Sectarian Politics and the Peace Process: The 1999 Israel Elections

Article excerpt

The election for Israel's fifteenth Knesset in May 1999 was one of the most tumultuous ever, resulting in a major defeat for the incumbent Prime Minister, Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu and a sweeping victory for Labor/One Israel's Ehud Barak. Balloting for the Knesset resulted in fragmentation of the party system with 15 lists elected. Despite Barak's personal victory, his Labor/One Israel party lost seats, as did Likud, the second largest party. Most surprising was the increase of seats for the ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi Shas. Its victory underscored the domination of sectarian politics in the election.

With the collapse of Israel's government in December 1998, the Knesset (Parliament) called for national elections in 1999, more than a year ahead of schedule. According to the electoral law introduced in 1992, voters would, for the second time, be permitted two choices, one for prime minister and a second for a political party or Knesset list as had been done in the 1996 elections.1

Between December 1998 and the election on 17 May 1999, the party system was transformed: 29 of the Knesset's 120 members switched to rival parties or formed new factions of their own. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud split as half a dozen of its leading members left to join new parties including the middle of the road Center and the militantly anti-Oslo, National Union. Labor's leader, Ehud Barak, not only changed the name of his party list to One Israel, but absorbed two additional factions: Gesher, led by former Likud leader David Levy and the small, liberal, Orthodox party Meimad, led by the ex-Chief Rabbi of Norway, Yehuda Amital. More than 50 parties initially registered but by May 17 only 33 remained on the ballot. Only five of these parties represented broad national, rather than narrow, sectarian interests.

THE RACE FOR PRIME MINISTER

Despite the proliferation of new party lists, attention during the campaign focused on the election for Prime Minister. In effect, it was a contest between candidates for Prime Minister rather than between parties. At one point there were five candidates, although by election eve the race had narrowed to the incumbent Netanyahu versus Barak. According to the new electoral law, a run-off election would occur if no candidate won a majority during the first round. When, on 23 January, Netanyahu peremptorily fired his Defense Minister, former Chief of Staff Yitzhak Mordechai, the ex-general left Likud to lead the new Center party, inaugurated in March, and declared his candidacy for Prime Minister. Until he withdrew two days before the election, speculation centered on whether or not there would be a second round between two of the three: Netanyahu, Barak or Mordechai. The two other remaining candidates, Benny Begin of the National Union and `Azmi Bishara, leader of the largely Arab Balad party, also withdrew shortly before the election, however they were not considered threats to either Netanyahu or Barak.

The departure from the race of Mordechai and Begin guaranteed Barak's election and underscored the extent to which Netanyahu had alienated even his own constituency. During his three years as Prime Minister, Netanyahu lost his Foreign Minister, David Levy of Gesher, Finance Minister Dan Meridor, Science Minister Benny Begin, and Defense Minister Mordechai. Mordechai, Meridor and the Likud Mayor of Tel-Aviv, Ronni Milo, formed the core group that established the new Center party; they were joined by several prominent former Labor party members. The rancor between Netanyahu and his colleagues resulted not only from disagreements over substantive issues such as implementing the Wye River Accord with the Palestinian Authority (October 1998), but also from personality clashes. The Prime Minister's arbitrary and rude manner caused deep mistrust among those closest to him, who not only left but decided to rally against him. The Jerusalem Post observed that "Netanyahu has a talent rare in a politician: an ability to alienate almost anyone with whom he has come into contact. …