Were the May 1996 Israeli elections that brought Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party to power an indication of a new Israel? A move away from peace? In a recent Albert J. Wood lecture, Israel's new consul general, Gideon Samet -- a leading journalist and intellectual figure in Israel -- explored these and related issues.
Political predictions off-base: Prior to the Israeli elections most political analysts foresaw a new Israel in the making that included a stronger coalition between the reigning Labor Party and several left-of-center minority parties. Instead, a shift took place to the political right: the Likud Party was voted into power, solidifying a shift towards "peace with security."
Dramatic turnabout: Recent events in the Arab-Israeli peace process mark a major change from the past. All indications point to continued improvement in the relations between the Arabs and the Israelis, which, as Mr. Samet pointed out, is truly remarkable given the historic Israeli distrust of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians. Specifically, he recalled Menachem Begin's description of Yasser Arafat as a "monster, a two-legged animal, a Hitler." Israelis accepted Begin's views, leading to an attitude of "us versus them" which had a negative impact on Arab-Israeli relations.
In recent years, however, this trend has been reversed and the credit belongs in large part to "the very likeable leader Yitzak Rabin" who swayed the minds of the undecided or hesitant voters.
Lessening desire for peace?: "Did the peace process lose in May 1996? No, it did not. Did the late Rabin, navigator of the peace process lose? Again, no. Did the Israeli majority in favor of change in relations with the Arabs lose? Again, no." Mr. Samet supported these conclusions by citing two recent polls of American Jews which found that support for the Peace Process is at 81% in 1996, up from 68% in 1995, and near its all-time peak of 84% in 1993; and that support for a Palestinian state is at 63% in 1996, up from 46% in 1993. According to Mr. Samet, these trends are paralleled in Israeli polls. And yet, while the peace process, Rabin, and the Israeli majority did not lose, the Labor Party did.
Why did Labor lose?: Labor lost due to a key feature of Israeli political culture: fear. "No other factor determines the behavior of Israelis more than apprehension . . . the innate fear of something cataclysmic just around the corner." This deeply rooted apprehension results from Jewish history, and especially the Holocaust. While Israelis "were willing to follow Peres and Rabin into the woods," they came to believe that Labor's approach to the peace process put too much at risk. Consequently, they elected a new government advocating a slower process, one offering peace while emphasizing security. Thus was the vote for Likud a vote to continue the peace process, but in a different way.
Corollary factors include the influx of skeptical and tentative Russian immigrants and the growth of religious parties.
What's new in the new Israel?: Israeli voters change their minds often, as evidenced by the dramatic shift from "an almost absolute denial of any contact with the PLO and Arafat to an impressive support of relations" with Palestinians. The Likud party is "less giving and slower" in dealings with the Palestinians, which many feel will better protect long term security issues. Mr. Samet asserted that "any opposition on either side [against the peace process] is merely an episode" in the overall quest for accommodation. "There is a New Israel . . . but the same conflicting and strong forces are still at play as always: pragmatism and rational political thought versus conservative thoughts such as fundamentalism, suspicion and hatred."