On June 5, 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud) became the ninth prime minister of Israel. Soon after his election he successfully replaced the ruling Labor-led coalition with a Likud-led coalition of secular and religious right-wing parties led by his ruling Likud party. This was the third electoral upset in Israel since 1977 when an alignment of parties headed by Herut’s leader Menachem Begin was able, for the first time, to oust the ruling Labor Party. [1] The second upset came in 1992 when a coalition of parties led by Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party was able to regain control of the Knesset.

In the 1996 direct ballot for prime minister, 50.4 percent (1,501,023 of all qualified votes) went to Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu (49.6 percent or 1,471,566 votes went to Labor’s Shimon Peres). Only a difference of 14,729 votes (the amount needed to reach 50 percent plus one), determined the direction Israel would take for the next four years.

Before the Election

Following the 1992 elections, and the return of the Labor Party to power, the Israeli political scene became increasingly turbulent. Following through on campaign promises to change “national priorities,” negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) culminated in the signing of the Oslo accords. Regardless of the different evaluations of these agreements and of the Israeli leadership’s motives for establishing the Palestinian Authority (PA), [2] for the majority of Israeli Jews, the agreements and their implementation created a political and psychological earthquake. The explicit recognition that Palestinians have collective rights over “the Land of Israel,” and the possibility of a sovereign Palestinian state, were not commonly accepted ideas for the majority of the Jewish population, even though certain elite groups had long promoted them.

In a relatively short period of time, the Rabin government, imposing major changes within the Israeli political culture, passed control over the majority of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to the PA. This was done without undermining the status of any Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Any attempt to dismantle settlements was considered likely to trigger large-scale popular resistance. Vast resources were invested in bypass roads to minimize friction between Palestinians and settlers, and the PA began collaboration with Israeli security forces to prevent attacks against settlers and targets within Israel.

Initially, it seemed that the majority of Jewish Israelis supported rapprochement with the Palestinians. Moreover, opposition from the secular right-wing Likud was unable to suggest a convincing alternative to withdrawal from the major Palestinian population centers, which, since the 1987 Palestinian uprising, had become a major burden on Israeli armed forces, state and society. The only strong opposition came from settlers and their nationalist and orthodox religious supporters. Demonstrations against the “peace process” were organized by these groups. The majority of the population, however, adopted a “wait-and-see” stance vis-a-vis the new government and its policies.

Initially, Rabin’s coalition consisted of three “Jewish” parties — Labor, Meretz and Shas, the traditionalist Mizrahi party. [3] Shortly after the establishment of the coalition, however, Shas left Rabin’s government due to political considerations and the personal problems of its political leader Aryeh Deri, who was facing charges of corruption. Thus, Rabin’s government remained a minority government supported from the outside by “Arab parties” — two non-Zionist parties, the largely Arab Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) and the United Arab List — which, along with Labor and Meretz held 61 of 120 seats in the Knesset. Previously considered “unthinkable” within the ethnocentric discourse of Israeli political culture, it was indeed unprecedented for an Israeli government to depend on “Arab parties” for support. The government itself appeared uncomfortable with this situation.

Jewish fundamentalist religious groups argued that Rabin’s policy was dangerous, and that a government dependent on “non-Jews” for its majority could not legitimately and democratically give up segments of the Jewish holy land. Secularist right-wing parties, such as the Likud, Tzomet and the quasi-fascist Moledet, expected this argument of illegitimacy to penetrate into the public consciousness and aid them politically.

On November 4, 1995 Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a young Jewish religious nationalist who took the illegitimacy argument of the “non-Jewish” government to its logical conclusion. The murder was preceded by a campaign led by religious groups, including influential rabbis who cursed both the government and Rabin and held discussions as to whether Rabin could legitimately be “executed” according to Jewish religious law. [4] Rabin’s assassination provoked deep shock among the majority of the Israeli public. The secularist right-wing opposition was considerably embarrassed, and even the most vociferous and aggressive religious opposition to the peace process was silenced for several months. Initially, the result of Rabin’s murder had a boomerang effect. Rabin’s “legacy” completely conquered public opinion, which seemed to favor a continued mandate for a Labor-led government. This assumption, along with his desire both for popular approval and to establish a stronger coalition not dependent on “Arab parties,” led Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, to advance the election date by five months.

In politics, however, five months is a long time and the trauma of Rabin’s assassination proved superficial, or at least absorbed to any depth only by limited segments of the population already inclined towards a more dovish and secular society. With the beginning of the election campaign, there was a slow return to pre-assassination political and social orientations.

If change occurred in the 1996 election, it was within the two major political blocs. In the split of the vote between left- and right-wing blocs in the 1992 election the right-wing bloc actually received 9,057 votes more than the left bloc. The fragmentation of the right wing into smaller parties,which failed to receive a parliamentary mandate, made the difference of one parliamentary seat and Labor’s victory.

From the perspective of the secular elite, the four-year period of the Labor-Meretz coalition was characterized by an accelerated “secularization” of Israeli politics. Following the 1992 elections, the Knesset adopted a series of citizen rights and “human dignity” laws and the high court accelerated its “constitutional revolution” by rendering several liberal and “enlightened” decisions (for example, granting formal spousal status for gay/lesbian couples). Religious, traditional or conservative segments of the population, on the other hand, view the past four years as the “de-Judaization” of the Israeli state. The Jewish identity of the Israeli state and society, and the Palestinian problem, became the hottest topics for public debate, bringing Israel to the brink of cultural war. Threatened by decadent “Americanized” or “Hellenistic” culture, the religious-nationalist-conservative movements saw the 1996 elections as a chance to save the Jewish state from becoming “just another nation” and mobilized to prevent such a scenario.

Electoral Campaign and Results

For the first time in Israel a new system of split ballots, one for the office of prime minister and the other for parliamentary seats, was used. Voters were able to choose between the candidates of the two major parties for prime minister directly while expressing their more particularistic ethnic or religious preferences by voting for a smaller party in the parliamentary elections. As a result, the right and left blocs were considerably weakened while the smaller, mainly ethnic, parties were strengthened. [5]

Two parties to benefit from this new system are relatively new on the Israeli political map. During the last seven years, approximately 700,000 new immigrants have arrived from the former Soviet Union. These new immigrants formed their own party, Yisrael be-‘Aliya, and won seven seats in the Knesset. Two Labor parliamentarians left their party with the initial aim of “saving” the Golan Heights from an agreement with Syria. Their party, the Third Way, won four seats. Prior to the elections, these parties were uncommitted to a particular coalition and ready to be a part of either a Likud- or Labor-led government in order to realize most effectively their interests. These two largely single issue parties were considered to be in the political “center,” with moderate inclinations towards “secularist” and “hawkish” positions.

Two additional parties benefited from the changes in the electoral system: the Ashkenazi National Religious Party, the closest representative of the settlers’ ideology and social composition; and Shas, the traditionalist Mizrahi party. Together they won 19 seats, and, with the four seats of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, established a 23-seat religious bloc, the largest in the history of the Israeli parliament. During the electoral campaign, these religious parties turned to Jewish secular voters, claiming that they alone could secure the “Jewishness” of Israeli society and the “purest Jewish education” of the younger generation. This campaign to equate Jewishness with religion produced results. About ten percent of the votes for the religious parties came from secular and traditionalist voters.

The Likud’s sophisticated electoral campaign was designed to appeal to the majority of the Israeli public who supported the “peace policies” of Rabin’s government. In their policy of “secure peace,” Likud argued that the Labor-led government had moved too fast, relinquishing too much for an “insecure” agreement with the Palestinians. The well-managed TV personality of Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu promised a leader capable of stringent negotiations in the final status talks. Playing on the anxieties of the Israeli public, Likud claimed that Labor policy would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state, withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a divided Jerusalem.

A series of some ten Palestinian suicide bomber attacks between April 1994 and March 1995 also had a direct impact on the Israeli election results: In the attacks, mainly against civilian transportation in the metropolitan centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, about 100 Israelis were killed, and many more were wounded. With each attack the entire nation plunged deeper into panic, depression and collective mourning. Initiated by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the bombings were openly aimed at sabotaging the Israeli-PLO agreements. As difficult as it is to gauge the weight of these attacks on Israeli voters, all Israeli politicians and analysts agree that these attacks benefited the right-wing parties. After each attack, polls which had shown a 10-15 percent margin of victory for Peres over Netanyahu indicated a growing shift to the right, reducing Peres’ advantage over Netanyahu.

During the electoral campaign, the right accused the PA of playing a double game, using Islamic terror as a tool for forcing more Israeli concessions. Arafat was again equated with Adolf Hitler and the Labor party as collaborating with him.

The Labor/Meretz counter-campaign explained that there was an Islamic-Jewish coalition of extremists working against rapprochement between the Jewish and Palestinian people and any retreat from the agreements would be a prize for the terrorists. Meanwhile, for about three months, a severe and total closure was imposed on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As the bombings ceased prior to the election, the right wing accused Labor of conspiracy with the PA and Hamas, claiming that the terrorist attacks were suspended to assist a Labor electoral victory. Thus, the secular and religious right were able to set the public agenda, forcing Labor to respond. The most lethal and effective slogan of this campaign was launched by an ultra-Orthodox group, claiming that “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” and implicitly “bad for the Arabs.”

Labor’s electoral campaign, on the other hand, emphasized the achievements of the peace process with the Palestinians and Jordan. They argued that relations with other Arab countries were being established in the building of a “new Middle East,” resulting in domestic economic prosperity, lower unemployment and an annual growth of about 6 percent in Israel’s gross domestic product. While Netanyahu was portrayed as a shallow, young, ambitious demagogue lacking in political experience, Peres was depicted as an elder statesman, who over the past 50 years had contributed to the building of Israel’s economy and military strength.

While Rabin enjoyed the image of “Mr Security,” Peres historically has been seen as a tricky and slippery politician. With losses in each new poll, Peres grabbed at any chance to improve his image. Ostensibly in response to missiles launched by Hizballah fighters into northern localities of Israel, Peres launched Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. Approximately 350,000 Lebanese civilians in southern Lebanon were driven from their homes and more than 100 Lebanese were killed. The Israeli attack against the UNIFIL post in Kafr Qana incurred even greater international condemnation of the operation. Instead of becoming a hero of Israel’s security, Peres once again demonstrated the limitations of power politics.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, eager supporters of Labor’s policies, expected that the secularization and increasing civic orientation of Israeli political culture would enable their participation in a polity based on citizenship rather than ethno-religious identity. This, together with a solution to Palestinian statelessness, ostensibly would lead to dramatic changes in their position in the Israeli state. Before the assault on Lebanon, an overwhelming turnout of Arab voters was expected, with almost unanimous support for Peres. Operation Grapes of Wrath created a backlash among Arab voters, with some Arab intellectuals calling for the casting of a blank ballot for the premiership, in protest of the military operation in Lebanon. However, in the final days before the election, with the threat of a Netanyahu-led victory, much of the Arab constituency decided to vote for Peres, “the lesser evil.” Only about 10,000 Arab voters chose the blank ballot. About 80 percent of eligible Arab citizens voted (a turnout 5 percent lower than the Jewish population), 95 percent of whom voted for Peres. About 40 percent voted for “Jewish parties” and 60 percent for the two “Arab” parties, Hadash and the United Arab List. This reversed the trend observed in the 1992 election, when Palestinian Israelis voted more for Jewish parties.

Protest Votes

In the 1996 election there were 148,681 disqualified votes for the premiership, against only 67,601 disqualified votes for parliamentary seats. In Israel blank ballots, considered “protest votes,” are not counted and are included in the category of disqualified votes. Historically, the number of such votes has been much lower. With the 67,601 disqualified votes for the parliamentary election as an index, the remaining 81,000 blank votes, of which 71,000 were Jewish votes, constitute an expression of dissatisfaction with the two candidates for prime minister. Taking into account the very small margin of Netanyahu’s victory, with only 14,729 surplus votes over Peres, this cannot, then, be regarded as a strong mandate let alone a landslide for the right. In the new electoral system, however, the rules of the game are “all or nothing,” and Netanyahu took all.

New Government

Shortly after the elections, Netanyahu succeeded in forming a new coalition and government. Under one umbrella, he gathered the entire secular right, and the religious parties, with the exception of Rehavam Ze’evi’s Moledet party, which promised to support the “Jewish-nationalist” government from outside. The composition and the guidelines of this government make it one of the most conservative and religiously-oriented in the history of Israel. The new government has promised to continue the “peace process” accepting that, as a state, Israel is committed to implementing the agreements signed with the Palestinians. Demands are being made, however, for “improvements” in the original agreements (for example, to enlarge the Jewish presence in Hebron and to territorially link “Jewish Hebron” with the settlement of Kiryat Arba). In reality, the primary objective of the present government is to establish as rapidly and as many “facts on the ground” as possible to avoid forever the establishment of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state; to ensure the existence of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and to perpetuate direct or indirect rule over these areas. The basic idea — not entirely different from that of the former Labor-led government — is to turn the political and territorial situation created by the interim agreements into the “final agreement.” This would grant Palestinians autonomy over the densely populated areas (known as “Area A”), preferably in a confederation between the PA and Jordan. The majority of pragmatic settler leaders will accept such a Bantustan-like “solution,” even if it is not completely compatible with the idea of an exclusively Jewish “Greater Israel.” For its part, the government is prepared to face more Palestinian guerrilla activities, which will only “prove” once again that the Arabs are unable to implement any agreements.

In domestic terms, Netanyahu’s government is far from homogeneous. Shas, with its traditionalist constituency, has very different social, political and material interests at stake than, for example, the National Religious Party, which is committed to the settlers’ interests. Both are competing for resources and control of the Ministry of Religion. Shas’ dramatic growth is due in part to the rapid development, under the Labor-led government, of its educational system, which they complemented by community-based welfare and housing programs, similar to methods used by religious fundamentalists in other Middle Eastern societies. The third major partner of the Likud coalition is Yisrael be-‘Aliyah, the “Russian” ethnic party. Its secularist constituency has little ideological commitment to the settlement of the Occupied Territories, which is not seen as important as diverting resources for immigrant absorption. Together with the “hawkish” but secularist Third Way party, they control 11 seats in the parliament, with the stability of the government dependent on them. In fact, all three major partners of the Likud possess veto power. Added to this lack of homogeneity are the shattered personal relations of Prime Minister Netanyahu with some of the central figures in his government (such as Minister of Foreign Affairs David Levy and the highly controversial minister of national infrastructure, Ariel Sharon). All these components have vested interests in the continuity of their rule and thus depend upon one another. Only a total deterioration of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community, as well as a dramatic decline in internal security, would bring the continuation of Netanyahu’s government into question.


[1] Never in Israeli history, even in the era of Mapai’s hegemonic rule in the 1950s and 1960s, has there been a one-party government. The Labor Party (successor of Mapai) and the Likud always lacked sufficient parliamentary majorities, and were forced to form coalition governments. Mapai’s great asset was its monopoly on the selection of preferable partners for coalitions, delegitimizing Herut (later the hard core of the Likud) and the Communist parties.
[2] Some analysts, as well as the Palestinian opposition, argue that the agreement was imposed on the Palestinian leadership and will not lead to the genuine self-determination of the Palestinian people, but to an indirect form of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza. See Baruch Kimmerling, “The Power-Oriented Settlement: Bargaining between Israelis and Palestinians,” in Moshe Ma’oz and Abraham Sela, eds., The PLO and Israel: From Armed Conflict to Political Settlement (New York: St. Martin’s Press, forthcoming).
[3] The term Mizrahi (pl. Mizrahim) refers to Israeli Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries, and to their offspring. This population group is sometimes referred to by the misleading term “Sephardim” (“Spaniards” — the Jews exiled from Spain 500 years ago).
[4] In Israel, Jewish religious law is applied to the sphere of private laws, regulating marriage, divorce, burial and the determination of Jewish ethnicity.
[5] The new electoral system was adopted following a grassroots campaign to increase the power of the prime minister as opposed to the smaller, mainly religious, parties. The initiators of the new electoral system, a group of university law professors, presumed that direct election of the prime minister would save Israeli politics from the “extortion” of small, mainly religious parties. The outcome was quite the opposite.

How to cite this article:

Baruch Kimmerling "On Elections in Israel," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This