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What the Israeli Elections Mean
Tel Aviv

What the Israeli Elections Mean

Center-right coalition likely in aftermath of elections, peace settlement with the Palestinians not so impossible as many think.

Ariel Sharon's sweeping victory in Israel's January 28 election still leaves his Likud party without a working majority in the Knesset. UCLA Political Science Professor Steven Spiegel and nationally known journalist Leonard Fein discussed the possible shapes of a new coalition government in Israel and its effects on the possibilities of peace with the Palestinians in a January 29 forum at the UCLA Faculty Center. The meeting was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations and several campus Jewish organizations.

Likud won 38 seats in the 120-member Knesset, up significantly from its previous 19, while the main opposition Labor party fell from 26 to 19 seats.

Steven Spiegel noted that the election was marked by the lowest turnout in the history of the state, with almost a third of the electorate staying home. Both the shift to the right and the indifference to the electoral outcome, in his view, were a consequence of the collapse of the peace process in the two-year intifada, giving a certain air of inevitability to the election of a militarily strong regime. In his opinion, despite the suicide bombings, Israel remained the stronger side in the conflict. "There has been a major historic miscalculation by the Palestinians in their turn to violence," he said, "which is not fully appreciated in the United States. Sharon was running against Arafat, while Amram Mitzna [the Labor party candidate] was running against Sharon."

Amram Mitzna, the George McGovern of Israel

Spiegel felt that the electorate is more liberal than the vote would indicate on the surface. "The electorate wants Sharon to carry out Mitzna's policy. Mitzna did not even win in Haifa, his home town where he was a highly successful mayor. They did not trust Mitzna to carry out his own plan. His plan was for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and, if a year's negotiations did not work, the West Bank as well." The idea of taking action to resolve the conflict, Spiegel said, is popular in Israel but only if carried out by a strong figure. "Then Mitzna tacked on negotiations which he said he would even be willing to conduct with Arafat, a big mistake. He also made a mistake by saying he would not join a national unity government. Mitzna's categorical declaration that Labor would not join a unity government meant goodbye Mitzna. Mitzna should have done better, as Likud is under a cloud from many scandals. It is like the Nixon-McGovern election of 1968, where the victorious party was under a cloud of scandal and the program of the losing party was fairly popular but the candidate was not trusted."

The numerous small parties in the new Knesset represent a broad and incompatible spectrum, among whom Sharon must seek out some combination to form a working governmental majority. At the right end of the political spectrum, 47 seats are held by three parties: Likud, 38; the far right National Union, 7; and the somewhat more moderate Yisrael b'Aliyah, made up mainly of recent Russian immigrants, 2 seats. The three religious parties have 22 seats: Shas, 11;  the National Religious Party, 6; United Torah Judaism (UTJ), 5.  In the secular center are the One Nation party, which describes itself as representing workers and pensioners, with 3 seats, and the newly resurgent Shinui, a secular antireligious party which has grown from 6 to 15 seats. The Left bloc is composed of the Labor party with its 19, Meretz with 6, and 8 Israeli Arab seats divided among 3 parties. Sharon must construct a 61 plus majority in order to govern.

Steven Spiegel said he doubted that Sharon would bloc in the Knesset only with the far right parties. "Sharon fears this as it would cause enormous problems with the Europeans and the Americans, as well as the Arabs. He doesn't need a right wing coalition. But he can also get along without Labor or Shinui. Spiegel suggested two likely formulas for coalition, a religious-leaning one with Likud, Shas, One Nation, NRP, UTJ and Yisrael b'Aliyah, which would command 65 seats; or a conservative but secular-dominated coalition composted of Likud, Shinui, NRP, One Nation, and Yisrael b'Aliyah, which would have 64 seats. He considered the first more likely.

Young Turks Looking to the Religious Right

"The young Turks in Likud vying to replace Sharon see the religious parties as the future for Likud. The religious element in the Israeli population is growing because they are having more children. So the young Turks will lean toward a center-right coalition with the ultra-orthodox."

Spiegel added that he expects Sharon to delay as long as possible before naming his government on the calculation that if a U.S. war with Iraq begins soon that it will make parties that usually will not work together willing to enter the government. "Under the new rules Sharon has 50 days. Sharon is calculating that the war will begin within the next 50 days and it will be easier to form a government after the war is definite than it is now. Particularly under these conditions, Labor would have to join."

Leonard Fein, who is a founder of Moment magazine and of the National Jewish Coaltion for Literacy, described his recent conversations with Labor party leader Amram Mitzna. "I spent some time with Mitzna last month. While we were in the car I asked him if he was serious about not entering a national unity government. He said he would enter such a government but only on his terms, which Sharon would never accept."

Why 32% Stayed Home

Fein said that the 32% abstention rate in the election showed that "this is a country in profound crisis. There is a widespread disenchantment, disillusionment with the political system, with its corruption, with its lack of imagination. This is a condition referred to as internal emigration. In a recent poll 40% of young Israelis aged 25-45 said no when asked if they intended to be living in Israel 10 years from now. This is the major problem which any new government will have to confront and which no likely government will be able to confront."

On the Israeli parties after the election, Fein said, "Shinui has replaced Shas as the up-and-coming party. One ought to note the implosion of Meretz, which was for a time the party of the secular liberal intellectuals. Yossi Sarid, the party's leader, has resigned. That will leave many intellectuals in Israel politically homeless with no place to go. The Labor party is bankrupt. I will not be surprised if there is a fracture of the Labor party in the bloodletting of the weeks to come. Many of the long-time leaders want to join a coalition government and do not support Mitzna's declaration of refusal. A split is a likelihood. This might not be an unhealthy thing in the long term. Of course a war with Iraq will place all bets off."

How Did the Israeli Arabs Vote?

One questioner in the discussion asked how Israeli Arabs--1.2 million out of the country's 6.6 million citizens--voted. Steven Spiegel answered that the three Arab parties won a total of 8 seats in the Knesset. They returned to fairly normal voting patterns after their boycott of the polls during the February 2001 special prime ministerial election between Sharon and then-prime minister Aharon Barak, which Sharon won handily.

Prospects for Settlement of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Leonard Fein looked past the immediate election to the possibilty of an end of the bloody war with the Palestinians. "If Israel were to withdraw from Gaza today it would be celebrated as a huge victory by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad," he said, "but there is no prospect whatever that when peace finally comes there will be any Israeli presence left in Gaza. There is nothing to win there. How much blood are you willing to spill in the meantime? It was insanity when Labor permitted the first settlements to be built in Gaza and the West Bank. For years I have thought that Israel could make a statement that says it is not a victory for Hamas and get out. There is no current Israeli policy other than retaliation. It is a reflection of enormous frustration on the one hand, and in my darker moods I think it does reflect a Sharon principle, which is to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that many will leave and that this could change the demographics that will eventually mean a large Palestinian majority in the region.

"Israel has three options: To withdraw to the 1967 borders. To permit Palestinians to stay but not allow them to vote, which is called apartheid. Or to drive many of the Palestinians out. Sharon may be ready for some kind of two-state solution. In that respect he is ahead of much of the American Jewish community."

Steven Spiegel  also insisted that the settlements would have to be abandoned: "I blame the later Laborites such as Rabin and Barak more than the early ones. After Oslo [the Arab-Israeli peace accords of 1993] there was no justification for the settlements. Barak, for example, did not understand that it wasn't enough to withdraw from the settlements when a peace accord had been reached, but as a confidence-building measure the settlements could not keep expanding and expect the Palestinians to comprehend that he was ready to give it all back." Spiegel added that peace was not as far fetched as it may seem, as it was closer than most people thought only three years ago. "I think when the history of the year 2000 is written the real catastrophe will be seen as the failure of the negotiations between the Israelis and the Syrians. This was a bigger failure than Camp David and Arafat. The real mistake by everybody was earlier, in Syria. In early 2000 Israel offered Syria the Golan Heights back in exchange for a peace agreement with Israel. Barak went very far by offering to give back what the Syrians had had on the eve of the Six Day War [of 1967], which included a sliver of pre-1948 Israel. They got into a dispute over the last few yards, which would give the Palestinians access to the Galilee and its waters. There were a lot of mistakes on both sides, but it was very close. If that deal had been consumated everything that happened in the rest of the year would not have occurred. The territory involved was smaller than from one side of the UCLA campus to the other."

Why Does Anybody Stay in Israel?

Two questioners put in words questions that were on many people's minds: if the killings by the Palestinians are so widespread, why do the Jews stay? And don't the Arabs aim at the complete elmination of a Jewish presence in the Middle East?

Leonard Fein replied, "It looks very different up close. I asked my friends in Israel, at what level do you personally experience the fear? That did open up a real discussion in which people were concerned for their kids. There was some relief when their kids were going to America because they would be safe. But on most days most people do a lot more than just go through the motions of life. They build things, they make love, they work. The Jewish tradition teaches that there are two Jerusalems, the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one where the streets are mud and people cheat on their taxes. The Jewish festival continues and most participants don't cancel out even if some of the foreign audience does. It is still a country of enormous vitality. I fear for the future of the Jewishness of the state because of the corruption, the too-close association between religion and politics, but there is the prospect of an agreement with the Palestinians.

"There will be people on both side who will say, we've been stabbed in the back by our own leadership, but there will be an agreement. We may be on the brink of a 100 year war between the West and Islam. Or we may be on the brink of the democratization of Iraq. Among the many possible scenarios the one I reject is the scenario of hopelessness, not because it is an impossible one but because we should strive to not let it happen. Do the Arabs wish there was no Israel? For sure. Do the Israelis wish there were no Arabs? For sure. but how many people on each side will give up their fantasies and settle down to real life. We know many Palestinians who are eager to live normal lives. In every society the crazies garner the attention."

Steven Spiegel concluded, "Israel has been winning the war. One is afraid to say that terrorism is declining, because it could erupt again ferociously at any moment. I would say that you can't win by military force alone, and the policies over the last few years are lacking that additional dimension. You have to give the other side an alternative, an option, an expectation for the future. This has been a long-term problem for Israel, to win the war but lose the peace."