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The Death of Unity : As politics in Israel become more atomized--Netanyahu's victory is but one example--the country is beginning to look like other democracies.

June 02, 1996|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who lives in Jeruselam, is a staff writer for the New Yorker

NEW YORK — Israelis have learned to live with fear. It's not just a national thing, it's a Jewish state of mind. Call it the paranoid style in Israeli politics. It doesn't matter if you have the best-trained, best-equipped army in the region, with the world's only superpower backing you. Jews, no matter how mighty, often feel that around every corner, a hostile enemy lurks. Of course, among Jews paranoia is not irrational: Pharaoh existed, the concentration camps were real, Hamas is the latest potent enemy and most of Israel's neighbors are not exactly on sugar-borrowing terms with the Jewish state.

In Israel, though, fear used to be something you felt about the outside world. You feared the British, or the Hashemite Kingdom, or the Palestinians. Whom you did not fear was your fellow Israeli, but all this has changed and Wednesday's elections--in which the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly defeated Shimon Peres--are a splendid illustration of the end of Israeli unity and of the fragmentation and deep suspicion that exist from one extreme of the society to the other. Israel has grown strong enough and lasted long enough for its people to forget the unity that made their country strong and durable.

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the defining moment for the new domestic dissension. It clearly marked the battle lines: Religious nationalist Jews, like Rabin's assassin, felt secular Jews--Rabin, Peres, the Labor Party--were selling out the country. They feared losing Israel altogether: the Golan Heights here, the West Bank and Gaza there, half of Jerusalem, Abraham's tomb in Hebron--where would it end? The knitted skullcaps (nationalists who are religious) and the black skullcaps (the religious who are, often, nationalistic) joined together in revulsion against the bareheaded. (This is why Rabin's killer, Yigal Amir, a nationalist, worked so hard to find religious justification for his act.) On the other side, Rabin's supporters feared Israel was descending into fundamentalism and would never be able to join the ranks of modern nations.

Talk to secular Israelis and you hear the intolerance you associate with fundamentalists: "God does not enter into it," one woman told me after Rabin was killed. "We've heard enough about him; he has now been excluded from our conversation." The secular Jews do not know the religious Jews: If their respective gestalts were not barrier enough, kosher laws effectively keep them from any social contact. The religious wear the traditional garb of black Homburgs and long coats. But the secular kids of Tel Aviv, in their denims and T-shirts, and two or three earrings per ear, are in an equally outspoken uniform. Still, it means something about the new Israel, that Netanyahu, twice divorced, an adulterer and a Sabbath desecrater, was the candidate of the religious right. People, even rabbis, are willing to overlook religious issues for political reasons.

Fear dictated much of the vote for Netanyahu, though the election was so close that it's hard to say what most Israelis are frightened of. In press conferences after the Hamas suicide bombings of late February and early March, you could almost see the buttons on Netanyahu's suit busting with his excitement. The blood on the streets meant votes for him, because Peres' peace was too scary. Israelis like to survive, after all--surviving is what Jews do. If the elections had been held then, Netanyahu would have trounced Peres.

But, clearly, fear and uncertainty about the peace process were not the only emotions motivating the vote. Peace is popular among Israelis, and Netanyahu's win is not a repudiation of peace--even if his victory ends up, incrementally, destroying the peace process. As the campaign wore on, Netanyahu moved ever closer to Peres on peace--sensing the nation's mood. If he had not, he could never have cobbled together his victory.

In the voters' minds, the campaign became not so much an issue of who would pursue peace, but of who would pursue it more safely. Netanyahu and Peres became metaphoric figures--each reflecting different insecurities among the electorate. "I have to ask myself," one veteran of three of Israel's wars said, "whether Peres really understands what security means, since he was never down in the trenches. I have to ask myself whether his age is forcing him to move too quickly in the peace process, because he fears failing to achieve his goals before his time is up. On the other hand, Netanyahu may be a warmonger, and does he have the experience necessary to lead Israel in this difficult time? We are ready to fight for our country, but not uselessly or frivolously, and we are ready to negotiate a peace, but not hurriedly or for a politician's personal glory." If he were alive, surely Rabin would have won.

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