I firmly believe that even Israelis who voted for Benjamin Natanyahu were re-lieved by Ehud Barak’s victory last May 17. It was as if the whole country had been in a state of anxiety and depression, and now its mood suddenly lifted. One could feel the difference on the streets, in shops and cafes, on the phone with friends and casual acquaintances. The years of meanness and deception, of incitement and division, which began with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, were finally over. The end was symbolically enacted when, late on election night, Barak went to the Tel Aviv square where Rabin had been shot and told the thousands of (mostly) young people gathered there: “I will walk in his path.”
In the months since, it has become clear that the great victory was partial and incomplete. The nature of the incompleteness is worth examining; it may not be a feature only of Israeli politics. The fruits of political victory these days are very hard to reap. Because of the decline of political parties, which brings with it the virtual disappearance of loyalty and discipline in democratic politics, winning an election doesn’t mean that one can enact a program (assuming that one has a program).
The decline of Israel’s Labor Party is quite extraordinary. When Rabin won the 1992 elections, Labor controlled 44 seats in the 120-member Knesset (with its left ally Meretz, it controlled 56); defeated in 1996, Labor’s total dropped to 34; in this year of victory, it dropped again to 26 (with Meretz, 36). This is in large part, but not solely, the result of the new electoral law that makes it possible to vote separately for prime minister and for Knesset representatives. Israelis were able to divide their votes, choosing Barak, say, and then looking for sectional (ethnic, national, or religious) representation. As a result, there are more parties in the Knesset than ever before; Barak’s coalition starts with Labor but ends six parties later.
It isn’t a bad coalition, as such things go in Israeli politics, but it had to be designed for a purpose that is considerably more limited than Labor’s election program. This is the peace process coalition. It rests on the assumption—entirely right, I think—that peace is the first priority of Israeli politics. Had Barak chosen to put constitutional (religion/state) questions first, as some of his supporters wanted him to do, he would have needed a very different coalition. Many ultra-orthodox Jews will support the peace process, but are determined opponents of liberal constitutionalism; while many supporters of religious freedom and even of disestablishment are hawkish on territorial questions. A constitutionalist coalition could readily include significant sections of the secular right, but it would have to exclude the religious parties, without which it would be very difficult to make peace.
A third coalition, harder to put together than either of the first two, would...
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