THE ISRAELI EARTHQUAKE
What Bibi did, what Barak will do
May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Ehud Barak did not win last week's Israeli election so much as Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu lost it. He lost it badly, 56 percent to 44 percent. In Israeli terms, that is a landslide.
Why did the election come out the way it did? First, the timing. Bibi did not want this election. His plan was to wait until next year. Not just because his mandate ran till then, but because Israel has been in a mild recession, somewhat comparable to the recession that President Bush suffered under in the '91-'92 campaign. Netanyahu cut the deficit in half, broke inflation, and launched the deregulation of one of the last socialist economies, but the immediate result was a rise in unemployment and slowing of growth.
In a parliamentary system, where the prime minister has the prerogative of calling an election, recession is an odd time to call one. But Netanyahu did not have the prerogative. Why? Because the zealots in his own coalition brought his government down.
Which brings us to a second, larger reason for his defeat: the fracturing of the political right.
The basic problem for Netanyahu throughout his three years was that the Oslo peace agreements created a crisis of ideology for the Israeli right. Before Oslo, the right could simply unite under the banner of Greater Israel. Concede no territory. Instead, offer the Palestinians autonomy, as defined by Menachem Begin in the Camp David accords: The Palestinians run their lives but do not control the soil on which they live.
After Oslo, that kind of autonomy, always a Likud wish, became demonstrably a pipe dream. Once Arafat already had Gaza and Jericho and Nablus and Jenin and the soil under them, the Begin idea of autonomy became entirely obsolete.
When Yitzhak Rabin sprang Oslo on Israel in 1993, the right opposed it. But by presenting a fait accompli, Rabin ideologically undermined Likud forever. When elected in 1996, Netanyahu knew he couldn't tear up what Israel as a country had signed on to. He had to keep Oslo, yet minimize its damage.
Navigating a nationalist coalition (historically opposed to any territorial compromise) through Oslo was a harrowing task. Yet Netanyahu succeeded to a remarkable extent. He got Likud to give up Hebron, which marked the first time in Israeli history that the right gave up West Bank territory. Over the next three years, Netanyahu forged a broad national consensus, again for the first time in Israeli history, for territorial compromise. His last such compromise was the Wye River Memorandum, a relatively small concession of territory in return for relatively serious concessions on security by the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, this was not good enough for the people in his own coalition. The more traditional and conservative elements accused Bibi of capitulation and weakness. The National Religious party, tribune of the West Bank settlers, withdrew its support on the grounds that Wye gave away too much. The government collapsed. Elections were called.
It was the kind of political stupidity conservatives are famous for. The very parties that brought Netanyahu down then immediately turned around and spent the last six months frantically trying to reelect him, because the alternative -- the Labour party -- would give away far more. Alas, too late. Not only did Labour win, but the NRP saw its vote (and parliamentary strength) cut in half. And Benny Begin, son of Menachem Begin, who had quit the government even earlier and taken the more extreme Likud elements out of the party to form his own, did so badly in the election that the next day he not only resigned as head of his splinter party, he quit politics altogether, admitting that he had lost the argument. And indeed he had. In a Knesset of 120 members, there are now exactly 4 who oppose all the agreements signed with the Palestinians. Condign punishment for zealotry.
But there was another fault line that fractured the right. The Netanyahu political coalition fell apart not just over territory. It fell apart over the dominant domestic issue of the day: religion.
There is no group on the Israeli political spectrum more religious than the Shas party (representing traditional Israelis of Sephardic, i.e., mostly North African, origin). And there is no political group in Israel more secular than the recent immigrants from the Soviet empire, collectively known as the Russians.
They are both huge constituencies. The Russians constitute one of the largest immigrations not just in Israeli history but in world history: a million, in a population of 6 million. And Shas last week won almost one sixth of the seats in parliament. In 1993, the Russians and Shas were part of the outsider coalition constructed by Netanyahu against Labour's secular, Ashkenazi (i.e., of European origin) landed establishment.
But the tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel found their most acute expression in the tension that developed between Shas and the Russians. Shas controlled the Interior Ministry, which controls the privileges of citizenship: residency papers, marriage licenses, burial rights. Shas used its power to question the Jewishness of many of the Russian immigrants, some of whom, after 70 years of state-enforced atheism, were highly alienated from their Jewish roots, and some of whom, notably spouses and relatives, were not Jewish at all.
The resentment that built up among the Russians against the orthodox establishment that they saw discriminating against them was exploited by Barak, the Labour candidate. He very cleverly offered the Russians the Interior Ministry. That may sound like an arcane and minor offer to Americans, whose interior ministry looks after Yellowstone Park and Smokey the Bear. But in Israel it controls the essence of civil life. Netanyahu could not match Barak's offer for fear of playing one constituency against another. As a result, he lost the Russians. In 1996, he got 60 percent of their votes. Last week, he got 40.
But beyond the timing and the structural problems in the conservative coalition there was the problem of Bibi himself. This was his worst campaign ever. He was off-stride, ill at ease. Barak, on the other hand, ran a smart, minimalist campaign. He basically hid. Hiding is a very useful technique for a politician -- whenever Newt Gingrich curtailed his public exposure his poll ratings went up -- and particularly for a politician with the kind of Eisenhower candidacy that Barak presented.
There was endless debate over whether Barak is really a dove or a hawk. That is because he was really a sphinx. His pronouncements were generally bland and vague. His slogan was Carvillean: "Change." As a decorated war hero and former commando, he had the kind of reputation and popularity that allowed Ike in '52 to say he'd get us out of Korea without exactly telling us how. Barak said he'd get Israelis out of Lebanon in a year without telling them how either.
His low profile served him well. There was only one debate in this campaign. The three major candidates (at the time) were invited. Netanyahu showed up. Yitzhak Mordechai, former defense minister who defected from Bibi's party to head a new center party, showed up. Barak didn't. The empty chair won.
Mordechai and Netanyahu savaged each other and both sank in the polls. Perhaps for the first time in his career, Bibi looked flustered on television. The reviews were terrible. And not just for this performance. It is safe to say that no candidate has ever been as consistently and universally vilified by the press as has Netanyahu. Already two years ago, an article that violated the anti-Netanyahu consensus -- a sympathetic article by a man of the left called "The year of Hating Bibi" -- caused a sensation. Typical during the election campaign was a column by Israel's leading columnist in Israel's leading newspaper entitled "The Prince of Darkness and Hate."
This is not to say that Barak was a bystander in his own successful campaign. He was very disciplined and very cautious. But his victory, encouraged by everyone from Yasser Arafat to Hosni Mubarak to Bill Clinton, does not herald the kind of supine Israel that they are hoping for. The Clinton administration in particular, which did everything but break out the champagne and bongo drums on election night, is being very premature in assuming that Barak will be a malleable figure.
First, Barak is no Shimon Peres. Peres, the former Labour prime minister whom Netanyahu defeated, was a dreamer, and a dangerous one. He believed that we had come to a kind of end of history where power politics was obsolete, where borders didn't count, and where Israel and the Palestinians and the Jordanians would live together in harmony like Benelux.
Barak, on the other hand, is a realist. A military man all his life, a man concerned with security, he has already given the first hint of where he is going by indicating that he wants to bring Likud into his government. Most important is the reason he gave: not only to create a national consensus but to signal the Palestinians to "expect to receive less."
Moreover, the Labour party that Barak is leading is not the Labour party that Peres led. Barak has consciously tried to steer it towards the center, using Tony Blair and Bill Clinton as his model. His will be a different Labour government with a far different coalition. Rabin built his -- and pushed Oslo through -- with a very narrow coalition of the left, indeed a majority of one in the Knesset. Barak seems intent on building a broad coalition that represents the overwhelming 80 percent national consensus -- bequeathed him, ironically, by Netanyahu -- that favors territorial compromise so long as it does not return Israel to the '67 borders or redivide Jerusalem.
In the short run, Barak will be a lot easier for Arafat and Clinton to deal with. In the long run, he will be a lot harder. In the short run, he will undoubtedly go ahead with the rest of the Wye agreement. Wye commits Israel to pulling out of 13 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu had pulled out of 2 percent when he halted the process and his government collapsed.
There is no doubt that Barak will give up the other 11 percent fairly rapidly. The result will be new life to the "peace process" -- since "peace process" is a euphemism for Israeli withdrawal. This will create much goodwill. Barak will be received in all the Arab capitals with a handshake and a smile. He will be toasted in Washington. He might even get as warm a reception from Bill Clinton as Yasser Arafat now routinely gets.
But this will all be temporary, because coming up are the final-status negotiations which are to determine once and for all the final borders between Israel and the Palestinians, the question of Palestinian statehood, the status of Jerusalem, and the future of the Palestinian refugees. On these issues, there is very little difference between Barak and Netanyahu. Barak might be a bit more willing to give a bit more territory with a bit more contiguity and show more tolerance for a Palestinian state. But Likud had all but conceded that there was going to be a Palestinian state. The only question is whether its powers be circumscribed. Will it be able to have an army? Will it be allowed to have alliances with Iraq and Syria or any other neighbor at war with Israel? Will it be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction? Will it have control of the air above and the water below?
Barak is not very far from Netanyahu and, indeed, from the Israeli consensus in believing that the answer to these questions must be no -- otherwise Israel becomes an unviable state and Palestine's creation makes Israel's demise only a question of time.
How long will the honeymoon last? I give it six months. It will come to an abrupt end when the Wye withdrawals have been completed and final-status negotiations are deadlocked. Barak will take a position identical to Netanyahu's against dividing Jerusalem, against a Palestinian state with unrestricted powers, against the return of refugees to Israel, and against retreating to the 1967 borders. On all of these demands the Palestinians have not moved an inch in the six years since Oslo.
That is when the crunch will come. That is when this administration -- which fancies itself, against all evidence, the most pro-Israel administration in American history -- will be tested. It is sure to be tested, because something has happened on the Palestinian side of this equation that has been entirely overlooked by the press and allowed to pass unmentioned by the administration: While everyone had their eyes fixed on Netanyahu, Arafat moved the goal posts.
Remember: Oslo is explicitly based on U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which call for a return of the territories captured in 1967 in exchange for peace. But for the last few months Arafat has been going around the world saying that the new Palestinian position is to establish a state based on U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947.
That may all sound arcane. But it is not. The U.N. partition plan of 1947 created a Jewish state in part of Palestine. It was unanimously rejected by the Arab states and the Palestinians, who responded by launching a war to destroy the newly created Israel. But the Jewish state outlined in Resolution 181 was a much smaller state than the one that emerged from the war launched by the Arabs to nullify it. Not only were parts of the Galilee and the Negev given to the Arabs under this plan, but Jerusalem was an international city. To return to 181 means that not just East Jerusalem (captured in '67) would be lost to Israel, but West Jerusalem -- exclusively and always Jewish -- as well.
Arafat's new stance is an astonishing violation of the spirit of Oslo. After all, the whole idea of Oslo was that both sides would start from initial positions and over time move towards each other with concessions. That Israel has done. It has essentially accepted a Palestinian state. It has recognized the PLO. It has given legitimacy to Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. It has given up large amounts of territory. It has transferred 98 percent of Palestinians from Israeli occupation to Palestinian self-rule.
And yet at the same time, the Palestinians are moving in precisely the opposite direction, demanding not just all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but now, under 181, claiming large chunks of pre-'67 Israel and delegitimizing Israeli claims to any part of Jerusalem, east or west.
While receiving almost no attention in the United States, this radical expansion of Palestinian claims has received a sympathetic hearing in Europe. The European Union sent a letter to Israel, written by the German foreign minister, saying that the EU position on Jerusalem is that it is a "corpus separatum" -- a separate body, an international zone as understood in resolution 181 -- which means that the EU questions Israel's sovereignty over even West Jerusalem.
One would have thought that the administration, committed as it is to Oslo, might have protested this development and reprimanded Arafat for this gross retrogression. Instead, Clinton has greeted him with kisses on both cheeks.
Why is Arafat doing this? Robert Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls this 181 maneuver Arafat's "insurance against Barak." Satloff's theory is that by moving the goal posts, Arafat makes certain that even a Labour-led government can never come to a final agreement with him, because no one in Israel is going to give up parts of the Galilee and Negev and West Jerusalem.
Why would Arafat want to prevent an agreement? Because through his entire career he has lived on crisis, conflict, and tension which he tries to exploit to advance his cause, which, as he tells his own people if not Americans, is ultimately a Palestinian state sovereign over all of Palestine. Maybe not in this lifetime, but eventually.
He doesn't want to close the case. He doesn't want to give up claims irrevocably. He would like one interim agreement after another -- always advancing, always gaining more territory, yet always leaving the question of Israel's legitimacy and Israel's territorial integrity in play. In short, he wants a peace process, not peace. Because real peace -- a real final-status agreement -- means the obsolescence of the Palestinian cause and the end of the Palestinian dream. Those he is not prepared to give up.
Even if one takes the more benign view -- that Arafat is simply doing this to give himself more negotiating cards to play -- the resurrection of the long-dead Resolution 181 spells great trouble ahead. Barak's election means just a short postponement of that trouble. Those who believe peace is at hand are sadly mistaken. Even if Barak were to go much further than he wants to go today, he can never go near Arafat's new goal post. For all of the goodwill and the handshaking and the hugging that you will see in the next few months between Arafat and Clinton and Barak and the rest, there is trouble over the horizon. In six months, after Wye, Barak will say no. And then Clinton and Arafat and the world will recognize that the problem was not Netanyahu but the Israeli consensus for peace he helped forge -- a consensus that will not mindlessly keep moving toward the Palestinians as the Palestinians move away.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.