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Issue 39, June 1999

Israel's Political Earthquake

EHUD BARAK won a landslide victory over Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli elections. Twenty minutes after the ballots closed, Netanyahu - known to all as Bibi - conceded defeat and resigned his leadership of the Likud party.

For Likud, it was a double defeat. Not only did Netanyahu lose the prime ministerial race, but the Likud party suffered heavy losses, losing a third of their Knesset seats. In response to Netanyahu's resignation, his supporters collapsed in tears of despair, and within an hour the hall where hundreds of activists had gathered was deserted.

Television reporters, who have relentlessly attacked Bibi's government since its inception, could hardly suppress their elation at Netanyahu's defeat. Tens of thousands of Barak supporters spontaneously gathered in the square where the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, to express their joy at Netanyahu's defeat, and their hopes for a bright, peaceful future.

In the Knesset itself, the most significant results are the Likud's collapse and the meteoric rise of Shas, the Sephardi ultra-orthodox party. Likud dropped from 32 Knesset seats to 19, while Shas vastly increased its strength from ten seats to 17, transforming itself into a major party - the third largest in the Knesset. The other 'surprise' in these elections was Shinui, the newly-formed secular, right-wing, anti-religious coercion party, winning six seats. The reason for Shinui's popularity is that it was the only party taking a strong, unapologetic stance against religious coercion.

Netanyahu's defeat was the result of a combination of factors. His fraudulent, blatantly opportunistic style dragged Israeli politics into new depths of depravity. Moreover, with its grudging acceptance of the Oslo accords, Likud lost its ideological base, blurring any distinction between itself and Labour. These developments led to mass defections by key Likud activists, including Dan Meridor, Itzik Mordechai, Benny Begin and David Levy. But more than anything else, Netanyahu's defeat was the result of three years of recession that hit Likud supporters (being mainly workers) hardest.

The election campaign and results reflect deepening divisions within Israeli society between the secular and religious. Netanyahu leaned on the religious parties to keep Likud politicians, who were his potential rivals, out of government. As a result, the ultra-orthodox parties enjoyed enormous power in Netanyahu's government, controlling the ministries of the interior, education, housing, etc. Millions of shekels of public money flowed into the religious parties' coffers. This inflamed secular Jews' resentment of the ultra-orthodox (who do not work, pay taxes or do military service, and whose institutions are entirely state funded). Shas used state money for its own welfare system in the poorer neighbourhoods, filling for its supporters a gap left by the crumbling state welfare system. At a time of economic crisis, a section of the workers rejecting Western capitalist society (and in the absence of a socialist alternative), looked to Shas as an alternative. This explains their enormous gains in these elections.

  There are many expectations in Barak's One Israel (formerly Labour) party. In addition to reviving the peace process, people will be expecting an end to religious coercion, free education from kindergarten to university, the creation of 300,000 new jobs, and a return to the economic boom of the early 1990s. But Barak's chief advisors are cut-throat businessmen who have made their millions by attacking workers. With the economy in recession, and with a state budget debt of Shk2 billion ($483.4m), the new government will be forced to make cuts. Barak's main election slogan, 'Israel wants change', summed up the mood of Israelis. But those expecting it from the new government are likely to be disappointed. Already Barak has announced that he is keen to include Shas in the government (even though he could easily form a centre-left coalition) in order to neutralise the opposition. This has come as a nasty shock to many young, left-wing activists who worked day and night to get rid of Bibi and his ultra-orthodox clique. An important development in this election is the birth of the workers' party, Am Echad, which reflects an awakening class consciousness for a section of Israeli workers. Am Echad's campaign focused mainly on the large, well-organised workplaces. The campaign tended to rely on the personality of the party leader, Amir Peretz, who is also the leader of Histadruth. As a result, there was poor organisation on a local level and the party was not visible in the streets and communities. Even on election day, many people seemed not to have heard of the party. Towards the end of its campaign, in its public meetings, written material and television broadcasts, the party put forward a clear class message and raised radical demands such as a $1,000 per month minimum wage. But many workers were sceptical of the party's ability to achieve these demands, especially after the recent general strikes (led by Amir Perez), failed to win significant gains.
  Am Echad got two MK's elected. This came as a disappointment for some activists who were hoping to win enough seats to be able to demand ministries and reforms in coalition negotiations. But the result represents a toe-hold in the Knesset which puts the new party on the political map. If the party joins Barak's government, it will be blamed for this government's attacks on workers. But if it maintains its independence, and uses its Knesset position to voice the workers' demands, to expose and attack every measure taken against the working class, and builds a movement outside the Knesset which leads workers and youth in the struggles to defend their interests, then this modest result has the potential to grow into a massive party which will redraw the Israeli political map, this time on class lines.

Mandy Rabin, Maavak Sozialisti

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