Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Elections 1999 -- Character,
Political Culture, and Centrism

Israel at the Polls 1999, Introduction

Daniel J. Elazar and M. Ben Mollov

On May 17, 1999, Israel went to the polls to elect the Fifteenth Knesset. After a lackluster beginning, the campaign commanded considerable domestic and international attention. Out of 4,285,000 eligible voters,1 3,309,494 citizens cast their ballots,2 making this election consistent with the usually high Israeli turnout figures of close to 80 percent.3 The election occurred a year ahead of schedule following the passage of a parliamentary no-confidence motion in which both the left and extreme right coalesced to bring down the government.

Ehud Barak's victory came as a result of dissatisfaction with the personality of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, internal cleavages and acrimony within Israeli society and its political culture, and a perceived worsening of Israel's international and regional environment. Yet Netanyahu's defeat at the polls was far from inevitable as he commanded some deep layers of support. However, a skillful campaign by Barak helped to maximize the challenger's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

To appreciate the dynamics and significance of the 1999 election campaign, first a brief retrospective is in order.

The 1996 Election

Israel's election for the Fourteenth Knesset, held on May 29 1996, occurred against the background of the extraordinary and traumatic event of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in November 1995. In the first direct elections for prime minister (replacing the old system where the head of the leading Knesset party became prime minister), Labor party incumbent Shimon Peres faced off against the Likud's challenger Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu's narrow victory seemed all the more remarkable since Peres was a known quantity who had navigated well the very difficult transition following Rabin's murder. In addition, there appeared to be a clear backlash against the right following its boisterous campaign of opposition to Rabin's peace policies, which some saw as indirectly contributing to Rabin's assassination.

However, on a deeper level, Netanyahu's victory reflected some deeper misgivings by the Israeli public concerning the direction and value of the Rabin-Peres government's peace policies. Furthermore there were significant criticisms concerning the shape and image of Israeli society which the government and the elites identified with it appeared to be seeking to impose on the nation.

The Israeli public seemed hard pressed to accept the notion of a "new Middle East" articulated by Peres as suicide bombers wrought terror and death on innocent Israelis in main thoroughfares in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Furthermore, along with the vision of peace, personalities identified with the left and the labor camp, either directly or more subtly, appeared to be emphasizing a new vision of Israel that was to be linked to the global village while rejecting the Jewish foundations of the state.4

In the 1996 election Netanyahu made full use of his media skills as he emphasized his commitment to bring to Israel a peace based on security. He captured a majority of the Jewish vote as he rejected the perceived "post-Zionist" agenda of some associated with the Labor party, and Meretz.

The Netanyahu Government's Legacy

Benjamin Netanyahu, the scion of a prominent family associated with the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement, rose from relative obscurity to capture the nomination of his party and then the prime ministership in 1996. His major assets were his formidable political acumen and powerful media skills which he apparently developed and perfected during his years in the United States as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. During the campaign he embraced a formal commitment to implementing Israel's obligations under the Oslo accords signed in 1993, while linking Israel's own compliance with Palestinian implementation of their own obligations. Furthermore, he rejected utopian visions of a "new Middle East" and insisted that the key to true peace lay in security.

However, early on Netanyahu broke a sacred taboo connected to the ideology of the Likud and the Revisionist movement by implementing the Hebron accord negotiated (but not implemented ) by the Peres government, in which he ceded a portion of the historic Land of Israel. While Netanyahu proclaimed that his terms for a final status agreement with the Palestinians would be far less lenient than one negotiated by the Labor party, he nevertheless tacitly or even overtly came to affirm the policy of territorial partition.

In addition to promising a peace based on security, Netanyahu also sought to implement far reaching economic changes that would privatize large segments of the socialist/collectivist-oriented economic framework of the country. Such a policy, he promised, would be the key to sustained economic growth.

While the Palestinian Authority and leaders of key Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan sought to give Netanyahu a short grace period to prove himself as a leader with whom they could work, particularly in view of his implementation of the Hebron accords (which was a further implementation of the Oslo accords in the very explosive area of Hebron), cautious optimism soon gave way to mutual acrimony.

Netanyahu claimed that the Palestinian leadership had actually evaded implementation of certain key provisions of its obligations such as a clear-cut renunciation of the PLO Charter which called for Israel's dismemberment, and not carrying out sufficient measures to thwart and root out Palestinian terror. Arab leaders, on the other hand, charged that Netanyahu was intent on ending the Oslo process and merely sought excuses to do so.

In actuality, it seems that Netanyahu's real objective was to restructure the peace process in such a way that the Palestinians would be forced to reduce their expectations, as Israel began to assert a much harder line both in substantive positions and in interpersonal negotiating behavior and tone. However, in response, the Palestinians also toughened their own stance both in substance and tone, leading to an atmosphere in which direct bilateral communications became almost impossible.

On the domestic front, Netanyahu's 66-seat coalition was often fragile and this substantially constrained his ability to carry out sustained peace initiatives. The spectrum of positions in his government included the Third Way party which supported a cautious yet serious effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace involving Israeli territorial concessions, along with the moderate approach of Likud Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. On the other hand, the nine representatives of the National Religious Party (NRP) articulated a strong nationalist line which reflected deep suspicions concerning Palestinian motives and ultimate objectives, along with a rejection on principle of ceding sovereignty over portions of the historic Land of Israel.

The problematics of keeping his government intact while carrying out aspects of the Oslo process was demonstrated by the Knesset vote following the Wye Plantation agreement in October 1998. While the agreement was approved by a vote of 75-19, only 29 members of Netanyahu's own coalition voted for the accord.

Netanyahu sought to convince right-wing supporters that he was seeking to minimize damage to Israeli interests within the framework of the Oslo process. However, following the conclusion of the Wye agreement, settler council leaders declared Netanyahu to be "no longer the leader of the national camp."5 Thus Netanyahu came to be in the virtually impossible position of attempting to advance a political process (if only in response to outside U.S. pressure) that important sectors of his government vehemently opposed. With the weakening of his right wing as a result of Netanyahu's concessions at Wye, the process leading early elections gained momentum.

While Netanyahu was constantly putting out coalition fires throughout his tenure, it is not clear how much he was objectively constrained by coalition politics and how much he contributed to creating those difficulties himself. Indeed, it was clear to neither political friend nor foe exactly what Netanyahu believed concerning the peace process and, perhaps more importantly, after some time in office, questions were increasingly raised regarding to what degree his personal commitments held credibility. The resignation of important and respected Likud members such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Yitzhak Mordechai occurred as a result of alienation from Netanyahu. They made no attempt to conceal their deep bitterness and resentment toward Netanyahu, citing his heavy-handed behavior which, they charged, was destroying the Likud party.

Despite the constant internal political crises and intrigues which he faced down with considerable resiliency, as well as the displeasure of many key international leaders, Netanyahu's very beleaguerment was perceived favorably by many Israelis, especially Sephardim, Russian immigrants, and religious Jews who saw themselves as rejected by more established elites in the country. They also applauded Netanyahu as the last "national goalkeeper," and saw him as a strong leader who was prepared to say "no" and arouse the ire of both friend and foe if that was the price for protecting Israel's existence and key national assets in a still very hostile international environment.6

Other deeper and troubling domestic processes which essentially concerned the issue of Israel's political culture also accompanied the Netanyahu administration. Domestic polarization beyond the issue of the peace process continued and became more acute during this period. For many years, Israeli social analysts have pointed to outstanding social tensions never fully resolved in Israel concerning the relations and self-image of Israelis of Ashkenazi and Sephardi background and religious and secular Jewish Israelis.7 In addition to these traditional cleavages were complicating tensions centered around rifts between new immigrant groups from Russia and Ethiopia who often opposed each other due to strong differences in culture and over the need to compete for scarce resources.

The Shas party, which went from 10 to 17 seats in this election, became a fulcrum for expressing disappointment and alienation among Sephardic religious and traditional Israelis who felt long-standing grievances based upon perceived discrimination. Shas's growth was the most spectacular advance made by any party in the elections, but the reasons for it are most problematic. Even before party leader MK Aryeh Deri was convicted in March 1999 of accepting bribes and violating the public trust, after a nine-year trial, it seemed clear that the party's representation would increase. Not only did Shas speak to the hearts of many alienated Sephardim, but it also used funds received from the Netanyahu government to provide services for its constituents or potential constituents, and used its control of the Interior Ministry to win minority votes including those of Arabs and Druze, also political outsiders.

Deri's conviction and sentencing seems to have produced a spurt in the party's vote. Indeed, Shas had an increase of 70 percent in its Knesset representation, an extraordinary achievement. Part of this voter surge was credited to a 90-minute videotape entitled, "J'accuse," featuring Deri attacking the establishment and defending himself. The video was directed by Uri Zohar, formerly a leading Israeli performer who had become ultra-Orthodox more than 20 years ago. In it, Deri presented himself in a most convincing way as a victim of police and establishment persecution. People who saw the video reported being reduced to tears, even those who knew better.

We would suggest that this reflects a deep feeling of victimization on the part of many Jews from Muslim lands and their children who saw the verdict as an anti-Sephardic act rather than the administration of justice fairly without fear or favor. The intensity of feelings of victimization on the part of at least 15 percent of the electorate some fifty years after the founding of the state and nearly that long since most of them or their parents came to Israel does not bode well for the future. It also makes Shas, which had always been as much or more a religious party as an ethnic one, much more ethnic in its character, since its new voters were not at all likely to number among the fervently Orthodox but rather the aggrieved Afro-Asians.8

The Initial Stage of the Campaign

Perhaps the most fateful decision leading to the 1999 election was taken by Ehud Barak on December 21, 1998, when he rejected a last-minute appeal from Benjamin Netanyahu to join with him in a national unity government. As a result of this decision, the die was cast for the fall of the government and the setting of an early election date, which was approved in the Knesset by a 81-30 vote.

Many of Barak's colleagues in the Labor party doubted the wisdom of early elections for fear of a Barak/Labor defeat. Indeed, voter surveys in late 1998 through the first months of 1999 supported such skepticism and seemed to offer little hope for a Barak victory. On the face of things, key sectors of the Israeli population such as the burgeoning Russian immigrant population and the religious and Sephardic communities held strong predispositions in favor of the political right in Israel and it was deemed to be a formidable, if not impossible, task for Barak to capture at least one of those sectors.9

In addition, Barak's early campaign appeared to offer the nation little vision or inspiration, as Barak focused on criticizing extremist groups and attacked Netanyahu's leadership but provided little positive vision or explanation as to why he would be a better prime minister than the incumbent.

The formal appearance of the Center party in early January 1999 became the focus for the nation's yearning for some type of new politics of national unity combined with a responsible yet consistent pursuit of the peace process. The initial popularity of its candidates, such as newly retired Army Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and later former Likud Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, appeared to be the main story of the campaign. Mordechai, who dissented from Netanyahu's politics and his modus operandi, was dramatically fired by Netanyahu on January 23, 1999, and then was selected to head the Center party two days later, following his slight lead over Shahak in voter surveys. Indeed, this was just one example of the extent to which voter surveys influenced political choices taken in the campaign by all candidates.10

However, expectation soon gave way to disappointment as the promising Center party leadership began to bicker among themselves just like the established parties whose politics the Center party sought to replace with a better model. In addition, beyond the juxtaposition of key personalities in the party who came from either the left or right to a new "centrist" home, there was little agreement or coherence in the party's messages particularly concerning the key ideological issue of the degree to which Jewish tradition should be reflected in the public life of Israel, and even the specifics of carrying out the peace process.

These internal contradictions and lack of coherence were probably best illustrated by the conflict between Roni Milo, one of the founders of the Center party who expressed a strong and even provocative anti-ultra-Orthodox line, and Yitzhak Mordechai who expressed sympathy towards the religious sector and its symbols and who publicly honored Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas. Furthermore, Dan Meridor, who was highly regarded by broad sections of the Israeli polity, was repeatedly forced to accept a diminution of his status within the party as a result of pressure from his colleagues.

Thus Mordechai, although widely respected as a level-headed and responsible defense minister, could not present a specific agenda beyond the need for fostering national unity and tolerance. However, he did hammer away at the theme that for the sake of the country's future Netanyahu needed be defeated and that only he (as opposed to Barak) could attract support from the moderate right as well as the left to do so.

Barak's Campaign Gains Momentum

From approximately early April 1999, Barak's lackluster campaign began to present a new image and gain momentum. Netanyahu's main strategy was to emphasize his success in preventing the devastating terror attacks of the Rabin/Peres period and in holding the Palestinians accountable for alleged violations of the Oslo accord. In this context, Netanyahu sought to identify Barak and his possible administration with the "soft" policies of the Rabin/Peres government.

Barak, however, skillfully succeeded in countering the image that Netanyahu tried to confer upon him, and effectively defined the agenda of the campaign. To counter Netanyahu's accusations that he would be soft on terror and compromise Israeli security in negotiations with the Palestinians, he emphasized his military record, achievements as chief of staff, and his decorations for valor in the line of duty. In fact, a Russian language translation of his biography emphasizing his military record proved to be an effective tool in attracting the Russian immigrant vote.11

However, equally important, his campaign addressed the need for national unity as he re-shaped the Labor party slate under the title of "One Israel." In it he incorporated former Likud Foreign Minister David Levy (who had earlier resigned from the Netanyahu government) and elements of his Gesher faction, along with the moderate religious Meimad party.

Perhaps most importantly, he seemed to have learned the lessons of the failure of the previous Labor government headed by Rabin and Peres who effectively sought to marginalize the religious and more nationalistically motivated elements of the population, causing significant alienation and antipathy. 12 Rather than signaling that these elements of the population somehow were standing in the way of the realization of a new vision of Middle East peace and Israeli normalcy, Barak to a degree embraced nationalistic and even religious motifs in his campaign.

He also successfully addressed national concerns concerning the state of the economy, including the relatively high unemployment rate and economic stagnation, albeit on the rhetorical level only.13

The Failure of the Center Party: The Victory of Centrism

With anticipation at a peak, just prior to the election, dramatic last-minute political jockeying took place. Center party candidate for prime minister Yitzhak Mordechai had for weeks stubbornly resisted suggestions that he bow out of the race, given his declining fortunes in the voter surveys. On May 16, the day before the election, he finally relented and withdrew his candidacy -- throwing his support to Barak. This was followed by the withdrawal of two minor ideological candidates for prime minister -- Azmi Bashara, the first Arab candidate for the office, and right-wing leader Benny Begin -- ensuring that the prime ministerial race would be decided on election day with no need for a runoff two weeks later if no candidate secured over 50 percent of the vote.

The nation conferred a clear mandate on Barak to be the next prime minister, as confirmed by Netanyahu's swift and graceful concession message. Barak's gained 56 percent of the total vote, including 52 percent of the Jewish vote, an impressive achievement that reflected his success in capturing the political center in Israel.

In this effort, Barak followed the trend in various Western countries, particularly in the U.S. and Great Britain, of essentially progressive candidates such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who were able to shed "left-wing" stigmas and move their messages and candidacies into the political center and mainstream.14

Despite Barak's clear victory, however, his own Labor party refurbished as "One Israel" declined from 34 to 26 seats. Although the more centrist image of One Israel contributed to Barak's victory, the lack of a clear parliamentary mandate for parties connected to the left insured that Barak would be required to build a coalition from parties also associated with the moderate right.15

Thus Barak would be called upon to replicate the wider spectrum of positions reflected in One Israel in his coalition government. In this manner, ironically, the initial aspirations and declared objectives of the Center party would be adopted and perhaps implemented by Barak himself.

The Shas Phenomenon and Coalition Building

Barak's victory expressed the contours of a larger national consensus which had eluded Israel around a serious but minimalist commitment to the Oslo process along with some vague searching for national unity and economic renewal. However, the dramatic and unexpected rise in Shas's electoral fortunes reflected deep fissures in Israeli society. Becoming the third largest party in the Knesset (following One Israel and the Likud), Shas ran a campaign emphasizing the theme of dissatisfaction of the secular culture of Israel and alienation from the Ashkenazic power elites who supposedly had denied the Sephardic community the dignity and economic resources to which it felt entitled.

These two themes coalesced around the figure of Shas leader Aryeh Deri whose prolonged trial ended in his conviction during the waning days of the Netanyahu government. A political ally of the incumbent prime minister, Deri became a symbol who represented, along with Shas's rabbinical leaders, a counterculture of traditional values in opposition to empty modernist secularism. More importantly, the Shas campaign portrayed Deri as the victim of an Israeli establishment which supposedly tolerated far more objectionable behavior perpetrated by Ashkenazic politicians but reacted forcefully to punish Sephardim whose political power became excessive.

On the other hand, Barak's message along with other leaders of his camp was that no one was above the law and that adherence to legal norms and respect for state institutions is incumbent upon all sectors of the Israeli population. More strident than Barak and even the left wing secular party Meretz, was the Shinui party which ran on a clear anti-ultra-Orthodox platform, and attained six Knesset seats. They condemned Shas and other ultra-Orthodox groupings for seeking to advance their vision of a more traditional Israel and demanded that the policy of wholesale military exemptions for yeshiva students be reversed.

Thus, Barak faced a complex situation just after the election. The Fifteenth Knesset included 15 parties and at least seven would be needed in order to form even a minimal working coalition. While Barak could have opted to form a more limited coalition involving One Israel, Meretz, Shinui, the Center party, and Sharansky's Russian, immigrant party, he declared his preference for a wider coalition which would involve either the Likud or Shas, and provide the government with a more solid consensus for maneuver to move ahead on sensitive foreign policy issues.

While Barak conducted brief political flirtations with the new temporary head of the Likud, Ariel Sharon, following Netanyahu's resignation, eventually a variety of political forces came to favor Shas's inclusion in the government as opposed to the Likud. To be sure, either option was difficult to consider by Labor or Labor-aligned purists who sought streamlined progress on the peace process and held a vision of a more "normal" secular and universal Israeli society as opposed to one more nationalistic and/or traditional.

"Jaffa" Versus "Jerusalem"

The issue and implications of cultural typologies in Israel deserves a word of attention here. Indeed, the fundamental clash of cultures in Israel has been identified as having a regional base stemming from biblical days which has reemerged after the settling in of modern Israelis; symbolized and expressed as "Jaffa" versus "Jerusalem"; with the former representing the Mediterranean coast and symbolizing commercialism and "Hellenistic" cultural influences and the latter symbolizing spirituality centered in the mountains.16

In the initial years of immigration and nation-building, no very discernible socio-cultural patterns corresponding to geographic areas were evident. However, new patterns subsequently emerged. The Mediterranean coastal areas have become the country's bastions of secularism and individualism; the interior mountains the bastions of religious traditionalism -- Jewish, Muslim, and Christian -- and the moralism associated with it; while the south of the country has become the center of the surviving cultural traditionalism brought from the old worlds, in this case primarily the Islamic world. This election reaffirmed these typologies, since political culture played such an important role in the voting. To see this supported, we need only look at how the major cities in each region voted.

The table which follows looks at three measures: the votes for Barak and Netanyahu, the vote for the avowedly secularist parties -- Meretz and Shinui, and the votes for Shas -- the principal bearer of the traditionalistic political culture. The results are clear-cut and speak for themselves.

If we begin the southern region below Rehovot, from Ashdod and Yavne southward, we will find that the outline of the three cultural regions becomes clear, with a few exceptions in each of the three regions. For example, Tel Aviv voted two to one for Barak, for the avowedly secular parties one in five, while only one in 10 voters chose Shas. Similar percentages for Barak over Netanyahu were registered in Ramat Gan, Raanana, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon, Zichron Yaakov, Haifa, Kfar Saba, and Mazkeret Batya. Percentages of four to one for Barak or close to that were registered in Givatayim, Kfar Shmaryahu (an astounding nine to one), Savyon, Kiryat Tivon, and Ramat Hasharon -- Israel's classic upper middle class suburban cities. In the first group of cities the secularist parties received 15 percent or more and Shas below 10 percent. In the second group, the secularist parties won over 20 percent combined and Shas less than 5 percent. Kfar Shmaryahu (the epitome of "Jaffa" culture) not only gave Barak an astounding 91 percent of the vote but gave 26 percent to the secularist parties and none to Shas.

The general pattern which we have advanced here is further affirmed by the vote in the interior, where Netanyahu won consistently large majorities except in classic suburban areas such as Mevaseret Zion, heavily Russian immigrant cities such as Nazareth Elit and Maalot-Tarshiha, and the new city of Modiin, which is an interior extension of the coastal culture. Perhaps more striking, the secularist parties won more than 10 percent of the vote only in Modiin (23 percent), Mevaseret Zion (17 percent), Katzrin (12 percent), and Jerusalem (11 percent), while Shas had over 20 percent in seven of the cities and had the largest vote of any party in Jerusalem with 17 percent. However, by and large, the interior cities were characterized by both less secularist and less Shas voting in the Knesset elections. Except for the three outlyers -- Eilat, a wide open town in the deep South; Arad, a city consciously designed to house "Israeli WASPs" (White Ashkenazi Sabras with protectsia or influence); and Omer, an affluent suburb that has provided a haven for those people in the Beesheva area who do not fit into general Beersheva culture -- the other towns voted two, three, and four to one for Netanyahu. They gave Shas its highest local percentages in the country and the secularist parties miniscule support.

Israel Elections 1999: Selected Results, Cities
(in percentages)

Coast # polling stations Barak Netanyahu Meretz Shinui Shas
Givatayim 66 72 28 11 8 3
Haifa 349 68 3277 6
Herzliya 103 68 32 12 8 9
Hod Hasharon 39 65 35 11 7 11
Kfar Saba 83 64 35 11 6 9
Kfar Shmaryahu 2 91 9 18 8 -
Kiryat Tivon 18 78 22 14 7 3
Mazkeret Batya 7 64 36 11 8 12
Ramat Gan 167 62 38 9 7 7
Ramat Hasharon 45 75 25 14 8 6
Ranaana 70 69 31 13 7 6
Savyon 3 80 20 13 10 2
Tel Aviv 516 64 36 13 6 11
Zikron Yaakov 14 62 38 10 6 11

Afula 41 41 59 4 4 17
Ariel 15 16 84 2 5 8
Beit Shean 15 26 74 2 2 41
Beit Shemesh 31 28 72 3 3 26
Hatzor Haglilit 9 25 75 1 2 26
Jerusalem 493 35 65 7 4 17
Katzrin 6 53 47 7 5 8
Kiryat Shmona 24 38 62 3 3 22
Maale Adumim 23 27 73 3 6 14
Maalot-Tarshiha 19 55 45 4 3 12
Mevaseret Zion 19 56 44 11 6 14
Migdal Haemek 26 43 57 4 4 22
Modiin 16 65 35 13 10 6
Nazereth Elit 55 54 46 4 5 6
Safed 27 29 71 3 4 27
Tiberias 43 31 69 2 3 27
Yokneam Elit 15 49 51 5 5 14

Arad 28 64 36 9 7 6
Ashdod 170 41 59 5 4 24
Ashkelon 104 40 60 4 3 21
Beersheva 189 45 55 4 5 23
Dimona 39 36 64 2 2 34
Eilat 54 58 42 9 8 12
Kiryat Gat 55 41 59 4 4 26
Mitzpe Ramon 5 39 61 6 4 12
Netivot 17 20 80 1 1 44
Ofakim 23 28 72 3 1 31
Omer 7 83 17 16 9 2
Sderot 21 29 71 3 2 23
Yavne 31 43 57 6 523
Yeruham 9 31 69 3 1 30

Source: Maariv, 19 May 1999.

Shas Joins the Government

As noted, Barak and significant personalities in his camp asserted the importance of avoiding the pitfalls of the Rabin/Peres government which had a narrow parliamentary base and limited support in the population. Thus, efforts at coalition negotiations with Likud and Shas again were evidence of Barak's efforts to forge a centrist government. Tactically, his negotiations with both of these bodies provided him with greater political leverage than he would have had in negotiating with only one.

Thus, when Shas finally joined the government, Barak had succeeded in getting Shas to accede to many of his demands including the relinquishment by Aryeh Deri of any formal and/or decision-making position within the party, and the denial of Shas ministerial control of the Ministry of the Interior. To be sure, Shas had much to gain by being in the government -- primarily in order to assure vital resources for its institutions and the public it represents. Shas was also able to obtain a moratorium and postponement from Barak on the abolition of most military exemptions for yeshiva students, pending the convening of a commission to study the matter.

Developing the New Government's Guidelines

Balancing opposites on the domestic secular/religious ideological divide was one challenge which Barak had to meet primarily in terms of bringing both Meretz and Shas into his coalition. Barak navigated the process of creating government guidelines for pursuing the peace process with a centrist orientation, which brought both Meretz and the NRP into the same government. Furthermore, the roles of Oslo architects Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin were reduced in comparison to the past, in favor of personalities representing more mainstream positions such as David Levy, who was given the foreign ministry portfolio.

Barak also dealt with the tension between Shas, with its Sephardic and ultra-Orthodox constituency, and the Russian immigrant party headed by Natan Sharansky. Russian immigrants have become the single largest Jewish ethnic group in Israel and some have developed political hostility to Shas which, when in control of the powerful Interior Ministry, applied strict guidelines to many Russian immigrants whose Jewish backgrounds were problematic. Barak attracted electoral support from the Russian immigrant community by emphasizing socio-economic themes and vowing not to assign the Interior Ministry to Shas -- eventually naming Sharansky to that post.

A degree of initial political equilibrium was also achieved by Barak in balancing controversial ministerial assignments with appointments of deputy ministers from rival parties. For instance, Meretz leader Yossi Sarid was appointed education minister while the NRP's Shaul Yahalom was appointed deputy minister; and Shas was given a deputy minister in the Ministry of Interior where Sharansky controlled the main post.

Indeed, in the larger context of social processes, there is a growing recognition in Israel that the growing gaps between three political cultures represent the key to the state's internal problems. These include the "secular individualists" representing about 40 percent of the population, the "traditionalists" with about 25 percent, and the "moralists" with about 35 percent. Moreover, the left-of-center parties can see the new possibilities of alignment with religiously-based moralistic voters along with the traditionalistic ones who feel left behind and victimized. Such an alliance, which appear in the future, could prove very difficult to resist at the polls, especially since it has shown its potential to bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs as well as between religious and traditional. Thus Barak was given an added incentive to build the broadest possible governing coalition and to include parties from both of these other blocs to ensure his government's success.

In this context, it is also important to refer to the Arab parties who were expected to form a safety net for the new government, although their ten members (up from nine in the previous election) spread over three parties were not included in the government. Barak, however, sought to placate Arab feeling and the 524,000 Arab voters17 who overwhelmingly supported Barak by assigning one leading Arab representative to the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee in a symbolic, precedent-breaking move.

Challenges Facing the Barak Administration

Politics in one sense is the art and process of managing scarce resources. In his coalition negotiations, Barak, who was a capable IDF chief of staff and earned an advanced degree in systems analysis from Stanford University, showed himself adept at putting together a cumbersome although potentially viable coalition initially commanding 75 Knesset seats --extremely large in comparison to recent Israeli electoral history. Barak skillfully exploited the weaknesses of opponents and rivals, and translated an array of options into political capital through subtle but resolute application of leverage.

In the first days of his administration there were already signs that Barak was adopting a similar modus operandi in international relations to re-energize the peace process on terms favorable to Israel. Indeed, his efforts to reactivate the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track appear to give him more maneuverability in dealing with the Palestinians and vice versa. However, as the classic Italian political thinker Machiavelli -- considered by many as the founder of modern empirical political science, noted -- life is often a contest between fortuna and virtu'. The human ability to maximize objective possibilities is a key to political success. However, no one can ever be sure where the limits of human will are, given objective difficulties in satisfying a multitude of sometimes conflicting demands, whether they be in the domestic or international sphere.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the Barak administration may rest on the issue of character, which proved to be the basis of Netanyahu's downfall. The newly elected prime minister held a reputation for integrity as he was heralded by many commentators as an "improved version" of Yitzhak Rabin -- a hard-headed articulator of new Israeli hopes while promising to unite larger portions of the Israeli population in tacit or active cooperation. Indeed, the spontaneous demonstration by a multitude of youth in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated three and a half years earlier, upon hearing of Barak's victory, signified the closing of a circle for these young Israelis who felt so alienated during the Netanyahu years. In addition, Barak's call for national unity on the night of his election and his pledge to be responsive to all Israelis, whether opponents or supporters, instilled a degree of hope in the larger Israeli public.

However, the Israeli public, which resoundingly rejected Netanyahu's leadership due to character flaws, has shown a low tolerance for "politics as usual." Indeed, in the early stages of the Barak administration there were already concerns voiced that he was acting too much in an autocratic style, to the consternation of Labor party regulars who sometimes criticized his methods in dealing with Labor party ministers. There were also fears that Barak may actually seek to dismantle the Labor party and replace it with "One Israel" (with an avowed centrist orientation) which would be more subservient to his personal wishes.

As Army chief of staff, Barak was known as a penetrating strategic thinker, but it was not always clear how he would translate ideas into practice. Furthermore, he could be brusque in dealing with subordinates, which constrained his ability to win allies for his policies.18 While politician Barak has appeared at times to be more responsive to people, he will have to prove over time that his modus operandi is indeed different from Netanyahu's in order not to alienate his colleagues, a factor which helped cause the former prime minister's downfall. The Barak administration elected in 1999 won a formal mandate. However, it must still win the public's confidence in the spheres of character, policy, and performance.


1. According to data reported in Ha'aretz, Pre-election Supplement, May 12, 1999, p. 3.

2. Based on compilation of official Knesset figures for party votes.

3. It should be noted that a voter turnout of approximately 80 percent of eligible voters actually represents a figure close to the entire number of available voters on election day, given the fact that 10 percent of voters are likely to be abroad and another 10 percent might be indisposed due to illness or other factors.

4. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler, "Introduction: The Battle over Jewishness and Zionism in the Post Modern Era," in Elazar and Sandler, eds., Israel at the Polls 1996 (London: Frank Cass, 1998).

5. Margot Dudekevitch, "Settlers: PM No Longer Our Leader," Jerusalem Post, October 23, 1998, p. 2.

6. Ari Shavit, "Netanyahu's Secret," Ha'aretz (English edition), March 4, 1999.

7. See, for instance, Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel (Albany: State University of New York, 1989).

8. Etta Bick further develops this point in her article in this volume: "The Shas Phenomenon and Religious Parties in the 1999 Elections."

9. In the 1992 election in which Yitzhak Rabin was elected (the last election prior to the initiation of the direct prime ministerial vote), more total votes were cast for right-wing parties, although due to the effects of splintering among parties which did not pass the electoral threshold, left-wing parties attained more Knesset seats. For an interesting analysis of the demographics of the Israeli electorate, see Herb Keinon, "The Votes that Spell Victory," Jerusalem Post, January 22, 1999, p. 13.

10. See article in this volume by Dov Te'eni, Nachshon Margalot, and Yaacov J. Katz on the impact of voter surveys. 11. See Vladimir Khanin's article in this volume.

12. See Elazar and Sandler, op. cit., pp. 8-11.

13. It should be noted that Barak did indeed point to the impact of human suffering generated by the country's economic difficulties. However, he presented little of a defined or coherent economic plan. Manfred Gerstenfeld, underscores this point in his article in this volume.

14. For some analysis of this phenomenon, see The Economist, May 10, 1997, pp. 29-30, and 40. For a comparative analysis of Blair and Barak, see Douglas Davis, "Barak and Blair: Two of a Kind," Jerusalem Post, July 16, 1997, p. B3.

15. The NRP was an interesting case in point. While it had consistently positioned itself during the last number of elections to the right of the Likud, following this election and its decline to five mandates from nine, it sought to moderate elements of its image and it joined the Barak coalition.

16. For a more detailed discussion of the origins and implications of these two typologies, see Daniel J. Elazar, "The Peace Process and the Jewishness of the Jewish State," Jerusalem Letter, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, August 1, 1994.

17. Based on figures reported in Ha'aretz, Pre-election Supplement, op. cit.

18. For an analysis of Barak's modus operandi as chief of staff, see Ofer Shelach's article in Maariv, July 9, 1999 (weekend magazine), p. 2.

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