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The Election Produces No Winner

February 11, 2001|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

TEL AVIV — Tuesday's election in Israel set two records. It was the biggest margin of defeat for any government in Israel's history. And it was the lowest voter turnout in Israel's history. So what exactly were the voters trying to say? Especially about the peace process, in which the United States has a big stake?

Israeli commentators agreed on one thing. "I think this election was about voting against [Prime Minister] Ehud Barak," said Joseph Alpher, a former Barak advisor.

"A vote for [challenger Ariel] Sharon was a vote against Barak," said Barry Rubin of Bar Ilan University.

"People weren't voting for Sharon, they were voting against Barak," said Hirsch Goodman of Tel Aviv University.

You'd better believe it. Just 19 months ago, Barak was elected prime minister by a solid majority, 56%-44%, over then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Tuesday, Israelis handed Barak a colossal repudiation, 62%-38%.

Israel is a divided country. Between Jews and Arabs. Between secular and religious Jews. Between native Israelis and new immigrants. Tuesday's election, however, produced a kind of negative unity. Israelis were united by what they didn't want--Barak.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 10, 2002 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli Statesman--In an Opinion article last year on the election of Ariel Sharon, "The Election Produces No Winner" (Feb. 11, 2001), a reference was made to the "late Israeli statesman Abba Eban." Eban is in fact alive.

It was partly personal. Barak, Israel's most decorated general, had terrible political skills. When he made his dramatic peace offer to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David last year, Barak was freelancing. "In retrospect, perhaps he didn't have a peace coalition," Alpher said last week. "But he should have realized it then instead of putting us through all this." The former advisor added, "I would describe him as a brave and brilliant bungler."

Barak's reputation for arrogance did not help. You could hear it in his concession speech Tuesday night, when he told supporters, "[Our] path was the sole right path. . . . Perhaps our public is not mature enough to face up to the painful truths that we laid out before it." Last year at Camp David, Barak made unthinkable concessions to the Palestinians, beyond the left's wildest dreams. And look at what happened. "Here was a prime minister who broke every taboo," Goodman said. "Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the settlements--as far as any left-thinking person in this country would imagine he could go. And he was kicked in the teeth by Arafat."

The mood in Israel is one of bitter disillusionment with the peace process. The reason? Arafat. Why did Arafat reject Barak's generous concessions? Israelis believe it was a matter of pride. Palestinians are unwilling to accept anything offered by Israel. They have to "win" concessions from Israel--by bargaining for them or, even better, by fighting for them. As the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban once said, "The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Remember the Arafat who shook hands with Israel's leaders on the White House lawn? Dore Gold, Israel's former U.N. ambassador and a Sharon supporter, said, "Many people thought that Yasser Arafat was like Nelson Mandela, some kind of figure who was once involved in armed struggle on behalf of his cause, but who had now changed in a fundamental way and was ready to make peace."

No more. Not after the Palestinian intifada--four months of terrible violence. As writer David Makovsky put it, "Yasser Arafat decided this election. By supporting the intifada, he demobilized Israeli moderates who would have been the main cheerleaders for a deal. He threw the election to Sharon."

There's also the fact that voter turnout on Tuesday was down a phenomenal 20 points. Hundreds of thousands of voters boycotted the election. Most of them were former Barak supporters who felt betrayed by the prime minister but who could not bring themselves to vote for Sharon.

Especially Israeli Arabs, who are normally 12% of Israel's voters. In 1999, 70% of them turned out to vote, and they voted 95% for Barak. This time, Arabs were furious at Barak. He ignored their needs. He was prime minister when police killed 13 unarmed Israeli Arab demonstrators in riots last October. The Arab turnout figure on Tuesday? A mere 25%.

The low turnout of both Jewish and Arab voters was not just a repudiation of Barak. It was also a vote of no confidence in Sharon, a vehement opponent of the current peace process. Sharon was the architect of Israel's disastrous war in Lebanon. The man forced to resign as defense minister after being held indirectly responsible by an Israeli tribunal for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians. The man who provoked Palestinian rage by visiting the Temple Mount last September.

According to polls, Israelis did not vote to reject peace. Or even the peace process. They voted to reject a peace process that had failed. They rejected "illusions" about peace. Including the principal illusion: Concessions would bring security.

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