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Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2003 / 21 Shevat, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Clearing up some misconceptions about the upcoming Israeli election | On Jan. 28, Israelis go to the polls for the fourth time in less than seven years to elect a government. Yet unlike previous attempts to choose leaders, this election is eliciting less excitement in Israel and less angst in America.

In a normal country, that might be a sign of stability. Not so for Israel. Most experts see this malaise (to steal a phrase from Jimmy Carter) as a sign of war weariness and disillusionment with all available options to solve the conflict with the Arabs.

Nonetheless, the stakes involved are high for both Israel and its friends abroad. And the misconceptions about the issues, the candidates and the parties are not inconsiderable. While sticking to the principle that Israeli policy is up to the Israelis themselves and not interested Americans, here are a few pertinent questions and answers about the election.

  • How serious are the scandals that have hurt the Likud in the polls?

    If you think all American politicians are crooks - and I do not - there's no need for any illusions about Israeli pols since they're far worse than ours. The revelations about vote-buying in the Likud Central Committee that picked their Knesset list were disgusting. If there is a real investigation of this, then heads will roll.

    The scandal revolving around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is also distressing but not quite so egregious as it looks. It centers on illegal fundraising by Sharon's son Gilad (the one who runs the PM's "Ponderosa"-style ranch in the Negev, not Omri, the one who is running for the Knesset with his pa) in the 1999 elections. Likud can claim with some justice that initially Sharon did nothing illegal that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak didn't also do. Voters also know the leak about an investigation was politically inspired. For all the huffing and puffing, don't expect much to come of this.

  • What did all that fuss about banning various political parties and candidates mean?

    Efforts to ban parties - even anti-democratic ones that seek to destroy Israel, such as the Arab lists that were eventually allowed to run - don't help Israel's democracy, its image or its security.

    Ironically, just about the only candidate whose ban was upheld, the Likud's Moshe Feiglin, was barred from the Knesset because he led a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience against the Oslo accords in the early '90s. He was convicted, via other anti-democratic legislation, of "sedition" for his Ghandi routine. This means Arabs who support terrorism against Israel are allowed in the Knesset, but a right-wing nudnik who practiced nonviolent protest is not.

    You figure that one out, I'm stumped.

  • Did Sharon fail to make good on his 2001 election pledge to provide Israelis with peace and security?

    This is Labor's best argument against Sharon becoming the first Israeli PM to be re-elected since Menachem Begin in 1981. Clearly, Israel has neither peace nor security today. But it is also unfair.

    Sharon was wrong to promise such things when he knew he had been elevated to the top job solely because of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's decision to wage a terrorist war of attrition against Israel. Like Winston Churchill, who came to power in Britain under similar circumstances in 1940, Sharon should have offered Israelis only "blood, tears, sweat and toil" until victory was achieved. But the reason why Israelis don't have peace and security has little to do with Sharon and everything to do with Arafat.

  • Is there any real difference between Labor and Likud this time?

    Most in Labor and Likud are in the mushy middle these days, but Amram Mitzna, the Labor leader, is not. His clean-cut image and lack of involvement in previous Labor shenanigans won him their leadership, but his blind, ideological adherence to the failed logic of Oslo is dragging his party down to its worst showing in history.

    Most Israelis have realized that the answers of the left and the right have failed, and they want someone - like Sharon - who is ready to compromise if given the chance but won't make Oslo-like unilateral concessions to terrorists.

    That's why, despite the stained-glass treatment Mitzna has gotten from the press, his 15 minutes may be ending soon.

  • Is the predicted rise of an avowedly secular party - Shinui - good for Israel? Good for Israel-Diaspora relations?

    For decades, American Jews have prayed for a faction to arise in Israel to offset the power of the Orthodox religious parties. Well, it is finally here, but this is a classic case of beware of what you wish for, you just might get it. Secular resentment of the Orthodox establishment is understandable, but Shinui's hate-mongering against religious Jews would be termed anti-Semitism if this were happening anywhere else. To understand Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, think of a Jewish Pat Buchanan. Nor is Shinui much interested in recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and movements.

    As much as most Americans applaud efforts to separate religion from state in Israel, those who seek to divide the Jewish people along religious/secular lines aren't doing Israel or the Diaspora any favors.

  • Is the predicted decline of Shas good for Israel? Good for Israel-Diaspora relations?

    Yes and yes. But even with half as many Knesset members, Shas might still be in a strong position to get their share of the patronage pie, and that's all they care about.

  • What was the biggest difference between this election and other Israeli votes?

    For the first time since Washington noticed that Israelis elected their leaders, it has not tried to intervene to impose a left-wing government. This is a sign not only of principle on the part of the Bush administration but also one that Israel may be progressing past banana statehood.

  • Will the outcome make a difference in whether there is a Palestinian state in the future?

    Even if Sharon is re-elected, not really. While many rightly see a Palestinian state as a mortal danger to Israel, the truth is their state was created at Oslo and, for all intents and purposes, already exists and there is no easy way to get rid of it. What is yet to be determined is how big it will be and how great a threat it will pose to Israel. But until the Palestinians renounce terror and make progress towards some kind of democracy, they will get nothing further from Israel or the United States.

  • Will the winner have a mandate to govern?

    Don't believe the rationalizations offered by left-wingers who say Sharon won't be able to govern. Even if his next coalition is a "narrow" one, he will still be able to manage. But it is still likely that he will again have a broad unity coalition with Labor (despite Mitzna's pledge not to do so) that will put him in a strong position. As always, his greatest danger may come from within his own party in the form of Bibi Netanyahu.

  • How should American Jews regard the next coalition that will emerge to rule Israel?

    The next government of Israel will probably have to cope with the fallout (literally) of a U.S. war with Iraq, and a continued push from the United Nations and other hostile powers to force it to make concessions to the terrorist Palestinian Authority.

Whether you love Sharon or loathe him, American Jews will be obligated to respect the democratic will of Israel's people and support him in his efforts to defend Israel's interests. With a friendly White House and a Sharon who is smart enough to understand that maintaining the U.S.-Israel alliance is his priority, that shouldn't be too difficult.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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