Assessing Israel's New Government

by Joel Beinin | published July 6, 1999

When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak presents his coalition government to the Knesset he will receive a vote of confidence from 75 of its 120 members. Seven parties, some with incompatible positions on key issues, support the new government. In addition to Barak's One Israel list (Labor Party plus Gesher and Meimad, 26 seats), the coalition includes the Sephardi-orthodox SHAS (17 seats), the dovish-secularist MERETZ (10 seats), the politically ambiguous Center Party (6 seats), whose leaders include ministers in the previous Likud government; the secular-Russian immigrant Yisrael ba-`Aliyah (6 seats), the pro-settler National Religious Party (5 seats), and the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism (5 seats).

Barak stressed "national unity" over specific policy objectives during the coalition negotiations. Barak's preference for unity over political principle and his personalistic style may contribute to the continuing decline of the Labor Party. Despite Barak's decisive victory over Netanyahu in the contest for Prime Minister, One Israel has six fewer Knesset seats than the Labor Party received in the 1996 elections and 18 fewer than Labor received in 1992. Some party veterans are dissatisfied with the allocation of ministerial positions. Senior members with dovish views, such as Yael Dayan, Uzi Baram and Avraham Burg, will not be cabinet members.

US President Bill Clinton welcomed the new Israeli government as "a real chance to move the peace process forward in the Middle East." Although Barak has demonstrated little urgency about the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, he will certainly resume talks with the Palestinians and will probably avoid straining Israel's relations with Washington over this issue, unlike his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. But Barak is no peacenik: He abstained on the cabinet vote on the Oslo II (Taba) accords when he was a minister in the 1992-96 Rabin/Peres government. Leading Labor doves were not allowed to play prominent roles in the election campaign or the coalition negotiations.

Israel's negotiating position will be based on the "three nos" Barak proclaimed during the campaign:
   1. No division of Jerusalem. Barak, like every other major Israeli political figure, insists on Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.
   2. No return to Israel's 1967 borders. Barak seeks to annex parts of the West Bank to Israel.
   3. No dismantling of Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. Barak envisions most of the 310,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank remaining in place under Israeli rule.

Policy differences between Netanyahu and Barak on the future of the West Bank, though significant, are not as great as is commonly assumed. Barak envisions a Palestinian entity with very limited sovereign powers in perhaps 60 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

One peace-related campaign promise that Barak will try to keep is his commitment to withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon within a year. Israel has been occupying Lebanese territory since 1978, rationalizing that it needed a security zone to protect its northern settlements from attack by Palestinians. There have been no Palestinian attacks on Israel from Lebanon in many years, however. Israel's current conflict is with Hizballah, which has been fighting to drive Israel and its mercenary South Lebanon Army (SLA) out of Lebanon. Even those Lebanese who oppose Hizballah's Shi'i Islamist politics support its goal of liberating national territory from occupation. Ten Israeli soldiers have died in Lebanon this year, and the SLA is showing signs of collapse. Several Israeli protest groups have been calling for withdrawal, and even high-ranking army veterans have stated that maintaining the occupation serves no purpose.

Withdrawing from Lebanon would be easier for Israel if it were linked to a peace treaty with Syria. Syrian President Hafiz al-'Asad welcomed Barak's election and signaled his willingness to resume negotiations with Israel where they left off before the installation of the Netanyahu government. The basic contours of an Israeli-Syrian settlement are clear: Israeli evacuation of the Golan Heights in exchange for a contractual peace and mutual recognition. Barak understands this, though he will bargain the details fiercely. The Third Way, a party that championed Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, lost all its seats in the May election, signaling that public opposition to a Syrian-Israeli agreement will be limited.

In his victory speech Barak declared that he wanted to be "everyone's Prime Minister." Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy noted (May 30, 1999) that Barak apparently did not include the 375,000 Arab citizens who voted overwhelmingly for him. Barak did not conduct serious coalition negotiations with the three primarily Arab parties who won a total of 10 Knesset seats, even though `Abd al-Wahhab al-Darawsha, leader of the Arab Democratic Party (5 seats), declared his party's willingness to join the government.

Another glaring omission from Barak's vision of "everyone" is the working class. Amir Peretz, leader of the Histadrut trade union federation, split from the Labor Party arguing that it had abandoned its historic constituency. Peretz's One Nation list will not join the government because Barak would not make a commitment to raising the minimum wage and providing pension insurance for all workers and because it was inconvenient for Barak to offer Peretz a cabinet position in exchange for One Israel's two Knesset votes.

Women seem to be another slighted group in Barak's vision of "everyone." Dalia Itzik will be the only woman among 18 cabinet members. Yael Dayan denounced this as "scandalous."

Barak believes that the Rabin/Peres government's unofficial reliance on Arab votes for its parliamentary majority from 1992-96 exacerbated existing tensions among Jewish Israelis. To restore Jewish national unity, Barak is trying to establish an updated version of the Labor-led coalition governments of 1948 to 1977.

The clear winner in the 1999 Knesset election was SHAS, which increased its representation from 10 to 17 seats. Its combination of lower class populism, Middle Eastern Jewish ethnic pride and Ashkenazi-style ultra-orthodoxy frightens the Israeli establishment and the secular middle classes. Barak will try to contain this phenomenon without abandoning the neo-liberal economic policies that have produced unemployment rates in the 10-20 percent range in "development towns"-SHAS's primary social base.

Barak is seeking to realign the National Religious Party with One Israel, recreating the pre-1977 relationship between secular and modern orthodox Zionism. The NRP has militantly supported settlement and annexation of the West Bank since 1967 and participated in every Likud government. In response to the Wye Accords, its most extreme elements broke away and joined the National Union, which won only four Knesset seats. This poor showing consigned the ultra-nationalist annexationists to the margins of Israeli politics. But the NRP supported Netanyahu for Prime Minister, and its positions on peace are far from those of One Israel and MERETZ.

The main electoral shift responsible for Barak's victory occurred among secular, middle class Ashkenazi Jews, including many recent Russian immigrants who now comprise about 20 percent of Israel's Jewish population. In 1996 most Russians voted for Netanyahu, but SHAS, which controlled the Ministry of the Interior under Netanyahu's government, refused to recognize many Russian immigrants as Jews. As many as one-third do not qualify as Jews according to rabbinic law. Yisrael ba-`Aliyah (Israel Ascending) shifted from pro-Netanyahu in 1996 to neutral on the prime ministerial election in 1999, while running a highly effective Knesset campaign demanding that the Ministry of Interior be placed under its control. Barak has granted this demand.

The strength of middle-class Ashkenazi secularism, which verges on attitudes that would be termed anti-Semitic anywhere else, was confirmed by the Shinui (Change) Party's capture of six Knesset seats. Shinui faced extinction until it adopted opposition to religious coercion as its principle electoral slogan. It will not join Barak's government because it refuses to participate in any coalition including SHAS. MERETZ leader Yossi Sarid, who will become Minister of Education in the new government, heightened anti-religious sentiment by urging Barak to exclude SHAS from the government.

Many view this anti-SHAS hysteria as evidence of secular, Ashkenazi supremacy with a clear class bias. The hysteria is justified by the conviction of former SHAS leader, Ariyeh Deri, on charges of corruption and the party's refusal to accept the court's verdict. SHAS campaigned on the slogan "He is innocent." Barak and many others insisted that SHAS could not join the government unless Deri resigned as leader. Although Deri did step down after the elections, Shinui, many MERETZ members and other middle class secularists continued to insist that SHAS be excluded.

Yossi Sarid, Israel's most prominent establishment dove, urged Barak to form a coalition with the Likud instead of turning to SHAS. This would have brought interim Likud leader Ariel Sharon, who many MERETZ members denounce as a war criminal for his actions as Minister of Defense during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, into the cabinet. MERETZ's willingness to risk this, coupled with Shinui's successful Knesset campaign, suggest that, even more than their desire for a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, middle class Ashkenazi Jews are driven by a fear that Israel will not be a secular, liberal, Jewish state with a European culture.

With an 18 percent Arab minority, a 15 percent orthodox Jewish minority, and 45 percent of the Jewish population originating in the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a secular, Ashkenazi conception of Israeli society. Ehud Barak's strategy of maintaining Jewish national unity will face substantial challenges.

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