Israeli Elections: Who Won?

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Marcello Wechsler

THE “UPSET”–AS the results of the elections to the thirteenth Knesset are being called–brought an end to the Likud’s fifteen-year rule and made it possible for Labor Party chair, Yitzak Rabin, to be called upon to form the next government. The gap between the number of seats won by the Likud and Labor, almost nonexistent in 1988 (39 for Labor versus 40 for the Likud), grew this time to twelve (44 for Labor versus 32 for the Likud).

But the same cannot be said for the gap between the extreme right-wing parties and the left: the advantage which the left and Arab parties held in 1988 over the extreme right (four seats) has now shrunk to nothing: seventeen seats for the left (twelve for Meretz; three for the Communists; and two for Abed al-Wahab Darawshe’s Arab Democrats) and seventeen for the extreme right (eight for Tsomet; six for the National Religious Party, the main representative of the settler movement Gush Emunim and three for Moledet, the “transfer” party calling for the removal of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza).

Neither T’hiya, on the extreme right, nor Mohammed Mi’ari’s Arab Nationalist Progressive List, won even one seat. In comparison to 1988, the strength of the extreme right increased by forty-five percent, while that of the left and the Arab lists grew by only six percent.

Illusion and Disappointment

The election results initially looked extremely encouraging to most people affiliated with the “peace camp” in the broad sense, many of whom even saw them as the inauguration of a new chapter in the political history of the State of Israel. Many were sure that the twelve seats won by Meretz would make it a senior partner in the Rabin government, and that as such, they, along with the Labor Party doves, would be able to influence government policy to a significant degree, particularly on the subject of the settlement freeze, progress in the peace talks and autonomy.

But these hopes proved to be baseless. The election results did not give either the left of the Labor Party or Meretz a mandate to act either on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on social problems: The people wanted Rabin as prime minister, first and foremost, in order to punish the Likud.

The two most urgent, central issues from the voter’s point of view were the need for trustworthy leadership and for solutions to pressing societal problems. The Likud earned its comeuppance, primarily due to its inability to satisfy these two needs.

Rabin, the man, won the confidence of the voters, and not the “left.” The public which had traditionally voted for the Likud ever since the upset of `77–Oriental Jews from poor neighborhoods and development towns–felt that the Likud had become corrupted by their long rule, and was either unwilling or unable to respond to their day-to-day hardships.

Under the prevailing conditions of rising inflation, shocking shortage of housing, continuing deterioration in the standard of living and the reduction of social benefits, it was impossible to retain unlimited confidence in the Likud any longer, even if full confidence in the Labor Party had yet to be restored.

Member of Knesset (MK) Me’ir Shitreet, treasurer of the Jewish Agency and a member of the young Likud leadership which has grown up in the development towns and poor neighborhoods, was right in stating: “The Likud has forgotten where it came from and who brought it to power. Like the Labor Party fifteen years ago, it ignored their problems, believing that they support us because we responded to their hardship, and they toppled us because we have become deaf to what is happening among the people.”

The public also was sick of the Likud’s inability to build a reliable and stable governmental coalition. The current coalition, especially, is fraught with backbiting and internal disputes to an unprecedented degree. The election of Rabin is an indication of support for the anticipated change in the method of choosing the prime minister (i.e. direct election)–which would essentially constitute a change in Israel’s parliamentary structure–that is supposed to ensure the desired stability.

On the subject of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may be said that the public has, to a certain extent, rejected Likud’s unwillingness to change the status quo as a suitable way of dealing with the ongoing situation of lack of security, not only in the Occupied Territories, but in Israel as well. The fact that T’hiya, and extremist settler leader Rabbi Levinger’s list, did not get the minimum number of votes to give them one seat, indicates that perhaps the fanatic, messianic approach of viewing Greater Israel and the settlements as a sacred mission has also lost its appeal for an ever-growing section of the Israeli public.

The words of Defense Minister Moshe Ahrens, who recently resigned from the Knesset, are important in this context: “The slogan `Greater Israel’ doesn’t solve anything; there is no need to hold on to all of the territories …. The big mistake is our relationship with the Palestinians; we must reach an arrangement with them.”

And it appears that Arens is not the only one in the Likud caught up in such reflections on ideology. This change in attitude has come about, in large part, as the result of the recognition that the Intifada, up to this point, can be summed up as a draw, and not as an Israeli victory, and that “victory” over the Intifada is unlikely in the absence of a political settlement (Ze’ev Schiff, Ha’aretz, 3/7/92).

The large increase in votes for Tsomet–which never was the Likud’s ideological partner, but rather championed the “security” approach to the question of the Occupied Territories–does not contradict this conclusion. Also, it must be viewed less as signifying support for the extreme right on the subject of a solution to the conflict, and more as support for a leader perceived as trustworthy and honest.

Tsomet leader MK Rafael Eitan (particularly vicious in his anti-Arab racism–ed.) is thought of by broad sectors of the public as a man who would be prepared to risk his seat in the government over principles; besides which, Eitan is seen as one of the more persistent strugglers against religious coercion. It’s no wonder that many of the younger voters hesitated over whether to vote for the right wing Tsomet or for the Meretz (the dovish left–ed.).

The Arab Voters’ Retreat

Make no mistake. This rejection of Likud positions by the electorate does not mean recognition of the Palestinian people’s right to an independent state.

Far from it. Rabin is part of the right wing of the Labor Party–the ideological successors to Achdut Ha’avoda, the security-obsessed wing of the Zionist Labor movement, on whose doctrines Tsomet’s Eitan was weaned. And it is in this role that he is perceived by defectors from the Likud as representing sufficiently rigid political and security-related positions, on the one hand, and as someone who will accelerate the peace talks–which in their opinion could lead to a solution, on the other.

The voting patterns of the Arab-Palestinian population and of residents of the poor neighborhoods and development towns should be seen as evidence of a big step backwards in their level of national and social consciousness. The majority of the Arab-Palestinian electorate voted for Zionist parties and for Darawshe’s Arab Democratic Party, a Labor Party satellite which reflects a reversion to hamula (clan-based) politics.

One can say that, in comparison with the 1988 elections, there was a clear increase in Arab support for the Zionist Parties–over sixty percent this year, compared to less than fifty percent in `88. Meretz had hoped to double the number voting for it in the Arab sector, and was disappointed; its strength hardly incresed over 1988, the 26,000 Arab-Palestinian votes it received, only slightly exceeding the number received by the Likud, and just double what Shas (Jewish Sephardic religious party–ed.) got!

The reason for the Arabs’ voting for the religious parties and the Likud, partners in the Shamir government, was despair over the prospects for success in their struggle for equal rights, and a resulting withdrawal to the pursuit of personal and local interests, which these parties are capable of satisfying. These include, for example, granting of building permits outside the restrictive, approved town plans–designed to strangle development of Arab communities.

Thus, the mayor of the Arab town Baq’a al-Gharabiyeh showed his appreciation of such favors from Shas a “thank you vote”–1,050, compared to the mere 718 Meretz got in the same place.

These voting patterns indicate the continuation in the trend toward the depoliticization of the Arab-Palestinian population–in the sense of the weakening and near disappearance of nationalist politics as an independent expression of their will. The increased power of the conservative elements within Arab society is a reflection of the total ebbing of the nationalist tide since 1976.

The Prospects

As for the Oriental Jewish vote, it would be a mistake to view the punishment meted out to the Likud by the residents of the poor neighborhoods and development towns as a direct expression of the sort of social protest which carries assurance of independent organizing for a continuing struggle. Just as the 1977 election upset, which brought the Likud to power, was a distorted expression of their protest against the Labor Party (i.e. in its previous carnation as Mapa)–so also was their electoral support for Rabin this time.

In supporting Rabin, they were not voting for a better platform on social issues, but for a leader who would perhaps be capable personally of “bringing salvation.” Unfortunately, the poorer classes’ dependency upon the central, establishment parties is still a central feature of political life in Israel.

As these words are being written, Rabin is attempting to put together a coaltion with Tsomet, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Meretz. Contrary to the expectations of many in the Israeli peace camp, he did not choose the other alternative available to him; i.e. of approaching Meretz first of all, to set up a narrow government with them–on the basis of positions common to Labor and Meretz–and only afterwards inviting other parties to join. Similarly, in contrast to what many expected, Meretz did not reject out of hand the possibility of being in a government coaltion with Tsomet and the religious parties.

(After this article was published, Rabin succeeded in forming a coalition that includes both Meretz and the Shas religious party–ed.)

The anticipated compositions and policies of the new government threatens to seriously disappoint–not only Meretz supporters, but also many Labor Party votes. The coming months will be a testing period for the Rabin government’s ability to get the stalled peace talks moving and to come to grips with Israel’s serious social and economic problems. The real disillusionment will only come afterwards.

September-October 1992, ATC 40