On May 29, 1996, with a slender margin of only 30,000 votes (less than 1% of the Israeli vote but with a clear majority of 11 percent of the Jewish votes cast), Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres, thereby becoming Israel’s first directly elected Prime Minister. Once again, and for the fifth time in his political career, Shimon Peres failed to receive the backing from the Israeli public and the election results illustrated clearly the already well-known fact that Israeli society was deeply divided over the future of the peace process. Few would have predicted, though, that it was split so evenly down the middle.
Netanyahu’s victory marks a remarkable political comeback and a dramatic reversal of personal fortunes. In the opinion polls at the start of 1996, Shimon Peres held what appeared to be an unassailable lead of 30 percent over him. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, resulted in a spontaneous outpouring of national grief and in an unprecedented level of public support for his policies, including the peace accords with the Palestinians. Publicly castigated for helping foster the political atmosphere that had led to Rabin’s death, Netanyahu’s political standing plummeted and, for all his charismatic qualities, he appeared to be Likud’s biggest electoral liability.
By the beginning of May, however, Netanyahu had begun to regain his popularity, helped in no small part by the wave of Hamas suicide bombings in February-March that had shattered the confidence of many Israelis in the peace process. By the end of the election campaign the two prime ministerial candidates were running neck and neck, though most commentators, perhaps more on the basis of hope than fact, felt that Peres would just scrape home. Indeed, on the night of 29 May the early indications, based on exit polls and first returns, pointed to a slim victory for Peres. One half of the country heaved a collective sigh of relief, a sentiment echoed around the capitals of the world. Analysts hastened to put their finishing touches to Netanyahu’s political obituaries which they had begun to pen six months earlier, while Labor politicians started to talk confidently about their plans for the next four years. However, as votes were being counted through the night, victory was slipping through the fingers of Shimon Peres, and as morning broke, Israel awoke to a new reality and a new Prime Minister. Those who only hours earlier had looked on in dejection were now jubilant at this dramatic twist of events. The rest of Israeli society was left to contemplate its worst fears and the prospect of a new government dominated by hard-liners and religious parties.
Netanyahu’s victory arose from a brilliantly orchestrated electoral strategy, simple yet remarkably effective: to play on Israeli fears and insecurities about the peace process with the Palestinians and to exploit the public’s long-standing doubts and lack of confidence in Shimon Peres as leader of the nation. Netanyahu’s campaign focused on the lack of security the Oslo accords had brought to Israel, promising instead that he would offer ‘peace with security,’ the elixir that all Israelis crave, although he was less specific about he would achieve this. He also portrayed Peres as a leader lacking in caution who was prepared to sacrifice everything, including Jerusalem, for the sake of peace. The message was hammered home repeatedly and consistently throughout the campaign. Accused of lacking policies of his own or of possessing a viable alternative to the peace process, Netanyahu simply hijacked the center ground and campaign agenda.
Without doubt one of the principal causes of Labour’s demise was the marked deterioration in security situation in the country in the early part of the year. Four suicide bomb attacks, in the spate of four, on buses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv left sixty-one dead and shattered the hopes and trust that many Israelis had placed in the Oslo process. Likewise had President Assad been more publicly forthcoming in response to Labour’s willingness to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace, then Peres would not have been as easy a target for Netanyahu.
But this was also an election which Peres lost as much as Netanyahu won. Labor’s campaign was unconvincing, sending confusing signals to the Israeli public. It’s tactics fell between two stools, consisting of neither positive nor negative campaigning. Confident of victory, its campaign team was poorly organized, suffering from a complacency which bordered, at times, on arrogance.
At the same time, Peres and Labor appeared reluctant, if not frightened, to present their message and vision of the future to the public. Seemingly scared of alienating the wavering voter, Labor chose to keep the election campaign as dull as possible. Prior to the campaign many believed that Labor would evoke the image and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. Yet the party’s most potent asset, even in death, was conspicuous only by its absence. At no point did Labor confront Netanyahu and the Likud directly, forcing them to spell out their policies. The contrast between the two campaigns came most sharply into focus during the television debate between the two candidates, now seen as the final death-knell for Peres. Looking tired, apprehensive and clearly under-prepared, Peres cut a hesitant figure while Netanyahu exuded confidence and conviction.
Before the reality of defeat had time to be fully absorbed, a quick hunt for scapegoats was underway, with party leaders and activists hastening to exchange recriminations. This quick-fire swapping of accusations has little, however, to do with any level-headed analysis of Labor’s political demise. Rather it marked the first shots in the battle between Ehud Barak, the popular former Chief of Staff and Haim Ramon, who had headed Labor’s campaign team, for the future leadership of the party.
But a simple change of leader, nor awaiting the failure of a Netanyahu government, will not suffice if Labor is to regain political power. Labor’s downfall represents more than just a vote of no-confidence in Shimon Peres’ leadership. Nor can the blame be placed solely on a poor campaign strategy. Many sectors of Israeli society, most notably the religious communities – the traditional Sephardi as well as the ultra-Orthodox – remain alienated by Labor’s socio-economic policies and the elitist image conveyed by the party’s leadership.
Labor returned to power in 1992 on the basis of Yitzhak Rabin’s popularity, papering over the need to deepen internal party reforms and broaden the base of its public support. The redefining of the party’s role in Israeli society, the building of a coherent social ideology and orientation and the forging of new coalitions, a process long overdue but assiduously avoided, is vital if Labour is not to be banished to the political wilderness
While all Israeli elections are dubbed as being the most critical in the country’s short history, the 1996 election was unique on two counts. For the first time, Israelis cast two votes: one for the direct election of Prime Minister; the other for the party of their choice in the Knesset, the 120-seat Israeli parliament. This had an immense impact on the nature of the election campaign and on the voting patterns of the Israeli public.
Second, the election was held in the midst of the peace process. The public would be trusting a leader to continue and successfully complete on-going negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria. In this respect, the Israeli electorate was presented with a clear choice between two leaders with sharply differing views and concepts of the outcomes of these negotiations and of Israel’s future relations with its Arab neighbors.
One of the purported aims of the new electoral system was to reduce the political clout of the smaller parties and weaken their leverage over the political system. Paradoxically, it had the opposite effect. In order to become prime minister, both Netanyahu and Peres needed to cultivate various constituencies within Israeli society to be assured of their support on election day. It was here that Netanyahu prospered at Peres’ expense. As an initial step, Netanyahu, with the considerable efforts of Ariel (Arik) Sharon, persuaded David Levy, (who had broken away from the Likud to form his own movement), and Rafael (Raful) Eitan, leader of Tsomet, to drop out of the race for the premiership, thus allowing him to become the sole candidate of the Israeli right. Netanyahu paid a heavy price for their support, offering them one-third of the secure seats on the Likud list and senior cabinet portfolios. It was a deal that may haunt him.
With Peres assured of the Arab vote, though not its size, Netanyahu was aware that he needed the unreserved endorsement of the religious and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties if he were to win the election. The National Religious Party immediately swung behind Netanyahu; the ultra-orthodox parties though were more cautious in passing judgement. Throughout the campaign both Netanyahu and Peres zealously courted the spiritual leaders of ultra-Orthodox communities in hope of receiving their blessing.
Eventually, only days before the election, Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages called on its followers to vote for the candidate ‘whose party [would be] more likely to work in the spirit of religion and Jewish tradition.’ The wording was ambiguous, but had only one interpretation–Netanyahu. The Council of Torah Sages’ announcement came shortly after Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the nonagenarian spiritual mentor and erstwhile leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community, had put his full weight behind Netanyahu. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party which represents some Sephardi Jews of Asian and North African origin, refrained from endorsing either candidate. But the sympathies of the followers of Shas have always been with the Likud. Netanyahu was also granted a priceless photo-opportunity and received the blessing of Rabbi Yitzhak Kedourie, the aged mystic and kabbalist sage.
The total mobilization and blanket support of the ultra-orthodox camp for a secular politician–let alone one thrice- married and who had publicly confessed to the sin of adultery, was not only unprecedented in Israeli politics but was also instrumental in bringing Netanyahu to power. One reason was their shared hard-line views on the peace process. But equally important, if not more so, was the Heredi community’s intense loathing of Meretz, the overtly anti-religious, stridently secular junior partner in the previous government, and resentment of Labor’s willingness to accommodate it.
The New Knesset
Although most opinion polls were remarkably accurate in forecasting the narrow margin of the prime ministerial contest, none came close to foreseeing the composition of the new Knesset. After the 1992 election, political analysts spoke confidently of the gradual demise of the smaller parties and emergence of a quasi-two-party (or two-bloc) system. The adoption of the new electoral system was expected to hasten this process. Indeed, the decision by David Levy’s Gesher movement and Tsomet to run under the umbrella of Likud rather than as separate lists reflected this wide-held perception.
To the surprise of everyone, the new electoral system produced the opposite effect. It was the smaller parties, especially the religious ones who had most feared its introduction, that emerged as principal victors of the 1996 elections. Israelis quickly realized they had two choices: they could vote for their preferred candidate to lead the country whilst simultaneously choosing the party which best reflected their concerns and interests.
Voters deserted the two main parties in droves. Labor, which entered the elections with 44 seats, emerged as still the largest party, but now with only 34 members in the new Knesset. Similarly, the Likud-Gesher-Tsomet alliance fell from a combined total in 1992 of 40 seats, to secure only 32 mandates, barely one=quarter of the total vote. In contrast, the turnout for the religious parties rose dramatically, with the three parties securing just short of 600,000 votes, giving them a total of 23 members in the Knesset, an all-time high. Shas continued to confound its critics by increasing its representation from 6 to 10. The National Religious Party, achieved a similar feat by winning 9 seats. Only the Ahdut Ha’Torah (United Torah Judaism) party failed to grow, though it retained its 4 seats.
Two other parties, in their first appearance on the Israeli political scene, also made their mark. Yisrael Ba’Aliya, the Russian immigrant party headed by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, won seven seats, a performance far beyond all expectations. The Third Way, a party established by former Labor hawks who split from the party primarily over differences about the Golan Heights and negotiations with Syria, obtained four seats.
The two Arab parties, Hadash and the United Arab List, performed far better than in previous years, winning five and four seats respectively. On the left, Meretz dropped from 12 to 9, a result slightly better than the polls had predicted. On the far right, Moledet, which advocates a policy of transfer of the Arabs from the occupied territories, fell from 3 to 2 seats.
It is convenient to apportion blame for the demise of Labor and Likud on the shortcomings of the new electoral system, as many have already done. True, the new system allows the electorate to split their vote between candidate and party, enabling them to distribute their preferences more widely. But it does not explain why they chose do so. Part of the answer can be found in two main parties’ electoral strategies. Both focused on the peace process, and by doing so became largely one-issue parties. In the battle to win over the center, both parties adopted the same message of peace and security. Their campaigns focused more on personalities than policies. As a result, both Labor and Likud neglected completely economic and social issues, letting smaller parties representing specific interests fill the void.
The results of the 1996 election underline a more long-term and on-going crisis of confidence in the traditional functioning of the Israeli political system.(1) Elements of Israeli society (such as Oriental Jews, the ultra-Orthodox, the Russian immigrants and Israeli Arabs), frustrated at having failed to fulfill goals and aspirations within the traditional arena of government, mobilized through extra-parliamentary groupings and their own organizational frameworks. With such a base already established, the new electoral system opened the way for them to vent frustrations through the ballot box and in so doing highlight communal, cultural, religious and economic cleavages prevalent in Israeli society.
These groups (apart from the Israeli Arabs) have now gained power and having entered the political establishment they, too, will be expected to deliver to their own constituencies. Failure to do so may well lead to electoral punishment next time around. For their part, both Labor and Likud in the coming years must develop strategies and policies to bring these groupings back into their fold. The outcomes in these two areas will determine to a large degree whether the 1996 election was indeed a Ma’Hapach (Upheaval) (2) resulting in a fundamental redrawing of the Israeli political landscape or ‘just another change in government.’
Forming the New Government
The new electoral law did spare the Israeli public from the ugly spectacle of political horse-trading which has in recent times become the prime feature in assembling Israeli government coalitions. Under the new electoral law, only the elected prime minister is empowered to form a government, thereby removing the possibility of parties manoeuvering between alternative candidates. Should the prime minister not succeed in forming a government or should the Knesset at any point pass a vote of no-confidence by a majority of at least sixty-one, new elections will be called. This effectively limits the options available to prospective coalition partners and lessens their leverage over the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners chose themselves – the three religious parties, (Shas, Ahdut Ha’Torah, The National Religious Party), the Russian immigrants’ party (Yisrael Ba’Aliya), and the Third Way – giving him a clear majority of sixty-six. The new electoral system weakens the bargaining power of the smaller parties but does not eliminate it altogether. Netanyahu needed the support of all the smaller parties just as much as they needed him. His only other option was to turn to the Labor Party and form a government of national unity. A channel of communication was opened to Labor but Netanyahu had no desire to pursue seriously this avenue. Furthermore, it was unlikely that Labor would respond positively to any overture unless given a real say in policy on the peace process, something Netanyahu has been unwilling to concede.
The coalition negotiations proceeded relatively smoothly. Netanyahu’s only real headache was in dividing the spoils of government, many of which were coveted by more than one party. Restricted by the new law to only 18 ministers and 6 deputy ministers, Netanyahu discovered that he had made too many promises which he could not fulfil. In his haste to put together a government he granted his partners what they wanted, leaving little for his own party.
Senior members of the Likud angrily discovered that they would have to settle for a few minor ministries, while there would be no place at all in government for Ariel Sharon. The claims of those who had loyally stood by Netanyahu, especially in the months after Rabin’s death, were simply overlooked. During the weekend before the Knesset’s opening, senior party members forced Netanyahu to retract his offer of the Finance Ministry to Ya’acov Frenkel, the highly respected governor of the Bank of Israel, and give it to Dan Meridor instead. Moshe Katsav accepted the Ministry of Tourism after being offered the additional, albeit symbolic, position of deputy prime minister. Likud members also displayed their displeasure with Netanyahu by refusing his request to postpone the election of the Knesset speaker in order to allow Ovadia Eli, his preferred candidate, to enter the Knesset and take up the post.(3)
Then, in a cleverly calculated move only hours before Netanyahu was due to present his cabinet to the Knesset, David Levy informed Netanyahu that he would not join the government unless a suitable post was found for Ariel Sharon. In a hastily conceived solution, a new custom-made Ministry of Infrastructure was created for Sharon. While all members of the cabinet believed that Sharon ought to be part of the government, they were not so eager to give up part of their new portfolios on his behalf. Hoping that time would weaken Sharon’s position, Netanyahu showed little interest and entrusted Ya’acov Ne’eman, his new justice minister, to mediate between Sharon and the ministers involved (4). Negotiations dragged on for over two weeks and it was not until David Levy again forced the issue, on the eve of Netanyahu’s maiden trip to Washington as prime minister, by again threatening to resign, that Netanyahu finally brought Sharon into the government.
The new electoral law has created a unique Israeli mixture of presidential and parliamentary systems. In this hybrid system the relationship and balance of power between prime minister, cabinet and Knesset is undetermined. Netanyahu’s conception of his own role is based closely on the American presidential system and he has set about modelling the prime minister’s office in the image of the White House. On taking office he announced that his was the only voice empowered to speak on matters of defense and foreign policy. When David Levy declared that Israel would have to meet Syria ‘half-way,’ Netanyahu quickly brought him into line. When Benny Begin dared to criticize the meeting between Dore Gold, Netanyahu’s leading policy advisor, and Yasir Arafat, he was publicly rebuked.
Netanyahu’s original aim was to concentrate power in his own hands and centralize policymaking by transferring major sources of power from different ministries to his own office. Here he has been only partially successful. While he has taken on responsibility for overseeing economic reform and privatization, Netanyahu was thwarted in his efforts to dislodge control of the treasury’s powerful budgetary division from the Finance Ministry. Similarly, he has been forced to relinquish control of the all-important Israel Lands Authority (which he had intended to move from the Housing Ministry to the prime minister’s office) to the new Ministry of Infrastructure.
On taking power, Netanyahu also announced his intention to establish in the prime ministers office a National Security Council (NSC) and a Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) which would have been headed respectively by David Ivri, long-serving director-general of the Defense Ministry, and Ya’acov Frenkel, the Governor of the Bank of Israel. The original intention was that the NSC would be responsible for overseeing strategic planning, defense and foreign policy, and managing the peace process. The idea of creating an NSC had always encountered strong opposition by the defense and intelligence establishments. It was first suggested following the Yom Kippur War and was actually mandated by law in the early 1990s but never put into practice. Due to the opposition of both the defense establishment and the treasury, Netanyahu failed to establish either of these two new bodies and both ideas have been quietly dropped from the political agenda.
While unsuccessful in transferring bureaucratic instruments of power to the Prime Minister’s office, Netanyahu has confined the discussion and implementation of government policy to a small inner-group of personal advisers, many of whom possess no previous government experience. Distrustful of both the army and Foreign Ministry, institutions which he regards as representing the Labor party’s positions, he has excluded them from the decisionmaking process.
Netanyahu has also shown himself to be equally distrustful of members of his own party and coalition partners. While all prime ministers in Israel have controlled the central levers of power, Netanyahu’s personal style of leadership has alienated many of his supporters, especially those in his own party who have not forgiven him for the cavalier way he overlooked their interests when forming the government in June. Many members of the cabinet have aired concern and frustration at the lack of consultation and information on negotiations with the Palestinians and, in particular, over details concerning the Israeli redeployment in Hebron.
The new electoral law affords Netanyahu a greater degree of constitutional autonomy and freedom of action than before. All Israeli prime ministers, however dominant, have been dependent on control over and support from their own party. Netanyahu’s experience so far indicates that this ‘law’ still remains. In the eight-party coalition, his own party, the Likud, is a minority. While broad consensus exists in a number of general areas, the parties have specific interests and a variety of competing agendas. Netanyahu has found himself constantly pulled back and forth by his partners as they vie for resources and patronage. His freedom of maneuver has been curtailed far more than Netanyahu expected.
Negotiations with the Palestinians
Shimon Peres ultimately lost the election because he failed to win the trust of the Israeli people. Admired abroad, he was perceived by the wavering voter at home as a more risky prospect than Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s portrayal of the Middle East as an uncertain hostile environment wherein the Arab states have yet to reconcile themselves fully to living peacefully with Israel, was more reflective of Israeli thinking than the vision offered by Shimon Peres. The Israeli public voted not against the continuation of the peace process but out of the desire for a more considered and balanced one.
Netanyahu assured them that he would deliver peace without sacrificing Israel’s security and that he would be more wary and hard-headed in his dealings with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Negotiations would be conducted from a position of strength and further concessions to the Palestinians would be conditional on their fully honoring their obligations. Netanyahu’s campaign speeches were high on generalities but short on details. At no point was he confronted by the Labor party and compelled to translate his slogans into policies and specify how he intended to move the peace process forward.
Netanyahu’s election marks more than just a change in style; it represents a fundamental shift in Israel’s strategic calculations and its policies toward the region. Absent is talk of a new Middle East, and of Israel’s integration, politically and economically, therein. In its place Netanyahu has focused on the dangers of terrorism and of the primacy of security in Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors. Whereas Peres and Rabin saw the threat of terrorism and violence as an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of peace, Netanyahu has made its curtailment his point of departure, with the adoption of effective measures to control terrorism seen as a pre-requisite for progress in future negotiations. This has become evident not just in his approach to the continuation of negotiations with the Palestinians, but also in the line he has publicly adopted toward Syria.
The Likud accepted the Oslo Accords as an irreversible fait accompli but with little enthusiasm. Its platform stated that it would abide by international agreements but it reserved the right to ‘act to reduce the dangers to the future and security of Israel resulting from these agreements.’ While Netanyahu accepted, in principle, implementation of the Oslo process, he made little secret of his disdain for the agreements reached with the Palestinians.
During his first three months in office, Netanyahu continued to profess his commitment to the peace process and Oslo Accords. But his words were not matched by deeds. By steadfastly refusing to commit himself to meeting with Yasir Arafat and failing to develop channels of communication between his government and the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu appeared intent on discrediting Arafat’s authority and undermining the legitimacy of the Oslo process. Although the two leaders did eventually meet at the beginning of September, this meeting proved to be largely symbolic. Believing that he would not encounter any real pressure from the United States in the lead up to the Presidential elections at the end of November, Netanyahu was biding his time and sought to redefine the Oslo process’s terms and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu quickly discovered that changing the rules of the game between Israel and the Palestinians was not an item over which he had sole ownership and that Arafat, too, was able to exert leverage and dictate developments to suit his own agenda. Palestinian resentment and frustrations with the lack of progress and Netanyahu’s approach boiled over at the end of September following the opening in the middle of the night of the Hasmonean tunnel in the old city of Jerusalem. This unilateral Israeli action led to widespread rioting throughout Gaza and the West Bank, including armed clashes between Israeli and Palestinian forces, and resulted in the death of 64 Palestinians and 15 Israelis.
The bloodshed did, however, alert the international community to the dangers inherent in the stagnation of the peace process. Although an emergency Washington summit–convened by President Clinton in the immediate aftermath of the rioting in order to prevent the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians from further escalating–failed to bridge the rift between the two sides, it did lead to a partial lifting of the economic closure and to renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Hebron.
Although the security considerations of both sides regarding Hebron were real issues, the final points of disagreement between the two sides on this specific point were minimal and not difficult to overcome. The real problem, which delayed a Hebron agreement as well, was the continuation and future pace of the Oslo process once the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron had been completed.
The Palestinians have been particularly fearful that once the ink is dry on a Hebron agreement, Netanyahu would revert to his policy of procrastination and once again would try to freeze the process. Thus they sought written guarantees–provided by the United States–that Netanyahu will abide by the timetable outlined in the Oslo Accords for further redeployments of Israeli troops in the West Bank and continue negotiations on other issues, including the opening of a Gaza airport and a safe passage route between Gaza and the West Bank.(5)
The Palestinians have also been wary that the Hebron withdrawal will be followed by an expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Palestinian fears began to be realized in the middle of December with the decision of the Israeli cabinet to reinstate financial subsidies, which the previous government had withdrawn, to all settlers and to reinstall the settlements in the West Bank as an area of national priority. This decision brought a fierce and immediate response from the international community. Netanyahu announced that he had no intentions of creating any new settlements until agreement had been reached over the final status of the territories.
Netanyahu’s procrastination and inconsistent rhetoric has resulted in not just a breakdown of trust with the Palestinians but has led to a broader disillusionment within the Arab world over his true intentions and policies. President Mubarak of Egypt refused to attend the Washington Summit and has been increasingly critical of Israel. Relations and exchanges between countries have become increasingly acrimonious with Israel openly accusing Egypt of playing an obstructive, negative role in negotiations over Hebron. Of equal concern has been the deterioration of relations with Jordan, which have in recent months become decidedly cool. King Hussein of Jordan left the Washington summit disillusioned and bitterly disappointed with the attitude adopted by Netanyahu.
Fearful of being seen as too closely associated with Netanyahu, the King has begun to publicly distance himself from Israel. Negotiations between Israel and Syria have been replaced by an escalating war of words, with the threat of hostilities between the two sides becoming increasingly more real. Other Arab states such as Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Oman, which had been quietly developing commercial links with Israel, have put those ties on hold, awaiting positive developments in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, whilst the multilateral talks have been effectively suspended.
Prospects for the Future
The decision to honor the terms of the Oslo agreement and withdraw from Hebron marks an important turning point for the right-wing in Israel. Netanyahu and the Likud have travelled a long way over the past year. From vituperative opposition to the Oslo Accords, they now find themselves locked in negotiations with the PLO and implementing further territorial concessions in the West Bank, especially from a town resonating with Biblical significance.
But the real meaning of the Oslo process lies beyond the redeployment of Israeli forces in Gaza and the West Bank and the transfer of authority to the Palestinians, important as those achievements have been. Israel’s decision to enter into negotiations with the PLO was seen by many observers, including supporters of the Oslo accords, as a tactical choice born of necessity, and one driven by pragmatic considerations. Yitzhak Rabin’s reluctance to grasp Yasir Arafat’s outstretched hand underlined this perception. The signing of the Declaration of Principles signalled the transformation in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people from one of an Israeli concern about finding a solution for the Palestinian problem, to a search for a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.
Since September 1993 and the handshake on the White House lawn, Israel and Yasir Arafat have gradually emerged as partners bound together in the pursuit of peace. Negotiations between the previous Israeli government and the Palestinians gradually evolved from a tactical decision to a strategic imperative for both sides. The inability of the Labor party to convey its importance to the Israeli people during the election campaign, was one of its greatest shortcomings.
For all his tough talking, Netanyahu has made a hesitant and uncertain start as prime minister. In an effort to please his various constituencies, he has succeeded in alienating them. Netanyahu gives the impression of being a prime minister distrustful of all but a few close advisers. He has failed to cultivate allies within his own government and has been unwilling to co-opt members of the coalition into the heart of the decisionmaking process and negotiations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu won power by capturing the center ground from Labor. Maintaining that stance and making the transition from leader of the opposition to holding the reigns of power has been difficult for him. In particular, Netanyahu has been prone to making hasty, contradictory statements and largely symbolic gestures, such as the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel and reintroduction of financial incentives to the settlers, actions which have affected little change on the ground while having a high diplomatic price for Israel. Netanyahu has yet to demonstrate the ability to articulate a consistent set of policies and to display the determination necessary to ensure their implementation. Many of Netanyahu’s early mistakes can be explained by his lack of political experience and as he has amply demonstrated in the past he can be quick to learn from them. But a number of critics, including members of his own party, have begun to question openly his leadership skills and policy judgements. The growing lack of confidence in his leadership has been a factor in calls for forming a National Unity government.
Negotiation is more than just a process of bargaining whereby two sides converge incrementally via a series of mutual concessions to arrive at an agreed outcome. It is also a process of learning and readjustment of understandings and expectations whereby the parties move from conflictual perceptions of behavior to ones of potential cooperation, leading (if successful) to a discussion of the terms of a final agreed outcome. Rabin and Arafat spent three years together travelling along that road. Forced by circumstances and pushed by external and domestic pressures, Netanyahu, Rabin’s fiercest critic, now finds himself following the same path. Like Rabin before him, Netanyahu has discovered that he has no alternative but to sit down with Arafat and that his own fortunes, as well as those of the peace process, are inextricably linked with those of his one-time arch enemy.
The realities of power have brought Netanyahu to accept the Oslo process, albeit reluctantly and painfully. But he has yet to show that he has fully embraced Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as his true partner in pursuit of a just and lasting peace. If he is truly intent on forwarding the peace process after Hebron, and securing the trust of the Palestinians and the Arab world, he will have display a greater commitment. In doing so, he will have to confront his supporters on the right who brought him to power, including many of his own colleagues within the Likud party. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu is ready and has the courage to overcome his ideological preferences and political constraints. Much depends, for both Israel and the Palestinians, on whether Netanyahu possesses the qualities of statesmanship to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
- See Keith Kyle and Joel Peters (eds.) Whither Israel: The Domestic Challenges (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1994)
- This phrase is associated in political terms with the Likud’s capture of power in 1977.
- Ovadia Eli was placed number 38 on the Likud list and therefore was not elected to the Knesset. He would have become a member of the Knesset, thereby becoming an eligible candidate for the post of Speaker, had the so-called Norwegian Law been immediately adopted. This law requires all cabinet ministers to resign from the Knesset and be replaced by candidates next in line on their respective party lists.
- Ne’eman resigned in August pending charges for corruption and was replaced as Minister of Justice by Tzachi Hanegbi.
- See David Makovsky, ‘After Hebron’, Jerusalem Post 13 December, 1996.
THE ISRAELI ELECTIONS – FINAL RESULTS
PRIME MINISTER Binyamin Netanyahu: 1,501,023 (50.4%) Shimon Peres: 1,471,566 (49.5%)
Valid votes: 2,972,589 invalid votes: 148,681 (mostly blank slips) Total votes cast: 3,121,270
|No. Seats||% Vote||No. Votes|
|Yisrael Ba’Aliya||7 (-)||5.7||174,928|
|United Torah Jewry||4 (4)||3.2||98,655|
|The Third Way||4 (-)||3.1||96,457|
|United Arab List||4 (2)||2.9||89,513|
(Seats won in 1992 election in parentheses).
The remaining lists obtained less than the minimum 1.5% of votes required for election.
Total number of votes cast: 3,119,195 Number of valid votes for the Knesset: 3,051,592 Number of invalid votes: 67,601
Voter turnout: 79.3%
Government and Coalition
The Government comprises six parties. Likud-Gesher-Tsomet: 32 Seats Shas: 10 Seats NRP: 9 Seats Israel B’Aliya: 7 Seats The Third Way: 4 Seats United Torah Judaism: 4 Seats
Total 66 Seats
In addition to the above parties the coalition is assured the support of the Moledet party (2 seats), although it is not included in the government nor in the coalition agreements.
The opposition is comprised of four parties: Labor: 34 Seats Meretz: 9 Seats Hadash: 5 Seats United Arab List: 4 Seats
Total 52 Seats
The Government of Israel, as approved by the Knesset, initially includes 18 Ministers. There are four deputy Prime Ministers. David Levy is the first in line to act in place of the Prime Minister when he is abroad.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs will be held in rotation by the Shas and NRP parties.
The Housing Ministry will also be held by the Prime Minister with United Torah Judaism having the status of Deputy Minister with extended authority. According to the coalition agreement there will be no full-time Housing Minster appointed over the Deputy Minster.
Likud – Gesher – Tsomet
Binyamin Netanyahu: Prime Minister, Minister of Housing and Construction
David Levy (Gesher): Vice prime minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ze’ev Binyamin Begin: Minister of Science (Resigned to protest the Hebron agreement on January 16, 1997)
Yitzhak Mordechai: Minister of Defense
Rafael Eitan (Tsomet): Minister of Agriculture and the Environment, and Deputy prime minister
Tzachi Hanegbi: Minister of Justice
Yehoshua Matza: Minister of Health
Limor Livnat: Minister of Communications
Dan Meridor: Minister of Finance
Moshe Katsav: Minister of Tourism, and Deputy prime minister
Ariel Sharon: Minister of Infrastructure
Eli Suissa: Minister of the Interior and Minister of Religious Affairs
Eliyahu Yishai: Minister of Labor and Social Affairs
National Religious Party
Rabbi Yitzhak Levy: Minister of Transport
Zevulun Hammer: Minister of Education and Culture, and Deputy prime minister
Natan Sharansky: Minister of Industry and Trade
Yuli Edelstein: Minister of Immigrant Absorption
The Third Way
Avigdor Kahalani: Minister of Internal Security
According to electoral law six deputy ministers will be appointed: two from Shas, one from NRP, one from United Torah Judaism (Deputy Minister in Housing Minstry, Meir Porush), and two from the Likud-Gesher-Tsomet (one from Gesher and one from the Tsomet)
* An earlier version of this paper was published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs Israel’s New Government Middle East Program – Briefing Paper No 33, July 1996.
Joel Peters is lecturer in the department of Politics at the University of Reading and an Associate Research Fellow of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. He is the author of Pathways to Peace: The Multilateral Arab-Israeli Peace Talks (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1996) and the co-editor (with Keith Kyle) of Whither Israel:The Domestic Challenges (London: I.B. Tauris/Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1994). He is currently a visiting fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for Peace, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.