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Jewish World Review May 20, 1999 /5 Sivan, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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Israel's big switch: new era or just a mood swing?

(JWR) ---- (
THE FOCUS OF HEADLINES the morning after the Israeli elections was on Benjamin Netanyahu's defeat ("Netanyahu ousted in vote'') rather than the news, which was Ehud Barak's sweeping personal victory. The question only time can answer is whether the Israeli general's big win represents a watershed in Israeli politics or just another swing of the pendulum and of a fickle electorate. Will he be able to govern as well as he campaigned?

History is full of precedents, but which one applies the morning after this election? Old-timers will recall the unimaginable but suddenly real victory of Menachem Begin's party in 1977. For it had spent all the decades since Israel's founding as the opposition -- a permanent opposition, almost everyone had assumed. Suddenly his Likud Party was in power, and it turned out to be not a fluke, but a whole new era. And that era brought Israel the first peace treaties with Arab countries and revolutionary growth in its economy. Is another promising era now to begin with Ehud Barak?

The instant analysts seem to be taking their cues from the most soundproof of Mideast listening posts -- Washington. The turnaround in Israel is supposed to represent a great change in Israel's negotiating position with the Palestinian state now in the making, but Ehud Barak's whole campaign emphasized that he would take no chances with Israel's security.

Despite all the campaign rhetoric, it was hard to discern any great difference between the formal stances of General Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu when it came to shaping the peace that must come to the Mideast. As Israel's most decorated soldier and later its minister of interior, Ehud Barak has spent decades fighting terrorism; his deep distrust of Yasser Arafat's intentions is long and well founded. If Chairman Arafat thought Benjamin Netanyahu was tough, wait till he has to deal with Ehud Barak -- a commando who started out on one secret operation in drag, and ended it by wiping out a number of Yasser Arafat's lieutenants.

But informally, the cautious, uncharismatic general has somehow managed to convey a whole new, hopeful spirit -- not just about peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, but peace among its always feuding factions. Any statesman who can bring together Israel's religious and secular Jews, its Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, its old European elite and increasingly dominant Sephardic voters from the Arab countries, its Circassians and Druze and Bedouin ... should find making peace with the Arabs a cinch.

Like Americans, Israeli voters seem to have been waiting not for a Godot, but an Eisenhower who can bring them all together. And the sheer extent of Ehud Barak's victory has begun to do just that. The Israelis can hope they've found another Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated leader who was both tough general and wary peacemaker.

Benjamin Netanyahu had a devious tendency to wring everything out of peace negotiations except peace. He had a way of irritating not only the other side, but his own. The result was that his diplomacy clouded both Israel's prospects and his own reputation. Menachem Begin had the same problem.

The air is clearer now with a new prime minister who, like Dwight Eisenhower, has promised to bring peace but hasn't said just how. Ike managed it in Korea, and Israelis are hoping their new leader can do the same in Lebanon. A final settlement with the nascent Arab state of Palestine also will need a lot of finessing, especially when the negotiators get around to the future of Jerusalem.

The higher the expectations raised by new leaders, the greater the bitterness should they fail. But if anyone can pull it off, maybe it is this Israeli general. From Dayan to Rabin, Israeli generals have proved adept at both war and peace, maybe because they need not prove anything to the Israeli public. And so they can seek peace through strength, which wouldn't be a bad policy for this country, either.

One suspects that bread-and-butter issues had more to do with the outcome of Israel's election than issues of war-and-peace. Americans have pocketbook elections, too. When the voter is out of a job, he tends to ask why the politicians shouldn't be, too. And when an economy that has been roaring begins to rev down, the Ins and Outs tend to change places in a free country.

The big winner in this election was change. Weary of present trends at home and abroad and on the West Bank, which is somehow both to Israelis, Israelis turned to a general who's out of the past in hopes he would bring a brighter future. Ehud Barak is not only a multitalented soldier, but a kibbutznik. He springs from the seedbed of Israeli idealism, the collective settlements that have produced fighters and leaders out of all proportion to their numbers, including the late Yitzhak Rabin.

It wasn't just Benjamin Netanyahu who lost this election, but things as they drearily were -- the tricky compromises, the promises never quite kept, the old coalition-building politics. And so Israeli voters, unlike Americans in our last presidential election, voted for character. It does have a certain appeal, and even a way of working. Maybe that's why hope is in the air as Israel's next leader sets about building his own coalition. Maybe this time, Israel will get not just a coalition, but a consensus.


05/18/99: Free our kids: revive the land of opportunity
05/13/99: This war will end --- or spread
05/11/99: South Sider comes through
05/07/99: There is no substitute for victory
05/05/99: A Tale of two colonels
05/03/99: It's the culture, stupid
04/30/99: Bumpers' 'B.S.'
04/27/99: An American tragedy: the fall of Kenneth Starr
04/23/99: Presidents and the press
04/14/99: A revealing moment
04/14/99: War Day by day
04/12/99: Just a few questions
04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate