The Magazine


What Bibi did, what Barak will do

May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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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.