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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON ISRAEL

Victory Bodes Well for Peace

Voters craving harmony at home as much as with their Arab neighbors cast their lot with Barak.

May 18, 1999|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

Ehud Barak won his massive victory Monday by representing himself as the candidate of the center rather than the left. Unlike former Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who lost the 1996 election to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak wisely aimed his campaign at the "soft right"--voters deeply suspicious of Yasser Arafat but prepared to make substantial territorial concessions if their security fears are respected. Not coincidentally, Arafat's face didn't appear in Labor's TV ads. The only Arab leader featured in Labor commercials was Jordan's late King Hussein, who enjoys near-saint status among the Israeli public.

Toward the end of the campaign, supporters of Barak posted blowup photographs of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor prime minister assassinated in 1995, on street corners across the country. In some sense, this election was a deferred referendum on Rabin's unsentimental approach to peace. Barak succeeded in presenting himself as heir to Rabin rather than Peres, whose utopian vision of peace resembled a marriage in which Israelis and Palestinians would be economically and even socially entwined. By contrast, Barak, like Rabin before him, offers Israelis a politically more realistic option: divorce from the Palestinians.

In one crucial way, however, Barak broke with a Rabin precedent. Whereas Rabin tried to delegitimize and even demonize his right-wing opponents, tragically contributing to the atmosphere of hatred that preceded his murder, Barak has promised to be the prime minister of all Israelis. He reached out to constituencies long ignored by Labor leaders, like moderate religious Jews and working-class Sephardim, that is, Jews of Middle Eastern origin. As Netanyahu grew increasingly desperate, he portrayed Barak as a leftist who would betray the country's security and an elitist who despised Sephardim and the common people. Barak refused to be baited, maintaining restaint and reiterating his commitment to inclusivity. Both responses auger well for Prime Minister Barak.

This bruising campaign, which pitted religious against secular, left against right, Russian immigrants against Sephardim, has left a numbed electorate craving peace at home as much as peace with its Arab neighbors. Barak won the trust of many Israeli centrists and even rightists by presenting himself as a national conciliator, a role no Labor leader has managed to fill in decades.

The one exception to Barak's stance of inclusiveness was his consistent attacks on the ultra-Orthodox, who refuse to share the burdens of Israeli society, especially military service, but who have enjoyed massive government financial support. Barak was the first Israeli prime ministerial candidate to openly campaign against ultra-Orthodox power, refusing to make humiliating pilgrimages to leading rabbis seeking their blessings and political support.

Yossi Klein Halevi That principled position will now be tested as he tries to construct a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, which appears to have won an astonishing 15 seats, which will make it the country's third-largest party after Labor and Likud. Barak may well aim for a national unity government including the Likud but excluding Shas, which is headed by a convicted felon who managed to convince working-class Sephardim that he was the victim of a frameup by secular Ashkenazim, or Jews of European origin.

Shas' electoral success is at least partly due to its generous educational and social welfare programs, all of which have been subsidized by the government. Barak has pledged to divert those funds back into government-sponsored assistance programs to the poor, thereby depriving the fundamentalist Shas of its power base. Should Barak succeed in excluding Shas from the coalition and depriving it of lavish government funding, this election could paradoxically mark the beginning of Shas' decline.

Barak understands that Rabin's crucial failure was his inability to win over the Israeli center to the peace process and thereby isolate the ideological right wing, which today numbers less than a quarter of the population. Achieving a wide majority for territorial concessions requires an Israeli leader able to be at once flexible and toughminded in negotiations with the Palestinians. Barak's vision of peace includes ceding most of the West Bank and Gaza to a Palestinian state while retaining large numbers of settlements in blocs linked to Israel and maintaining continued Israeli rule over united Jerusalem. That platform is a solid basis for an Israeli consensus.

Presenting a centrist position on the peace process, healing the nation's internal divisions, restricting the power of the ultra-Orthodox: If Ehud Barak remains faithful to that agenda, he could become a savior of Israel.

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