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Elections in Israel: No Expectations

 November 5, 2002

 Ami Isseroff

On November 5, 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he is dissolving the Israeli parliament and calling for new elections. The announcement followed resignation of Israel Labor party ministers last week. Ariel Sharon's government now has only 55 or 57 votes out of the 61 needed for a majority in the Knesset (parliament) and therefore could not continue. He had tried to form a narrow government with the support of the rightist Yisrael Beitenu party. However, Yisrael Beitenu insisted on changing the government guidelines, and required a promise that a new government formed after the next elections would not be a unity government. Yisrael Beitenu objects to parts of the guidelines that rule out new settlements and call for peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  Sharon said that these conditions were unacceptable, that he would not give in to blackmail or jeopardize Israel's special relationship with the United States and with the White House. He said that he remained committed to forming a unity government. The unity government is desired by about 70% of Israelis according to opinion polls.

 The resignation of Israel Labor party ministers should not come as a surprise. It was certain that the Israel unity government must break up as the time appointed for elections approaches.

The events are due to the micro-mechanics of internal Israeli politics, rather than to ideological differences. Ideologically, the major disagreements between Labor and the rightist Likud party are not about handling of the Palestinian violence, but about long term policy toward the Palestinians and about the continued settlement activity, which will make it increasingly difficult to implement a compromise political solution with the Palestinians when that day comes. Since the government took office, over a hundred illegal outposts have sprung up, and the number of settlers has reportedly grown nearly 10% in 2002 alone. This was true two weeks ago and a year ago as well as today. It was about the same under the Barak government too. Therefore it was not the reason for the Labor resignations.

Though the budgetary outlay which Labor opposed was a relatively small sum, much larger sums, perhaps as much as $1 billion a year, are devoted to special subsidies, tax discounts and other perks for settlers, as well as defense of settlements that have no strategic value. The Israeli budget is smaller than it has been in recent years, stinting on vital defense, social and substrate investments. One in five Israelis live beneath the poverty line. One in four children live beneath the poverty line, and by next year, if the current budgetary welfare cuts are approved, the National Insurance Institute (Israeli "Social Security") predicts that one in three children will be beneath the poverty line. Of course, the problem is not new, and the small sum that Labor wanted to remove from allocations for settlers would not have solved the problem. Labor party head and current Defense Minister Benjamin ("Fuad") Ben Eliezer resigned in order to put himself in a better position to remain number one in the Labor party, in the face of challenges by more dovish Haim Ramon and Amram Mitzna in the coming primaries. Though ineffective in practice, Ben Eliezer's dismantling of the illegal settler outposts was approved by over 70% of Israelis, including a large majority of Likud party voters according to the recent Peace Index poll, but it was not enough. Ben Eliezer had to leave the government. The Labor party could not very well campaign against itself.

 On the right, there is an equal amount of grandstanding. Any government in Israel will be constrained within certain limits. The freedom of the left to make peace is constrained by the lack of a reasonable and trustworthy partner on the other side. The freedom of the right to advance the occupation and act against the Palestinians is constrained by pressure from the US and world opinion, as well as by the limits of military power. Right-wing demagogues like Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party, currently trying to engineer a right-wing government in return for crucial support of Sharon's government, Effie Eitam of the National Religious Party, and former PM Benjamin Nethanyahu, competing with Sharon for leadership of the Likud, gain supporters by giving vent to the frustrations and impossible ideas of the average Israeli as well as the ideology of the settlers.

In a recent article in the newspaper Ha'aretz, Yossi Verter reports that National Religious Party Chairman Effi Eitam asked Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin why Sharon had not managed to put together a coalition. "Because Lieberman is competing with you for the fascist designation!" Rivlin responded. "He wants to be the leader of the right..."

The Israeli "Archie Bunker" at his dinner table says "Why if it was up to me, I would bomb the Aswan dam," so Avigdor Lieberman says "Bomb the Aswan High Dam," grabbing headlines and winning the admiration of all the Israeli Archie Bunkers. However, this is a gesture, an indication of frustration, not a serious plan for implementation that takes account of reality. It is competing for the "fascist designation."

The outcome of the elections is reasonably certain. The right wing parties will show decisive gains. Those who hope to end the government of Ariel Sharon and replace it with a government more prone to peace will most likely be disappointed. Current poll results, which have not changed much in several months, show that the Likud will get 31 seats, as opposed to its current 19, while Labor's share will shrink from 25 to 19 seats. The right wing Israel Beitenu party will gain three seats from their current seven, and the leftist Meretz will lose one seat and have nine.

The shift that is projected can be summarized approximately as below.








Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, Yisrael B'aliya,  Herut, NRP, Shas, Agudath Yisrael

Left :



Labor, Meretz, Democratic Choice, Am Ehad, Arab Parties3 .




Center party, Shinui, Gesher

1. Current Knesset membership - which differs from last election results.

2. Yediot Ahronot poll of Nov. 1, 2002.

3. Arab parties have 10 votes and include: Democratic Front for Peace & Equality  - HADASH, United Arab List, National Arab Party, Arab Movement for Renewal, National Democratic Alliance.

The above projections give the Labor party little chance to form the next government. The party that for years was undisputed ruler of Israeli politics may become a minor faction.

After experimenting with direct elections of the Prime Minister, Israel has gone back to a "pure" coalition system, in which the Prime Minister is chosen based on votes for the Knesset parties, rather than on separate elections. The effect is to discourage the smaller parties, as people wish to express their choice for Prime Minister. The Center party, Herut and Gesher will disappear, and the ultra-orthodox Shas party will be reduced from 17 to 11 seats. The right-wing parties will absorb many of these votes. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the Israeli electorate has moved to the right because of long term structural changes in Israeli society, because of the Intifada, and because of the lack of leadership on the Israeli left. In the past, when elections were held separately for Prime Minister Labor has also been hurt by "white ballot" and stay - home campaigns of the Arab parties and Jewish radicals, who insisted that both candidates were the same. This helped elect rightist Benjamin Nethanyahu by a razor thin margin over peace architect Shimon Peres in 1996.

Current polls predict that Amram Mitzna or Haim Ramon may beat Benjamin Eliezer in Labor party primaries to be held November 19, and become the next party leader. Mitzna has an excellent record as mayor of Haifa. He came from behind to win the mayoral race, and has managed to reduce the city debt and increase city services in a time of severe economic hardship. However, political inexperience and organizational weakness have marred Mitzna's campaign for labor leadership. With less than three months to erase the huge lead of the right, the campaign has little hope of success. One factor that may help Labor, is that voters will not know who will head the Likud list and be their candidate for Prime Minister until primaries are held in that party, and this may not happen for some time. An election with such a brief effective campaigning period is unprecedented in Israeli politics.

Ramon's credentials are that he managed to effectively dismantle the Histadruth Labor union, that had been the mainstay of the Labor party's organizational strength. He saddled Israel with an expensive national health insurance system, as well as helping to sabotage the campaign of Shimon Peres in 1996 by inaction. None of the three contenders have projected a vision that might inspire voter confidence, and none of them have seriously addressed the economic issues, the settlements or policy toward the Palestinians, though Amram Mitzna has come closest to winning the hearts of moderate Israelis by promising to end the occupation unilaterally if necessary.

Within the Likud, Ariel Sharon is challenged from the right on "security issues" by former PM Benjamin (Bibi) Nethanyahu. Sharon has pledged to hold open primaries in the Likud at the earliest possible date. Though popular within the Likud, Bibi may not do as well as Sharon in general elections because the Israeli public remember him as a divisive and extremist figure, prone to "in your face" foreign policy statements that embarrassed Israel without accomplishing anything positive. The early elections, impending US war with Iraq and Sharon's statesmanlike position regarding the unity government, which meets the approval of most Israelis, are likely to hurt Nethanyahu in the primaries. However, an intensification of terror attacks by the Palestinians would most certainly help Nethanyahu, who has attacked Sharon for being "soft on terror" and giving in to demands of the United States and of Labor party coalition partners to keep the door open for negotiations.

Sharon is viewed by many outside Israel as a "war criminal" and monster, and is not beloved of those Israelis who remember him for instigating the bloody and needless war in Lebanon. However, a triumph of Nethanyahu and his right wing allies over Sharon in the Likud party primaries would not advance the cause of peace and moderation. Nethanyahu, unlike Sharon, is a scion of the Revisionist Herut movement that forms the keystone of the Likud party. He is ideologically committed to the "Greater Israel" movement and to opposition to a Palestinian state. He would most likely form a narrow right wing government with no commitment to a settlement freeze or negotiations at all, and is liable to pursue a policy in opposition to the moderating influence of the United States, and pursue adventurist and demagogic military solutions such as those advocated by Yisrael Beitenu party head Avigdor Lieberman, including perhaps an attempt to remove PNA Chairman Yasser Arafat from office by force.

Both major parties, as well as the Israeli left, have concentrated their rhetoric and attention on security issues, neglecting the economy. The collapse of the Israeli economy is the almost untold story of 2002, and it promises to get worse. The end of the high tech boom and the collapse of the tourist industry have thrown tens of thousands out of work, and reduced once prosperous families to charity. The government has cut welfare services dramatically, throwing the newly impoverished on the mercies of private charities, which have sprung up to fill the gap as best they can. This year's budgetary cuts will produce even greater hardship, but the Sharon-led unity government had its mind on settlements and security fences, and not on the economy. Labor would certainly have a good case to take to the electorate in the miserable performance of this government regarding the economy as well as the handling of the Intifada. In normal times and normal countries, the sorry state of the economy would be a decisive issue. However, the current leadership of the Labor party cannot very well criticize the mess that it helped to make, and in Israel, as always, it is easy to turn all eyes to the "security" issue at the expense of all else.

Ami Isseroff,




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