December 18 the Knesset partially amended Israel’s electoral law—the so-called “Bibi bill”—allowing Binyamin Netanyahu to run against Ehud Barak for prime minister. The law had stipulated that when a government resigns, as Barak’s did December 9, elections are held for the prime ministership only, and that only Knesset members may present their candidacy. By the amendment, Netanyahu, who resigned from the Knesset after his 1999 defeat, could have run. But Netanyahu has withdrawn because the Knesset did not dissolve itself, which would have led to general elections. The Shas Party, which supported Netanyahu in the prime minister’s race, refused to back this further amendment. So Netanyahu bowed out, and Ariel Sharon becomes Barak’s challenger in the planned February 6 elections by default.

Barak is behind in the polls because his transparent attempt to impose Israel’s terms upon the Palestinians at Camp David set off a rebellion in the Occupied Territories, and because the uprising has produced great, if exaggerated, concern among the Israeli public regarding their personal security. The elections are nominally over who will be tougher with the Palestinians as their uprising approaches its third month. But the government crisis that precipitated the early elections is only tangentially related to the intifada and the “peace process.” The underlying causes of the crisis have more to do with a technical change in the electoral law that preceded the 1996 election. At that time, as part of a broader reform of the electoral system that never took place, the election of the prime minister was separated from that of the Knesset. Before 1996, the leader of the political party that received the most votes was tapped to head the government. Under the new system, Israelis vote directly for their candidate for prime minister, in addition to the party of their choice for the Knesset.

Incomplete Electoral Reform

Israel has always had a singular system of elections. The parties of the 1920s-1960s—left, right, religious—offered the Jewish public limited but clearly defined choices, political “homes” that offered members jobs, housing, health care, education and social activities, including youth movements and sport clubs, all reflecting clear ideological differences. It made sense to vote for a party rather than an individual representative. To this day, the entire country is one voting district, with parties allocated seats in the 120-member Knesset according to the percentage of the vote they garner. A party needs a majority of at least 61 in the Knesset to form a government. Since no party in Israeli history has come close to achieving a majority on its own, the party that wins the most votes can only form a government by building a coalition of four to six parties with a more or less coherent political agenda. In this system, small parties that make the difference between 58 or 61 carry a lot of leverage in coalition bargaining.

Over the years, Israeli society has grown and diversified, with its Palestinian population taking an active role in civil society and politics, despite systematic discrimination. New generations have emerged with entirely different sets of interests and concerns. Ideology has declined, except among the very religious and among the settlers. Israeli Jews no longer regard political parties as complete “homes,” though parties maintain a presence outside the political arena far beyond that of US parties. The electoral system has not evolved along with society.

In 1996, no longer having to vote for one of the big parties to ensure one’s choice of prime minister, the public shattered the system, voting in greater numbers for small single-issue or single-constituency parties. Netanyahu fell in large part because he could not handle his fractious partners in the resulting coalition. The same happened with Barak: his Labor Party received only 26 seats out of 120 in the 1999 elections. He forged his ill-starred coalition from ten ideologically diverse parties, ranging from the super-hawkish National Religious Party representing the settlers to Shas—a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party dedicated to bringing Israel back to religion—to the moderately left-wing but fiercely secular Meretz. Given the incomplete electoral reform, it is difficult for either Labor or Likud to formulate and carry out a coherent program. Policies that the public could be persuaded to support—the “peace process” or Barak’s aborted “secular revolution”—get lost in cynical attempts to woo small groups of single-issue voters.

Barak’s Three-Pronged Strategy

The refusal of Shas to dissolve the Knesset refocuses attention on the race for the prime minister’s job, which Barak intends to be a “referendum” on a peace deal with the Palestinians. As always, Barak is using the Palestinians as a foil rather than genuinely addressing their concerns. Neither he nor any Israeli prime minister has ever taken Palestinian positions seriously, or believed that that they have requirements independent of Israel’s will. Barak has a three-pronged strategy which he believes can lead to an agreement before President Bill Clinton’s term ends on January 20.

First, the Israeli military will steadily strangle the intifada, isolating and besieging Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Closures and sieges will create widespread unemployment, poverty and discontent. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will continue to assassinate the Fatah militants who have led much of the uprising, and to clear thousands of acres of olive groves and farm land on the pretext that Palestinian gunmen use the trees as cover for attacks on Israelis. Combined with periodic air and tank strikes, the strangulation policy will intimidate the Palestinian population into accepting a return to negotiations on Israel’s terms. Second, Barak will continue to expand the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories, so that the Palestinians will have no illusions that a return to the 1967 borders is possible.

Finally, he will try to make an attractive offer to the Palestinians at the negotiating table. This time, the offer could include withdrawing from all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank, “compensating” for the settlements with a transfer of land within Israel and perhaps even recognizing Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, if Yasser Arafat agrees to forego the right of return for Palestinian refugees. All the while, he will threaten the Palestinians with the return of Likud rule, holding the Palestinians responsible for his winning or losing the election in the court of international opinion. If he can pull off a peace agreement by late January, Barak believes, he can be reelected.

Likud vs. Likud Lite

The Palestinians will have a lot to say about the success or failure of this strategy. Meanwhile, Barak has lost the confidence of wide sectors of Israeli society: not just the right and the religious, but also the moderate “left” and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Barak needed a sort of palace coup, quickly convening the Central Committee of the Labor Party before any opposition could be mobilized, to have his candidacy ratified. The wild card on the “left” is now Shimon Peres. Peres, though carrying the stigma of losing past elections, is the only political leader who could muster support from the wider political spectrum—including from Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who would otherwise simply sit out the election.

On the right, the Likud Party holds only 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Despite being cleared to run for prime minister, Netanyahu feared that, like Barak, he would inherit an ungovernable coalition. Had the Knesset dissolved itself, he would likely have scored an easy victory over Barak and substantial gains for Likud at the expense of Shas. But Shas, heeding polls that showed it losing ten of its current 17 seats in prospective general elections, was not willing to sacrifice itself to Netanyahu’s ambitions. Shas resented Netanyahu’s heavy-handed tactic of declaring that he would not run in elections limited to the prime ministership, a tactic clearly meant to pressure Shas into backing both provisions of the “Bibi bill.”

Stepping back from the details of the electoral process, polls consistently show that the Israeli public wants to “make peace” with the Palestinians, though Israeli politicians have never prepared the public for the compromises that peace will require. Barak’s insistence on maintaining Israeli sovereignty over 80 percent of the settlers, his exaggerated demands for “security” borders and his adamant refusal to even consider the right of return for refugees appear to doom his desperate gambit from the start. Sharon and Likud present no alternative except force—letting the IDF “win.” In the end, both Barak and Sharon offer only a kind of truncated sovereignty to the Palestinians, even if a Palestinian state is “granted.” Although Barak’s positions appear to be far more conciliatory, they remain firmly within the parameters of continued Israeli control. If Israeli voters are offered the choice of Likud or what really amounts to Likud Lite, then they see little reason to vote for the inferior product. Herein lies the tragedy: mortgaged to small, ideological parties and unwilling to deal seriously with the Palestinians, neither large party can lead the public toward a “real” peace. The public is faced with two equally distasteful choices in Barak and Sharon, a choice based on the arcane dynamics of the Israeli political system, not on the issues of peace themselves.

How to cite this article:

Jeff Halper "Beyond the Bibi Bill," Middle East Report Online, December 19, 2000.

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