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Bye, Bye Bibi

Jerusalem Dispatch

Right up to the end, the passionate Bibi-haters--a category that includes the great majority of Israel's intellectuals, professionals, and media people- -were afraid to believe the polls. "He'll pull something from his sleeve at the last minute," they told one another nervously, still traumatized by the 1996 election, in which Netanyahu overcame Shimon Peres's seemingly insurmountable lead at the campaign's start and surged to victory in the wee hours of election night. Netanyahu struck the Israeli elites as a political Houdini who could wriggle through the locks on a sunken career just when you were certain he was drowned.

As things turned out, Bibi's only surprise this week was an unexpectedly prompt and gracious concession speech in which he stepped down as leader of the Likud Party--a sharp contrast to how Peres, a multiple loser, desperately tried to keep control of the Labor Party after his own '96 defeat. But Netanyahu's reputation for electoral magic was greatly exaggerated to begin with. It was less he than the Islamist terrorists of Hamas who beat Peres by blowing up a series of Israeli buses in the run-up to the vote. This time Hamas sat the Israeli elections out.

That there was relatively little Palestinian terror on Netanyahu's three- year watch must go down as one of Bibi's major accomplishments--and one that his opponents, characteristically, tried to overlook. Granted, it was Yasir Arafat who, through a combination of threats, policing, and political cajolery, got Hamas to cut down its violence; but Arafat did this only because the hard-line Netanyahu's 1996 victory caused him belatedly to realize that terror could be a losing game for the Palestinians. Under Peres and Rabin, whose declared policy was, "We will fight terror as if there were no peace and make peace as if there were no terror," giving Hamas a free rein had seemed risk-free.

On the whole, contrary to the impression created by the media, three years of Netanyahu made Israel a more peaceful place politically. For all the charges (which were not without an element of truth) that he inflamed and exploited sectoral and ethnic animosities for political ends, Israel is a less bitterly divided country today than it was between 1993 and 1996. One can argue here, too, of course, that credit for this should not go to Netanyahu. Inasmuch as the pro-peace-process Israeli left is less given to extreme forms of protest than the pro-settler right, a right-leaning government is bound to face a quieter public.

But this, again, misses the point. The most significant political sea change to take place in Israel in the past three years, and Netanyahu's most important--albeit unintended--legacy, is the way that, as a result of his own grudging dealings with the PLO, many, perhaps most, of the right's constituents have come to accept the Oslo agreement as a framework for negotiation, creating a broad consensus in favor of the peace process for the first time. Nothing could have made this clearer than this week's elections, in which not only were the Likud and the National Religious Party, Oslo's most vociferous critics in the past, badly beaten at the polls, but Benny Begin's breakaway National Unity faction, the only party campaigning on an openly anti-Oslo program, received less than three percent of the vote. At long last, it can be said that the public mandate for Oslo that Yitzhak Rabin failed to seek in 1993 has been obtained.

Thus, despite their reputation for having been destructive of the peace process, Netanyahu's three years in office will not be judged that way by history. It is true that he was incapable, by temperament and outlook, of achieving peace. And, given the difficulty of the issues, is it not clear that Ehud Barak will do that much better. But, ironic though it may be, the fact is that Barak has been given a promising starting point, thanks to Netanyahu.

It is by now abundantly clear that Israel's electoral law, which uniquely combines features of the presidential and the parliamentary systems, is probably the worst on the books of any democracy. Originally passed as a reform measure on the eve of the 1992 elections and first applied in 1996, it has achieved the exact opposite of what its framers intended. Rather than reducing the proliferation and exorbitant coalition demands of the Knesset's many small parties, it has made them, by establishing separate prime ministerial and parliamentary votes, more numerous and powerful than ever before. Back when it was the parties that elected the prime minister on the Knesset floor, the supporters of Candidate X generally voted for X's party-- that is, for Labor or Likud--to ensure that their single ballot was used to back the person of their choice; now that they elect the prime minister directly, they feel free to cast their second ballot for any party they like. The result is a newly elected Knesset with 15 different parties, the largest of which, Labor, has a mere 26 seats out of 120, eight less than it won in 1996, when its candidate for prime minister was defeated, and 18 less than in 1992.

Whether this is more a cause or a consequence of what has been called the " tribalization" of Israeli society is moot; obviously, it is to some degree both. In any case, it is a development that does not bode well for Israel's political life--particularly since the Knesset's role, already weaker than that of Congress or the British Parliament, will be vitiated further as the new prime minister seeks to ignore or bypass it rather than deal with its increasingly unmanageable complexities. As recently as the late '80s, Israel seemed on its way to the kind of two-party system on which long-term political stability depends; now the country is further away than ever from this. Indeed, though in the wake of this week's election there is already talk about repealing the 1992 law, it is probably too late for this, since Labor and Likud, the only parties in the Knesset with an interest in repeal, are no longer a majority there. (They are, in fact, down to 45 seats between them.) Therefore, although on the surface Barak's victory represents a return to the familiar terrain of a Labor-dominated country--which Israel has been for 35 of its 51 years--it is really a slide into something new and potentially chaotic.

But "tribalization" is a slippery concept. Take Shas, the so-called " Sephardic" religious party that was the elections' biggest parliamentary winner, increasing its representation from ten to 17. Drawing on a constituency of Israelis of Middle Eastern descent who harbor a strong resentment toward the country's Ashkenazi elite, and riding the crest of a lengthy corruption trial in which its popular young leader, Aryeh Deri, was recently convicted (or framed, in the eyes of his followers), Shas is an example of a purely ethnic party; yet it was enough to observe its victory celebration on television--in which young men dressed in the white shirts and black suits of Ashkenazi religious garb sang Ashkenazi religious songs and danced Ashkenazi religious dances--to realize that Shas has in fact been a vehicle for the religious Ashkenization of Israel's "Sephardim." Separatism and acculturation have gone hand in hand.

A similar dialectic can be found in the election's "Russian vote." In 1996, the former refusenik hero Natan Sharansky started a sectoral Russian immigrant party that won seven Knesset seats; although it obtained one seat less this time, four more seats went to a new Russian party positioned to the right of it. When it came to the prime ministerial vote, however, the Russian immigrants showed a different pattern, moving leftward in significant numbers. Most of these Russians arrived from the ex-Soviet Union with right-wing views--a fusion of anti-communism and dismissive Russian attitudes toward non- European minorities. On the other hand, the Israeli economic and intellectual elite that the Russians aspire to join has left-of-center voting habits. Thus, what one is looking at beneath the assertion of Russian identity in these most recent elections, it would seem, is an underlying process of Israelification.

It is a kind of Israelification, too, that accounts for much of the growing tension between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, whose anti-Orthodox backlash helped bring Barak to power this week. Indeed, while the secular do not see it this way, the growing political aggressiveness of the ultra-Orthodox in recent years, far from representing an unequivocal rejection of Israeli society, stems from a growing sense of being part of that society and wanting a full share of its political benefits and entitlements. Once, the ultra- Orthodox viewed the Jewish state as a Zionist creation that they lived in but were not part of. Today, their changed perspective facilitated by an era of post-Zionism, they tend to consider it theirs, too.

Ehud barak, then, has been elected prime minister of a country that is moving in different, and even contradictory, directions; simply mapping them, let alone navigating them, is not easy. Barak's very first task, the construction of a parliamentary coalition, will involve a complex assessment of priorities.

The secular public that elected Barak did so on the basis of two issues: the renewal of the peace process, stalled under Netanyahu, and a revision of secular-religious relations. The latter agenda includes slashing or eliminating public subsidies for religious education, housing, and institutions; revoking the blanket exemption on the military conscription of yeshiva students; and ending the Orthodox monopoly on performing marriages and divorces. In terms of coalition politics, however, these two goals might not be compatible. If Barak seeks to build his coalition around Shas, a party sufficiently dovish to accept meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, he can hardly move to change the religious status quo; if he builds his coalition around the secular Likud, his hands might be tied on the peace process. And, if he tries to do without both of these parties, he will be left with a precarious majority in the Knesset, deprived of the wide public base that he seems determined to have.

For the moment, that base exists less in the statistical sense (although Barak won 56 percent of the combined Jewish-Arab vote, he received only 51.5 percent among Jews) than as a matter of mood. During his three years in office, Netanyahu managed to make many enemies and few friends. A man of undoubted intelligence but with a manipulative streak so predominant that it can be described only as a moral flaw, he alienated not only many of the world's leaders, from President Clinton on down, but most of his domestic political allies. It was startling to see, as he stepped up to make his concession speech on Monday night, how, apart from Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, his old mentor Moshe Arens, and the minister of tourism, there was no one from the Likud at his side. Not even his most outspoken backers seemed very sorry to see him go. This, too, was an ironic way in which he passed on to Ehud Barak a more unified country than the one he inherited.

By Hillel Halkin