JERUSALEM — No more than a year ago, Yitzhak Shamir was considered unbeatable in the coming national elections. He was praised for his restraint during the Persian Gulf War and appeared to be the darling of Russian immigrants flooding the country, who would be able to vote for the first time.
All that changed, however, and Shamir was ousted Tuesday in the balloting, an event Israeli commentators labeled a political upheaval. The swing from his right-wing Likud Party to rival Labor was enormous--and matched the reversal suffered by Labor in 1977 when it first fell from power.
On Wednesday, Likud members were saying this was an election they lost by their own missteps rather than a vote won by Labor. For its part, Labor praised its choice of candidate for prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, as a master stroke. The truth lay somewhere in between, in a milestone election that was complex and in some ways mystifying.
The Russian Jewish immigrants who once seemed to be made for Shamir votes provided Labor with a big cushion. Close to half of the newcomers cast their ballots for Labor, a turnout worth about 100,000 votes, or four seats in the Parliament.
When they began to arrive, their experience with anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was supposed to make them fiercely nationalistic, just right for Shamir's brand of muscular Zionism. But his government mismanaged the influx. It built houses where there were no jobs. It did almost nothing to create work for the relatively skilled population of 300,000 (even the house-building jobs went to others: Arab laborers were recruited for the work).
By spring of this year, anger had built up among the newcomers, and some expressed regret that they had come to Israel. The numbers fleeing the Soviet Union for Israel, which once totaled upward of 20,000 each month, dropped to fewer than 3,000 a month. More were seeking refuge in the United States than in Israel.
There seemed also to be a middle-class backlash, although this is harder to gauge. The economy, in per capita terms, stopped growing. The row with the United States over loan guarantees made businessmen uneasy. Persistent tales of Likud's squandering of public funds upset taxpayers, who wondered whether they would have to pay more to cover welfare expenses for the immigrants once the election was over.
An indication of the shift came Tuesday night when, for a spell, returns from small towns seemed to favor Likud. Party headquarters in Tel Aviv remained quiet; votes from cities such as Haifa and Tel Aviv were yet to come in, and no one expected Labor to pick up much support.
But then, as the other returns appeared, the vote began to turn. One of the surprise factors was the vote of the Sephardim, the so-called Oriental Jews, a bedrock Likud constituency that had reason to harbor resentments against old Labor governments for treating them badly during their own immigration to Israel from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In this election, however, there were differences. Even before the Russian influx, unemployment in some Oriental Jewish areas had reached 10% and higher. And for the first time, pro-Labor propaganda hung freely from window sills in modest neighborhoods like Bat Yam and the Hatikva quarter of Tel Aviv. Likud revealed its worries by running last-minute television ads imploring those voters not to flee to Labor or to rightist parties competing with Likud for their votes.
Rabin aggressively sought them out. He made his last campaign appearance in Hatikva, keeping Likud on the defensive until the end.
Neither the Russian immigrants nor the middle class nor the disadvantaged Oriental Jewish voters seemed swayed by Shamir's priority item: building settlements. In the end, the prime minister realized that the issue was a liability and virtually erased it from his campaign propaganda.
For all their campaign problems, Likud officials are convinced that they could have recovered were it not for party infighting among potential successors to the aging Shamir. In post-election comments, one such aspirant, Benjamin Netanyahu, focused on the party divisions as the cause for defeat. "What Labor did was take advantage of the internal problems in Likud and tell the public, 'Look, we have mostly the same positions they do, without the same problems.' "
The leakage of Oriental Jewish support was probably exacerbated by one particular case of internal feuding. David Levy, the foreign minister, complained that he was being robbed of a chance to succeed Shamir because of his Moroccan heritage. Early on the campaign trail, Shamir would hear Moroccans scream insults at him.