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

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Econophone

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

(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com)
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.

Up

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2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
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2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
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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
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12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
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7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
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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