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Israel's Elections

A Schizophrenic State

Israel's politics are splintering along ethnic lines. Can Prime Minister-elect Barak pull the country together to make peace?

May 23, 1999|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who recently returned from almost five years in Jerusalem, has written about Israel for the New Yorker and the Nation

NEW YORK — It's nice to see Israelis celebrating again. They've been through a bad patch, and three precious years in the country's short history have been wasted. No wonder they are glad to fete Monday's electoral victory of Ehud Barak, who is open to at least a few new ideas; the close-mindedness and narrowness of the last three years were stifling.

Identity and security have always been the twin axes of the Israeli psyche, and this election was about forging a new identity in a world where peace will help guarantee security. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel on a wave of concern about both of those issues. For better or worse, the peace process posed the problem: Who were the Israelis, if they were no longer simply a unified nation engaged in eternal war? Though Netanyahu paralyzed the process, the quagmire of his administration was not exclusively his fault. It was a prickly time in the history of this prickly nation.

There was no meaning to one's identity as an Israeli if one was not fighting, and so Israelis, in preparation for the day when there might no longer be an Arab menace, turned on each other. The signal example of that familial battle was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by another Jew, which opened the path for Netanyahu's victory. Rabin was perceived by his killer as a threat to the national identity because in forwarding the peace process--in conceding land to the Palestinians--he was implicitly calling into question what it has meant to be an Israeli since the founding of the state in 1948.

Understandably, Netanyahu then presided over an era in which Israeli identity was shattered. No one in the ultimate land of immigrants could say what he or she was. A Russian? A Moroccan? Iraqi? Sephardi? Askenazi? Ethiopian? Religious? Secular? The demographics of the place are confounding. Just being Jews did not exactly make the Israelis feel at home with one another. Each ethnic and religious group struggled with the others for its political agenda and its small piece of the national economy. Nor did Netanyahu have the wit or the inclination to put the Israeli soul back together again. As head of an impossible coalition in harness to the religious right, he was hardly in a position to govern creatively.

So, in the end, there is not one achievement one can point to and say: Netanyahu did that. He did not stop terror; he did not find a solution to the Lebanese war; he did not better the economy; he did not reach out to the desperate Ethiopian community; he did nothing for national education (unless you believe educating the religious at public expense is a legitimate national goal in a secular state); he undermined the courts; and he supported one nefarious figure after another. Most important, he did not move forward on peace with the Palestinians. He might call that an achievement, of course, but it's funny that the one thing he can regard with pride goes against the single tenet the majority of Israelis of all categories can agree on: Peace is necessary.

Now what will become of Israel? Prime Minister-elect Barak has a well-known past: beribboned general, keen undoer of terror, supporter of the Oslo peace accords, disciple of Rabin. He's a tough fighter who knows the value of not playing by the rules. As a soldier, he was a known discipline flouter who ended up more respected after each forgiven infraction. But among the Palestinians, his future partners in peace, there are strikes against him: He is regarded as an assassin who stalked Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders in Beirut in the 1970s and organized the 1988 killing of the revered Abu Jihad, the PLO strategist, in Tunis. Barak was foreign minister when Israel mistakenly bombed a Lebanese refugee center at Qana in 1996, killing scores of men, women and children.

On the other hand, he has been a steady supporter of some kind of peace, and though he speaks slow English with a heavy Israeli accent, he speaks fluent Arabic. (Netanyahu was known for his flawless American English.) It shows how needy the Palestinians are, and how limited the selection of Israeli leaders has been, that they prefer Barak the attack dog to his predecessor. So odd to think of Arafat calling to congratulate Barak, the murderer of his right-hand man. But history is always at its quirkiest in the Holy Land.

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