The Magazine


What Bibi did, what Barak will do

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