Against All the Odds: Peres Bows Out

By Album, Andrew | The Middle East, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Against All the Odds: Peres Bows Out


Album, Andrew, The Middle East


Against the pollsters predictions, Shimon Peres was ousted as Israel's Prime Minister by the country's voters. Andrew Album surveys the wreckage.

On election night, by the time most voters were ready for bed, early results indicated that Israel's new Prime Minister would be Shimon Peres. The morning news greeted the country with a different story, the shock announcement that the right-wing Likud Party had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and was set to form the next government.

While Likud rejoiced many Israelis despaired. Bibi Netanyahu's election success revived many painful memories of an earlier surpise Likud victory, when in 1977, under Menachem Begin, Likud wrenched power from Shimon Peres and removed Labour from the predominant position it had held in the country since 1948.

Begin went on to secure a second term in office, a period which saw Israel plunge into its ill-fated invasion of Lebanon, the eruption of the Palestinian Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, the virtual collapse of the country's economy, the freezing of the peace process with Egypt, a massive increase in the construction of new Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and the demonisation of Israel in the eyes of the world, turning it into a virtual pariah state.

On May 29 1996, having gone to bed thinking he was to be Israel's next Prime Minister, Shimon Peres awoke the following morning to discover the nightmare had repeated itself. Against all predictions he had once again had an election victory snatched from his grasp, with the Likud leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu having secured victory.

Israel had rejected the memory of slain leader Yitzhak Rabin, the peace process with the Palestinians and Peres' vision of a new Middle East, in exchange for Bibi's politics of fear.

So why did Peres lose an election that even he, a four-times failure at the ballot box, seemed incapable of botching up?

Supposedly the consummate politician, an "inveterate schemer" according to Yitzhak Rabin, Peres proved to be both complacent and incompetent this time around. Believing the election to be in the bag, Labour sat back and let the Likud walk in and snatch away the Prime Ministership from under Peres' nose. Labour's campaign was lacklustre and poorly organised, bedevilled by infighting between oversized egos. Peres attempted to stay above the fray and ended up appearing out of touch - "like an elderly Communist dictator" - according to one commentator.

Campaign adverts failed to rebut Likud claims or expose the inconsistencies in Bibi's platform, such as his spurious assertion that he could make peace with Syria without ceding control of one inch of territory on the Golan. And, not least, the party ignored Yitzhak Rabin and his tragic assassination, which represented their most potent weapon.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, displayed the skills and finesse of a master political tactician. First, he united the right, coaxing two arch rivals - David Levy and Raful Eitan - to withdraw from the direct vote for prime minister, thereby giving Bibi a clear shot at Peres. Secondly, realising that most Israelis accept the current agreements with the Palestinians as a sound basis for peace, he announced that he would not revoke them if elected.

Then he ran a sharp, focused campaign, outperforming Peres in a televised debate just days before the poll during which he hammered home repeatedly the message that he, and he alone, could deliver the elusive goal of peace with security, thereby alleviating the fear felt by all Israelis.

The foundations for Peres' defeat were laid by the series of tragic suicide bombings which Hamas directed at the heart of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv early this year. A whole swathe of voters who had switched to Labour to express their abhorrence of Rabin's murder and at what many saw as the Likud's virtual complicity in it, were allowed to let go of Rabin and their attachment to his memory.

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