The Magazine

WHY BIBI WON

Jun 17, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 39 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Not since the nuclear freeze hysteria of the early 1980s has the American press so lost its compass, so forfeited even the pretense of objectivity, as it did covering the recent Israeli election. (The parallel is not accidental, both frenzies triggered by the specter of right-wing warmongers come to power. ) The demonization of Bibi Netanyahu has been thorough and near universal. Everywhere, from the front page to the editorial page, a vote for him was explained -- and thus decried -- as a rejection of peace, a surrender to fear, an end of everything good and hopeful and promising wrought by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.


The apotheosis of this trend was a Tom Friedman column in the New York Times painting Netanyahu and his Likud party as the moral equivalent of Gennadi Zyuganov and the Russian Communist party. (They're running a close race for control of another country of interest to the United States.) On the one hand, you have a collection of Stalinist hacks who believe that Russia, at eleven time-zones wide, is too small for national dignity. On the other hand, you have a party of center-right free-market democrats who believe that Israel, at eight miles wide (it becomes so on the day the West Bank becomes a Palestinian state) is too small for national survival. To compare one to the other is more than absurd. It is scandalous.


But effective. I actually heard Steven Roberts of U. S. News & World Report, an otherwise estimable journalist, parrot this line on a radio talk show just a few days before the election. Friedman's column was a nadir of sorts. But he had plenty of company at the bottom.


Now that Netanyahu has won, the media, having failed to prevent the calamity, are busy trying to undo it. In place of apocalyptic predictions, they are back with revisionist history. The object is to delegitimize Netanyahu's victory by explaining that it was not a victory -- and not Netanyahu's -- after all.


II


One favorite theme is that Netanyahu was elected by Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin. This is the ultimate delegitimation of a democratic election, there being no more serious charge than that the result was in fact obtained by violence. And it rests on the assertion that Rabin "would have certainly beaten Mr. Netanyahu." (Friedman again.)


First, no one can ever know for sure. But second, a study of the data strongly supports the conclusion that Rabin would have lost. Consider:


At the time of Rabin's assassination, he was in a dead heat with Netanyahu in the polls. And we now know that the polls underestimated Netanyahu's support by about five percentage points.


How do we know? From the actual election data. The polls showed Netanyahu behind by three to five points on election day when, in reality, he won the real vote by one. And we know why the polls were wrong. The polls undercounted two Netanyahu constituencies: (a) Orthodox lews, who don't talk to pollsters, and (b) Russian immigrants, who lie to them. (Understandably. They come from a country where, when a stranger calls up on the phone and asks you whom you support politically, the correct answer is not "the opposition.")


In other words, if the election had been held the day before Rabin's assassination, Rabin would have lost. Lost bigger than Peres.


Wouldn't the campaign have changed things? Well, we know that in the actual campaign Netanyahu overcame a 20-point deficit. Sure, the Hamas bombings helped close the gap. But by what logic should we assume that Hamas would have desisted from outrages during a Rabin campaign when it did not during Peres's? And anyway, Netanyahu would not have needed a post-bombing boost. He was already, as we've seen, five points ahead.


Far from electing Netanyahu, the Rabin assassination was, politically, the worst thing that happened to his candidacy. It demoralized Likud and turned much of the country against it. It gave Labor an instant 20-point lead. And it gave the Labor cause the kind of aura of sacredness that in 1964 propelled Lyndon Johnson to the greatest landslide in postwar American history.


Rabin as martyr was a far more serviceable political instrument than Rabin as candidate ever was. The living Rabin had character and courage. But he had no halo. Rabin's ghost was quite useful to Labor. Indeed, Leah Rabin complained bitterly and publicly after the election that Peres had not made enough use of it.


III


The other theme meant to delegitimize Netanyahu's victory is that Israel did not really choose, it split. The margin was so narrow that the contest remains, politically speaking, too close to call. Netanyahu's was a cheap victory, a squeaker. Therefore, although he may have won, he earned no mandate to govern.


Now, when Rabin won election in 1992 by the slimmest of margins and ruled with but a two-seat majority in the Knesset, one did not hear the claim that he lacked a mandate. Nor when Rabin rammed through the most radical peace policy in Israel's history. He did that not with new elections, not with a referendum, but with a one-vote Knesset margin.


Indeed, Rabin and then Peres did not just transform the country in the absence of a mandate. They betrayed what mandate they had. In their slim election victory of 1992, they made two very explicit promises: no giving up the Golan Heights to Syria, and no negotiation with the PLO. Perhaps they were wise to betray both commitments. But they had no mandate to do so. And when the policy was finally put to the electoral test, it failed.


By one percent only, you say. Well, such margins are not unheard of in democracies. Netanyahu's margin of victory is larger than Nixon's in 1968, five times larger than Kennedy's in 1960. More important, however, among the constituency most put at risk by the Rabin-Peres peace policy, the Israeli Jews, Netanyahu won by a very substantial 11 percentage points (55.5 to 44.4 percent). To put that again in an American context, that is a margin wider than that of any challenger to win the American presidency since 1932. Clinton and Bush, Reagan and Carter, Nixon and Kennedy, even Eisenhower -- all won their initial term with a smaller margin and less support than Netanyahu in his initial run enjoyed among Israeli Jews.


And after all, it is Israeli Jews who are the target of Palestinian terrorists. It is their homes, their future, their aspirations, their very existence that are most threatened by the Palestinian state that Peres had de facto endorsed. Among those directly jeopardized by Peres's policies, a solid majority voted "no." No squeaker here.


Moreover, looking at the Knesset vote, the popular verdict on Peres's peace is equally clear. In the old Knesset, those parties that supported the peace process (the Labor-Meretz coalition plus the Arab parties) had 61 seats. The elections reduced their number in the new Knesset to 52. By every measure Labor's path was soundly rejected.


Early on election night, when Peres was projected to win with 50.3 percent, Labor's Yael Dayan was asked whether such a thin majority would be mandate enough to complete the even more radical peace policy that Peres was planning for the next four years. Dayan defiantly answered that all they needed was 50 percent plus one vote. With that they could do whatever they wished. Now that the tables have turned, we have a sudden demand for landslides.


IV


A final theme of the delegitimizers is that it was Hamas with its suicide bombings that elected Netanyahu. This is a half truth that totally misses the larger point: The election turned not just on fear of exploding buses but on their political meaning.


The Israeli election would have turned out differently if the terrorists killing Jews were merely uncontrollable rogue elements clearly rejected by Palestinian leadership and Palestinian society. If the Palestinian people had treated their killers the way mainstream Israeli society treated Baruch Goldstein, author of the Hebron massacre, Peres would have won. Why? Because it would have vindicated the fundamental premise of Peres's peace policy: a Palestinian change of heart. A Palestinian society turning against Jew- murderers would have signified a Palestinian society sincerely turning towards peace and reconciliation.


Unfortunately, it did not happen that way. Instead, Israelis saw on their TV screens a Palestinian society that treated these bombers as martyrs and heroes. The largest rally in the history of the Palestinian people occurred at the funeral of the "Engineer," the man who masterminded the suicide bombings of more than 35 Israelis. Arafat himself declared him an official " martyr" and had his forces honor the "Engineer" with a 21-gun salute.


Israelis saw, too, a rally in the newly liberated West Bank town of Qalqilya, in which the crowd cheered as a mockup of a "Dizengoff Number 5" Israeli bus was set afire. They saw a Palestinian Authority that had made its peace with Hamas and not a single serious attempt to outlaw or close it down. They saw a Palestinian leadership that could not even bring itself to fulfill its obligation under the Oslo accords to revise its charter to eliminate the clauses calling for the destruction of Israel. (Cleverly, the PNC simply asserted that the charter was changed without changing a word of it, kicking the issue over to a committee charged with producing the actual changes six months hence. Don't hold your breath.)


Palestinian terrorists did destroy Peres's electoral chances. But only because they were clearly seen as acting with the acquiescence and blessing of Palestinian society, thus betraying the truth that for the Palestinians, Oslo was just a tactic to achieve their national ends, not a real recognition and acceptance of Israel's. This was most vividly conveyed in Arafat's appeal to the PNC on the vote for the (apparent) change in the Palestinian charter. He never invoked the kind of ringing language of reconciliation and acceptance that Rabin had expressed on the White House lawn and Peres expressed daily to describe his vision of a new Middle East of coexistence and cooperation. Arafat told his delegates instead not to allow just a few words to stand in the way of regaining their land. The implication was clear: These are mere words, subject to change, fleeting, ephemeral. Say them -- sincere or not, it does not matter -- because the saying will get you land. And land is real.


Hamas did not defeat Peres. Arafat, who was Peres's running mate, did -- he and the Palestinian mainstream and their casual symbiosis with Hamas.


V


The revisionists cannot understand why Netanyahu won because they simply refuse to see Israel as it is. At the heart of the Western misunderstanding of Likud is the distinction between peace and security. Netanyahu campaigned on the quite unassailable proposition that there is no such distinction, that peace without security is meaningless, that if peace means anything it means at the very minimum a cessation of political violence. (After all, "armistice" and "truce" -- lesser forms of peace -- mean cease-fire. Peace must mean at least that.)


Peres adopted the view that security was not part of peace but something parallel, separate, subsequent to peace. The demand for "security now" was portrayed-by Peres, and his Western echoes -- as some additional, heavy- handed, indeed extralegal demand on the "peace process," a gratuitous addition to the Palestinians' obligations under "peace."


In fact, Netanyahu was adding nothing. Under the Oslo accords, in return for all that Israel has delivered-military withdrawal, political recognition, Gaza, West Bank autonomy, foreign aid, free elections-the Palestinians had but two obligations. One was a cessation of terrorism. (The other was changing the Palestine National Charter.) Security was explicitly to be part of this peace. The dichotomy between security and peace so resolutely maintained in the West (where the commentators are at a safe distance from exploding Israeli buses) was seen by most Israelis as not just logically absurd but historically perverse.


The election hinged not on whether land would be given up -- land had already been given up and some more would undoubtedly have to be given up in the future-but whether it would be given up for a paper peace without security. In other words, for nothing. The premise of Netanyahu's platform was that the peace process could not continue without reciprocity. And reciprocity meant that the Palestinians had to deliver real peace now, not, as Peres had it, at the end of the process as some final payoff when everything was tied up in a ribbon.


Indeed, the whole point of the interim, progressive nature of the PLO- Israel agreements was to make sure that at each stage in the process both sides delivered on their commitments. Peres's contention that this was too much to ask of the Palestinians, that true peace would only come at the very end when everything had been given up, undermined and contradicted the very premise of the staged process he himself had initiated.


The Israeli electorate concluded that the peace process as conducted by Labor -- unilateral withdrawal with no reciprocal obligations on the Palestinians oth- er than to wait and demand more -- was a losing propo- sition for Israel, not only dangerous but absurd given the power relations between the two parties. Never in the history of negotiation had the overwhelmingly powerful party given away so much for so little. Peres promised more of the same. A "land-for-peace" election he might have won. A " land-for-this?" election he could not possibly.


VI


Reciprocity, not land, was the key to Peres's defeat. It will have to be the key to Netanyahu's peace policy.


The days of Israeli unilateralism are over. What will be different now is that Likud will not hide, rationalize, or look the other way at Palestinian violations of the peace accords. When Arafat makes a speech calling for jihad, calling the suicide-bombers martyrs, invoking Mohammed's example of making a treaty with infidels that he later broke when he had more power, the government of Israel will neither ignore it nor explain it away. It will highlight it. And it will make further Israeli concessions contingent on changed Palestinian behavior. The Palestinians will be faced with the choice of either living up to their reciprocal obligations or seeing their hopes for autonomy, let alone sovereignty, dashed.


What might reciprocity mean in practice? Let me suggest:


Israel is obliged under Oslo to withdraw from Hebron. Peres had agreed to do so by mid-June. Hebron withdrawal is being touted as a test of Netanyahu's sincerity about continuing the peace process. Yet it offers an opportunity to make reciprocity the hallmark of his peace policy.


Palestinians were committed by the original Oslo agreement of September 1993 to change their charter to eliminate references to the destruction of Israel and to armed struggle to effect that destruction. Israel implemented the Oslo I (Gaza and Jericho) agreement without Arafat's lifting a finger to fulfill that provision.


Then in the Oslo II agreement, Arafat sold that rug a second time. In return for Israel's evacuating the major West Bank towns, he promised again to amend the charter. The deadline was May 7 of this year. It has not happened yet. As noted above, on April 24, Arafat delivered a statement from the PNC that the charter was amended -- but no changes were made. That must come from the committee that reports back in six months.


Why not simply state that Israel will fulfill its part of Oslo II as soon as the Palestinians have fulfilled theirs? That withdrawal from Hebron will take place, say, 72 hours after the Palestinian charter is changed. But not before. Quid pro quo. Such a principled stand of continuing the peace process but only with reciprocity would set the tone for Netanyahu's "new path" to peace, distinguishing it from Peres's frantic and unilateral version while honoring its objectives.


VII


The world is not happy with Netanyahu's victory. It is much happier with the tame, cosmopolitan Israel of Shimon Peres. It prefers a Jewish state obedient to the wishes, compliant with the aspirations, desperate for the approval of the "international community." Most of all, it likes Jews in retreat -- giving up land, surrendering claims, calling on the sympathy of the world when the bombs go off. What offends the West about Netanyahu is not that he might breach this or that paragraph of Oslo, but that he represents the kind of Zionist assertiveness that is an affront to the cherished vision of the pliant Jew, the Jew as victim.


Menachem Begin tried to play the proud-Zion role, but his air of schoolmaster pedantry made his attempt at swagger faintly ridiculous. In Netanyahu, ruthlessness combines with charm, muscularity with brains. He can fight and he can argue. No one yet knows if he can govern, but one can safely say that he will be the best exponent of Zionist assertiveness since Moshe Dayan.


Netanyahu does not live for the Nobel Prize, nor, as he said, to tour the capitals of Europe with Yasir Arafat. Peres led the Jews in retreat to the applause of the world. Netanyahu will demand something more durable than applause. That is why he won.



By Charles Krauthammer