Referendum on the Peace Process?
Today, Israelis will go to the ballot box to elect a new prime minister. There are now only two contenders for the premiership: Likud leader and incumbent Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and Labor Party Chief Ehud Barak. Three other candidates, Centrist Yitzchak Mordechai, Israeli-Arab leader Azmi Bishara and hawk Zeev "Benny" Begin bowed out of the race in the 11th hour.
While no election in Israel is insignificant, this one is particularly critical. Quite simply, Israel stands at a crossroads. The peace process with the Palestinians is at a stalemate. Israel's conflict in south Lebanon with the Syrian backed, Iranian-funded Hizbullah has reached a pitched crescendo. Internally, the economy is in the midst of a slippery slide, while fault-lines between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi (Jews of European origin vs. Jews of mid-Eastern origin), political left and political right, are tremoring towards earthquake. The new prime minister will be charged with arbitrating these complex, seemingly intractable problems.
Monday's election--justifiably or perhaps unjustifiably--is perceived to be nothing less than a referendum on some of these pressing matters, most notably the peace process. Whereas a vote for the right-of-center Bibi is perceived to a be a vote for halting the peace process or for moving it forward at a snail's pace, a vote for the left-of-center Barak is construed as a vote for accelerating peace negotiations. However, this kernel of electoral wisdom may not have basis in actuality. If elected, Netanyahu will almost certainly make the concessions necessary for peace, albeit grudgingly. On the other hand, Barak is not the messiah of the peace process some might hope. As a decorated military hero, Barak will only make territorial concessions after painstaking deliberations. When you come right down to it, Barak and Netanyahu are not all that different. The only major difference will be the character of their intended coalitions.
If the polls are a crystal ball, Ehud Barak is poised to win the elections. Weaned at the knee of Yitzchak Rabin and as the former chief-of-staff of the Israeli Defense Force, Ehud Barak engenders confidence among some of the Israeli electorate. Yet despite these impressive credentials, Barak grapples with skeletons that may haunt him on election day. For example, Barak was not so long ago accused of fleeing the site of a tragic military training accident while chief of staff. While he has been exonerated in the courts, the accusations themselves are not forgotten history, and they continue to cloud his reputation. Second, his Labor party has had a difficult time shrugging off the perception that they are Ashkenazi elitists who discriminate against the electorally powerful Sephardic community.
To overcome these image problems, Barak has imported James Carville, Bill Clinton's own image magician, to turbo-charge his campaign. Indeed, a friend of mine in Israel remarked just yesterday that Barak appears so slick in his ads that "he could be Bill Clinton." So Clintonesque is one of his ads about how Netanyahu mismanaged the economy that you can almost hear Barak say "Bibi, it's the economy, stupid!" And why shouldn't Barak play the campaign game American style? The photogenic Benjamin Netanyahu is a master image-maker who himself retains an American campaign guru, Arthur Finkelstein. Politics, like most things in Israel nowadays, are undergoing rapid Americanization.
Barak's campaign appears to be quite effective. Polls indicate that Barak will best Bibi by a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent today. However, these statistics may not be attributable to James Carville's deft spinning or Arthur Finkelstein's campaign blunders. Rather, the polls more likely reflect the fact that the electoral landscape has tipped in Barak's favor over the last few days. Thus far, the race between Netanyahu and Barak has been neck and neck. Therefore, every percentage point counts. Very recently, the Israeli-Arab prime ministerial candidate, Azmi Bishara, dropped out of the race in order to give Barak his 2 percent Arab vote. Similarly, Barak received another shot in the arm when Center Party leader Yitzchak Mordechai withdrew and urged his supporters to vote for Barak. In an election which will be determined by a handful of votes, Barak seems to have the upper hand.
No doubt, Ehud Barak is heading into election day with momentum. However, if there was ever a cardinal rule about current Israeli politics, it is "do not underestimate Benjamin Netanyahu." The Western press may hate him, but a significant number of Israelis do not. It is also a fallacy to think that Netanyahu owes his success to a fringe group of anti-peace process zealots. In fact, those on the extreme right reject Bibi as too moderate and will not support him. Rather, Bibi's popular strength is much more organic. Netanyahu is the king of the Israeli underclass. Those who are alienated from Israel's privileged, Ashkenazi upper-class find a real leader in Netanyahu. In particular, Bibi has skillfully stitched together an ethnically heterodox and eminently loyal support base of Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), Russian immigrants, and the ultra-religious. Although Barak may enjoy the applause of Israel's socioeconomic elite, they constitute only a demographic plurality and not a majority. On the other hand, Netanyahu's collective, multi-ethnic support may just be that majority. If they are mobilized successfully, Netanyahu may well be prime minister once again.
Although unspoken as of yet, a national unity government between Netanyahu's Likud and Barak's Labor may be in the cards. Both candidates realize that it may be impossible to cobble together a sustainable coalition in the parliament. A government coalition composed of both major parties would enable Israel's leaders to execute the critical decisions necessary for peace based on real consensus. However, you won't hear either candidate utter the words "national unity" until after the elections. If Bibi were to do so, his ultra-Orthodox voters would not approach the ballot box. Likewise, if Barak spoke of a coalition with Likud, his Arab-Israeli swing voters may boycott the elections. Whether they like it or not, Netanyahu and Barak better get used to the concept of working side by side, for they may be doing so regardless of who wins the premiership. David P. Honig '99, a government concentrator in Quincy House, is the former co-chair of Harvard Students for Israel.