for Integrity

My first memory of Amram Mitzna goes back to 1966. He was then a 21-year old first lieutenant, a deputy company commander in the armored battalion where I served as a young recruit. On the eve of Passover, the most important and most family-oriented of all Jewish holidays, he confined me to the base for some trivial infraction of military discipline. There was nothing unusual about this story, except that my father was at the time a major general in active service, and few first lieutenants in the IDF (or, I suspect, in any military organization) would have so easily risked the ire of a general.

A reputation for integrity, honesty, seriousness and utter professionalism was the hallmark of Mitzna's military career. In 1982, already a brigadier general and commander of the IDF Staff College, he submitted his resignation from the military in protest of Sharon's conduct of the Lebanon war and his handling of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. Prime Minister Menachem Begin persuaded Mitzna to rescind his resignation, and he went on to become commanding officer of Central Command, with jurisdiction over the West Bank (a position in which he succeeded ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak). These were the early years of the first intifada, and rather than succumb to the dictates of the Jewish settlers, the real bosses of Central Command, on how to handle the Palestinian uprising, Mitzna resigned his post. In doing that, some experts say, he gave up a real chance to contend for the position of IDF Chief of Staff, the top position in the Israeli military.

Narrow Social Base

Having experimented with direct election of the prime minister with three disastrous results—Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon—Israel has now returned to the strictly parliamentary system, whereby voters choose between political parties, not individual candidates. The Labor party which, truth be told, should have renamed itself the Capital party, represents the "old elites"—the veteran, Ashkenazi, relatively well-off middle class—a social group in rapid decline for demographic and economic reasons. To win an election, Labor must therefore gain the support of Israel's Palestinian citizens, who form about 10 percent of the electorate. It was the support of Palestinian citizens that enabled both Yitzhak Rabin and Barak, the only successful Labor candidates since 1973, to gain power. But Labor completely alienated Palestinian citizens when, under the Barak government, Israeli police killed 13 of them during demonstrations that accompanied the outbreak of the current intifada in October 2000. The Palestinians' reaction—a boycott of the elections for prime minister held in February 2001—enabled Sharon to win that election in a "landslide."

As a person, Mitzna enjoys the respect of Palestinian citizens because, in October 2000, he physically stood between police and Palestinian demonstrators in Haifa, helping to prevent the bloodshed which occurred in other towns. But it is doubtful that this respect will translate into Palestinian votes for Labor. Moreover, legislation passed by the Knesset in the hysterical atmosphere of the past two years makes it very easy to disqualify Palestinian political parties and individual candidates from participating in the general elections. If this new law is used by the right to disqualify one or more Palestinian political parties, as it almost certainly will be, Palestinian voters may react by again boycotting the elections. Another mass Palestinian abstention would deal a fatal blow to the coalescence of a left bloc that could prevent Sharon from forming a majority coalition in the Knesset after the elections (which was precisely the point of the legislation).

Peace Through Globalization

Most political commentators are puzzled by the fact that Sharon, who has brought Israeli society to its lowest point ever in every respect, is so immensely popular among the voters. The most common explanation for Sharon's high standing is that, in its deep despair over the security and economic situations, the Israeli public is clinging to the grandfatherly figure that the Likudnik prime minister has cut for himself. Sharon, it is true, has always been a brilliant tactician, but his popularity has deeper roots than this grandfatherly image. Its roots lie in the total collapse of the policy of peace through globalization, and vice versa, pursued by Labor between 1993 and 2000.

Historically, the power of the Labor party rested on a highly mobilized economy, controlled in almost equal measures by the state and by the Histadrut. The Histadrut was an umbrella political-economic labor organization on the Western European model (albeit an extreme variety of that model), not a labor union federation like the AFL-CIO. While the Israeli economy was at no time a socialist economy, for many years profit was not the only consideration determining economic policy. National considerations, primarily the need to maintain full employment among Jewish workers, operated to curb the profit motive. With the rapid economic growth that began after 1967, political pressure was mounting to "rationalize," or liberalize, the economy. This neoliberal impetus found its political expression in the Democratic Movement for Change, a one-issue, one-election political party that won 15 Knesset seats in the 1977 parliamentary contest, bringing Labor down and allowing Likud to take power for the first time.

After it won the elections, Likud launched two drastic policy initiatives: economic liberalization and peace with Egypt. While the former was in line with its political principles, the latter came as a total surprise. Not long before that Begin had vowed to retire, when his time came, to Yamit, the town built by Israel in northern Sinai. The explanation for this contradiction lies in the conjunction of the two policies: economic liberalization required, as a precondition, a reduction in state expenditures and therefore in the volume of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Likud's peace policy turned out to be much more successful than its economic one. The Histadrut, which Likud failed to capture when it captured the state, opposed liberalization every inch of the way, and the only tangible result of the liberalization efforts was an inflation rate that reached 450 percent a year by 1985. At that point, Labor came to the rescue, and the national unity government headed by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir adopted a new economic policy of harsh anti-inflationary measures and drastic liberalization. Parallel to that, the national unity government also extricated Israel from most of Lebanon, where it had been mired, thanks to Sharon, since 1982.

The Disappearing "Peace Dividend"

The Oslo accords of 1993 were to be the capstone of this combined process of peace and economic liberalization. Initially, the accords paid off handsomely in economic terms, allowing Israeli capital to make important strides in its effort to integrate into the global economy, and attracting unprecedented foreign investment to Israel. As a result, per capita GDP rose almost three times between 1980 and 1998, from $5,600 to $15,100. But this "peace dividend" did not benefit the entire society. During the rapid economic development that took place in the 1990s, Israel moved from being the least unequal advanced capitalist society to being second only to the US in economic inequality. Income and wealth gaps were mitigated somewhat by taxes and transfer payments, but, as could be expected, political pressures have been mounting to cut taxes and reduce transfer payments.

Since 1985, all Israeli governments have pursued aggressive neoliberal economic policies of privatization, deregulation, tax cuts and contraction of social services. But of the two major political parties it was Labor which was perceived as the true champion of these policies, because it combined neoliberal economics with the peace process and with many other measures of social, political and cultural liberalization. Likud (and Shas), on the other hand, while no less liberal in economic terms, have been anti-liberal in political and cultural terms, and were thus able to capitalize not only on the opposition to the peace process per se, but also on the economic and cultural frustrations generated by the broader process of liberalization.

When the Oslo process collapsed in 2000, Likud, whose number of Knesset seats had shrunk to only 19 in 1999, was there to pick up the pieces. With Netanyahu getting cold feet at the last moment, Sharon became leader of Likud and viciously attacked Barak for his handling of the second intifada. Barak, in turn, was blaming Arafat for rejecting the "generous offer" supposedly made to him at Camp David and choosing an armed struggle instead. But Arafat was not running in those elections, and faced with the political bankruptcy of Labor and rapidly deteriorating personal security, the Jewish electorate opted for Sharon's promise to "let the IDF win." Sharon's decisive victory was guaranteed by the Palestinian boycott.

Sharon's Calculus

With his election as prime minister in February 2001, Sharon's tactical brilliance came fully into play. Capitalizing on the opportunism of a number of key Labor politicians, first and foremost the Nobel Peace Laureate, Shimon Peres, he proceeded to form a government of national unity, thus ensuring that there would be no effective opposition to his policies in the Knesset. With liberal public opinion shattered by the myth of the "generous offer" and by the suicide bombing attacks, Sharon had the field to himself. As luck would have it, after September 11, 2001 the US was transformed from a restraining influence upon Sharon to a cheerleader for the execution of his old plan—the reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the annihilation of the Oslo process.

By summer 2002, Sharon had largely accomplished these goals, and the government of national unity became a burden upon him, as he began thinking about bolstering his support on the right in the approaching Likud primaries. Ben-Eliezer was consumed with a similar calculus regarding the Labor primaries, and the issue of the 2003 state budget, the most draconian anti-social budget ever proposed in Israel, was a convenient occasion for both of them to go their separate ways. Typically, it was Sharon's calculation that paid off and Ben-Eliezer's that backfired. Following the breakup of the national unity government, Sharon called for almost immediate elections, depriving both Ben-Eliezer and Netanyahu of the opportunity to prepare themselves for their respective primaries.

Territory vs. Peace

Curiously, the upcoming general elections will be the first in Israel's history clearly to be fought over the issue of territory versus peace. Mitzna's candidacy is promoted by big Israeli capital, which has been sustaining serious losses due to the economic devastation caused by the combination of a global crisis and the flight of every form of foreign (and some domestic) capital, including tourism, because of the renewed conflict. Mitzna won the Labor primaries by going against the conventional wisdom and clearly articulating his dovish positions, and he seems determined to stay this course for the duration of the electoral campaign. Sharon is hiding behind his faint support for a "Palestinian state" and his willingness to make "painful concessions" for peace, but everybody realizes that reelecting Sharon promises only more of the same. Paradoxically, Sharon's utter failure to enhance the security of Israel, and of individual Israelis at home and abroad, may actually help his electoral effort.

Optimistic commentators have pointed to the fact that in both major parties, and even in the ultra-nationalist National Religious Party, the more moderate candidates, or at least those professing to be such, won the internal contests. This, they say, indicates that public opinion is gradually moving to the left. This observation may be correct in a very general sense, as desperation is spreading throughout Israeli society. But in the very short time between now and January 28 this shift of sentiment is not likely to make a difference. The only question now is whether Mitzna will have the staying power to remain in the Knesset as head of the opposition, so that at least Sharon will have to face a loud, coherent, critical voice as he goes on with his plans to completely subdue the Palestinians.

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