The Elections in Israel 1996

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The Elections in Israel 1996

Elections in Israel, as in other democratic countries, are normally determined by a complex blend of factors. This point is illustrated in elaborate detail in The Elections in Israel 1996. The editors are doyens of political analysis in Israel, having individually or collaboratively studied the results of the country's elections since the late 1960s.

The current publication is divided into two parts. Part One, entitled "Politics of Identity," examines the impact on the 1996 Israeli elections of such issues as collective identity, religion, and "old" versus "new" politics, as well as the voting behavior of the Israeli Arab and Russian immigrant communities. Part Two, entitled "Political Reform, Parties, Candidates," focuses on the reform of Israel's electoral system, the use by major political parties of U.S.-style primaries for selecting their electoral lists, the Likud party's campaign strategy, the electoral performance of Shimon Peres, and media coverage of the 1996 election.

The common thread linking many of these topics is the reform in Israel's electoral system. On March 18, 1992, the Knesset adopted an amended version of the Basic Law: the Government (1968), providing for the direct election of the prime minister, to occur simultaneously with the election of the Knesset. (Heretofore the Prime Minister normally was the leader of the largest Knesset faction, who was invited by the President to form a government.) Although the amended law was passed prior to the election of the 13(th) Knesset (in June 1992), it did not take effect until the election of the 14th Knesset on May 29, 1996.

The first direct election of Israel's Prime Minister was determined by less than 1% of the popular vote (50.4% went to Benjamin Netanyahu, 49.5% to Shimon Peres). However, among Jewish voters there was an 11% differential in Netanyahu's favor. This differential was explained by two factors. First, the Hamas terror campaign of late February -- early March 1996 caused elements of the "fluid center" of the Jewish electorate to shift away from the "peace candidate" Peres and toward the conservative Netanyahu. Of course, no one could have predicted the Hamas terror spree, the goal of which was to inflict maximum death and destruction among Israelis rather than affect the outcome of the country's election. Nevertheless, Netanyahu's political handlers, headed by the American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein, are to be credited with seizing the political moment by launching an advertising campaign that tweaked longstanding popular uncertainty about Peres's credibility on security matters. Moreover, credit Netanyahu's team with the strategic decision to temper their candidate's well-publicized opposition to the Oslo peace accords in favor of his pledge to deliver "peace with security," thereby tapping into the Jewish electorate's overwhelming desire for a continuation of the peace process but with greater attention to matters of personal security than had seemingly been the case under Peres.

The breakdown of the Jewish vote was also explained by the attitude toward the prime ministerial candidates adopted by Israel's major Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties. The leaders of these parties were uniformly opposed to the candidacy of Shimon Peres because of his perceived association with the "anti-Jewish" agenda promoted by the secularist Meretz party (Labor's 1992-1996 coalition partner) as well as Peres's declared readiness to cede additional parts of Eretz Israel. However, taking nothing for granted, Netanyahu struck generous pre-election deals with the religious parties in order to ensure their support for him in the balloting for Prime Minister; the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Jewry party reciprocated by plastering the country with posters declaring "Netanyahu is good for the Jews."

The religious community's solid turnout for Netanyahu was made all the more significant by the voting behavior of two additional voting blocs: the Russian immigrant community and Israeli Arabs. …