The 1992 Knesset Elections Revisited:
Implications for the Future
Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler
The natural reaction to the turn-about in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians following the Oslo Document and the signing of the Declaration of Principles on September 13, 1993, as well as the subsequent movement on the Israeli-Syrian front, were breakthroughs clearly related to the transfer of power that had occurred 15 months earlier. Undoubtedly the shift in Israel's approach to the negotiations on the future of the territories and especially the direct negotiations with the PLO was enabled by the Labor victory in the election for Israel's Thirteenth Knesset, held on June 23, 1992. One question that this essay will deal with is whether the last Knesset elections supported such a major shift in Israeli foreign policy. The answer to this question is pertinent not only because of democratic values but has policy implications as well. Analysis of the elections could indicate the limits on Prime Minister Rabin's ability to proceed politically in his conciliatory policy toward the Palestinians and be compromise with regard to territories.
The term mahapach -- upset may be an inaccurate way to describe what took place on June 23, 1992, even though in the long run it could be the beginning of a new era in Israeli political life. In Knesset seats the Likud lost eight seats but the national camp (including the NRP) only declined from 52 to 49 seats. The Haredi parties lost another three seats thus reducing the national-religious coalition from 65 MKs in the twelfth Knesset to 59 in this one. The Labor, Meretz and Arab Parties' combined strength thus grew to 61 MK's providing Rabin with a bloc that enabled their coalition to rule Israel. Even if the Likud declined to the same number of seats that Labor was left with in 1977, (32 Members of Knesset -- MKs) and Labor received one mandate more than Likud had gained in the those elections,1 the results should not be surprising given the fact that Likud had been in power for a decade and a half. Most western democracies are based on political systems composed of at least two major parties contending for power where transfers of power periodically take place. What the 1992 election confirmed was that this process of normalized change of power, that is relatively new to Israel and it does have important implications for the constitutional health of the Israeli body politic, has now become an integral part of Israeli democracy.
On the face of it there was no one distinctive factor in the summer of 1992 that made Likud deserve defeat especially in light of its past record. The Likud survived the 1981 elections while inflation was high and the society was being torn apart by social unrest. In 1984 the Likud without Begin at its head was held responsible for the Lebanon fiasco and run away inflation but was saved by the religious parties and continued to rule. In November 1988, the intifada was almost a year old and in high motion, and Shamir had made no progress with King Hussein while Shimon Peres had almost finalized a framework for negotiations, but the Likud came out first in the contest and its allies in the national and religious camps fared well. Nor did Washington ever conceal its resentment of the Likud from the Israeli electorate.
In contrast, in 1992 inflation, dropping to a one digit annual rate, was at one of its lowest points in the history of the Israeli economy. Unemployment, while reaching over eleven percent was understandable in light of the mass immigration that Israel was absorbing that increased its population by ten percent. In addition, Israel was in the midst of peace negotiations with the rest of its neighbors in the wake of the Madrid conference, a process that was undertaken only after the Arabs had agreed to accept almost all of Shamir's prerequisites. Even the intifada did not seem to be as threatening as it had been four years earlier.
The distribution of power between Labor and Likud must also take into account their strength in local government. In November 1989 the Likud won for the first time in the municipal elections a power base which Labor maintained even following its 1977 defeat.2 This victory complemented a trend detected in the 1988 Knesset election when Likud improved its standings in the most established neighborhoods in the major cities that had always been Labor territory.3 The Likud reiterated its strength when in the November 2, 1993 municipal elections it succeeded despite Labor's control of the government to win in at least the same amount of municipalities like those of ruling party. Most indicative of Labor's fragile position is the lost of Jerusalem to Likud and continued control of the Tel Aviv mayoralty where in both Rabin put his weight behind Labor's candidates.
Another factor that must be taken into account in evaluating the balance of political power between the two major parties is the alliance between the national camp parties and the religious camp parties. The preferences given by the National Religious Party (NRP), Sephardi Torah Guardian List (Shas) and Agudat Israel to Likud accompanied by that of the militant nationalist parties unable to join a Labor government and thus by default must side with Likud provide the latter with an inherent advantage. It is not sufficient that Likud should be defeated but it is also necessary that both the national and the religious camps shrink, and that their combined strength be reduced below fifty percent. This process is uncommon in Israeli electoral behavior, as Israeli voters when changing their electoral choice have tended to stay within camps, or at least transfer their loyalty to allied camps. The support of the religious parties for Likud implies that a stalemate is in favor of the Likud. The solidity of this alliance had been tested and held out twice in the past; in 1984 and in 1990 Labor enjoyed a plurality and the religious parties bailed out the Likud and kept it in power. In 1992, Shas joined the Left because the latter received the support of 61 MKs.
How do we than explain the defeat of the Likud in June 1992 especially if we consider the consistent lead of Likud at the polls almost throughout its tenure in office and the low ratings of Labor that further declined in November 1991, at the opening of the Madrid Conference, to 22 parliamentary seats in the polls.4 What happened than in the winter and spring of 1992 that brought down a government that was leading in the polls? An appropriate starting point to start analyzing the Israeli transfer of power would be the campaign itself.
A major characteristic of the June 1992 campaign was that it was a very quiet election. Participation in the polls declined from a rate of 79-80 percent in the 1980s to 77 percent in these.5 It can be assumed that most of those that decided to abstain from participating in the vote were Likud supporters who while despairing from the incumbent party could not bring themselves to cross the lines. The calmness of the campaign was to a certain extent related to the insistence of the Israeli voters that the campaign be conducted without personal smearing as the Likud tried against Rabin on account of his personal weaknesses. Similarly, there were fewer complaints of election disturbances at the polls this time than ever before in Israel's history.
The quietness of the campaign could also be associated with the personality of the two leaders contesting for the premiership none of whom was an arousing or fiery personality. Essentially, unlike the relationship between Peres and Begin and later on Shamir and Peres, the two candidates -- Shamir and Rabin -- who had worked together between 1984 and 1990 and even maintained a national unity government, did not dislike each other. The lack of animosity was apparent in the low keyed televised debate that took place a week before the elections. As far as foreign policy was concerned both contesting leaders agreed that autonomy was to be negotiated with the Palestinians to be followed after three years by negotiations on the final status of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. The personalities of both Rabin and Shamir kept the campaign restrained while the personality of Peres would have aroused the campaign.
Labor campaign leaders were aware that even though the public's attitudes have become more dovish on the question of the territories, the majority was far way from supporting the positions expressed by MKs such as Yossi Bailin and Avraham Burg who supported the establishment of a Palestinian state.6 The triumph of so many dovish candidates on the Labor party list honestly reflected the mood of the membership of the Labor party, but could have caused difficulties for Labor to win the general election. Consequently, the dovish wing was concealed during the campaign. Similarly Labor also hid its association with big government and the unpopular Histadrut that was governing many failing economic enterprises as well as the collapsing Kupat Holim (the Histadrut sick fund).
The June 1992 election date provided a public relations advantage to Labor since the campaign coincided with the twenty fifth anniversary of the Six Day War victory headed by Rabin as chief of staff. The elections were moved from November to June when the Likud was leading in the polls. But the Likud leadership did not wake up even at the end of the race when the public opinion polls indicated that Labor was leading. The Likud leadership was lulled by its experience in previous elections. Having had recurrent election campaigns with polls that indicated that it was bound to loose yet nevertheless was saved in the last minute, the Likud leadership thought that its traditional voters would vote Likud when they entered the polling booth. Even in times of declining fortunes, the Likud leadership was confident that because of its allies it would be able to at least control the coalition negotiations following the June 1992 elections. It was this serenity that also contributed to their defeat in the elections.
Elections in Western democracies are designed to provide the voter with an opportunity to punish the party in power for any perceived mismanagement and corruption. The Likud suffered a major blow in the release of the State Controller's Annual Report on April 13, 1992 which contained disclosures of severe misdeeds and corruption particularly in Ariel Sharon's housing ministry. The popular feeling was one that Likud was misgoverning, that they had become unaccountable to their voters and that the honesty of those in key positions was questionable. They were constantly fighting among themselves and the system that they used for nominating their ticket looked terrible to the public, especially in comparison to Labor's primaries. The Israeli electorate behaved like voters in western democracies; it voted out the party that had been in power too long, on the grounds that it was time for a change.
Unlike in 1988 Shamir did not conceal his ideological stances that were dominated by the ideal of securing the integrity of the Land of Israel. While giving Minister of Housing Ariel Sharon a free hand in pouring in resources to the territories, Shamir was perceived to lack interest in questions of unemployment, the economy, and other existential problems of his constituents. It was ironic that the almost 50 percent of the Russian immigrants, in whose name Shamir demanded a larger state of Israel, voted for Labor. This vote was clearly a protest vote as their attitudes are known to be to the right of the center.
Many from the development towns and the underprivileged neighborhoods who had originally put Likud into power now deserted it. While Labor increased its strength from 23 to 31 percent in development towns the Likud declined by about 5 percent to 35 percent. Labor succeeded in bringing home the message that there was a contradiction between investing in the territories and the development towns. Indeed, the slogan that Rabin coined was a change in the order of national priorities indicating that a Labor government would shift the distribution of resources from settlements to development towns, by investing in the infrastructure within the so called green line. Many of the voters that Likud lost to Labor, did so not because they supported territorial withdrawal but rather because they objected to investment in the territories at what they saw as their expense. At the same time, as the analysis by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicate while loosing some of its support in the lower income and Sephardi neighborhoods in the major cities, the Likud still defeated Labor in those neighborhoods as well as in Jerusalem, and in the smaller towns where the Sephardim constitute total majorities. The decline in Sephardi vote for Likud contributed thus only marginally to the 1992 transformation.7
Likud dropped down from 40 to 32 seats, a significant drop to a level reminiscent of Likud strength in the early 1970s. Labor's 44 seats and Meretz's 12 seats represented a total gain of seven MKs to the left-center camp, in comparison to the previous elections. This camp went to the polls in a distribution that optimally suited their strength. There was no other party that could attract voters from the center to the left of the Jewish Israeli political spectrum. In addition, following standard Israeli practices the two parties had agreed to transfer surplus votes, not enough to win a seat, from one to the other to aggregate them and thus took two out of three leftover seats, unallotted by the primary distribution of the votes in the election. The vote for Meretz grew by one percent in comparison to 1988, but translated to two additional seats in the Knesset. In short, they optimized their vote while the opposite camp entered the campaign divided among competing splintered groups, with not matching surplus vote agreements.
The constitutional changes made in the Twelfth Knesset (see below) had a radical impact. One new law had raised the threshold of votes needed to enter the Knesset from 1.1 percent to 1.5 percent of the total vote. This change, coupled with the wave of new immigrants, meant that the number of votes a party needed for its first seat in the Knesset went up from 22,000 in 1988 to almost 40,000 in 1992. Consequently, many small parties did not get in. While 26 parties competed, many people hesitated to vote for the smaller ones in the end because of the higher threshold and the increased chance that their vote would be wasted, and thus only ten party lists passed the threshold. The big loser on the right was Tehiya. In the previous Knesset it had three seats in parliament and was very close to a gaining a fourth MK. This time, Tehiya did not even pass the threshold. Thirty two thousand votes for Tehiya were thus worthless. On the Left the Arab party headed by MK Maari suffered a similar fate and wasted 24,000 votes. But the splinters on the right were more harmful to the national camp than those among the Arab camp. In addition to the lost Tehiya votes, ballots cast for lists headed by two right-wing rabbis, Levinger and Mizrahi, went down the drain. Together these votes could have added two MKs to the Right, and given them the margin they needed over the Left.
Actually, the strength of the smaller parties of the right-wing, which because of the failure of Tehiya, may have given the perception of loss, had shifted around and grown. In the previous Knesset, the parties now comprising the political left -- Meretz and the Arabs -- had a total of 16 seats (10 to the parties composing Meretz, and 6 to the Arab parties); now they have 17 (12-3-2), up 1. The political right, including the National Religious Party, had 12 seats (5 to NRP, 3 to Tehiya, 2 to Tzomet and 2 to Moledet). In 1992 with the NRP fully declared for the right, they achieved 17 (6-8-3), up 5.
One of the lessons of the 1992 campaign was that parties whose factions quarreled visibly lost, the voters apparently feeling that a party that was unable to keep peace and act respectably at home was not fit to govern. Tzomet under General (Ret.) Rafael Eitan portrayed an image of a united party and helped to wipe out Tehiya, the latter being an ideological party that united voters from all three political camps around their shared perception of the integrity of the Land of Israel. Like Likud, Tehiya was rent by internal quarrels. The more extreme Moledet, on the other hand, marketed itself as party united around one leader, Rehavam Zeevi (Gandhi), who talked a hard cold language about practical questions of security instead of taking the more "mystical" line of Tehiya. Unlike Tehiya, "Gandhi" did not obscure the demographic problem but rather moved it to the top of his campaign. He said if Israel does not want to end up like Yugoslavia, a population transfer must take place. Despite much higher expectations Moledet won 3 seats.
The National Religious Party now has to be included in the political right. They crossed the line this time. Before the 1992 campaign they had publicly presented a more moderate face on general political issues because they had a major domestic political concern, namely, the preservation of their institutions and of the religious status quo in Israel. This time the party deserted that stance and moved much further to the right in their public campaign than their actual ticket reflected. The NRP's slogan -- the National Religious Party at your right hand -- said it as openly as possible.
The NRP was aware that by openly joining with the right they would loose the centrist vote that in the previous election had voted Meimad (the Hebrew acronym for a centrist religious party). They calculated that instead they would regain the lost vote that since 1981, when the party strength declined to half, went to Tehiya and Likud. Indeed this strategy did not do them a disservice in the election. After all, they went up from 5 to 6 seats at a time when other religious parties were going down. However, by taking a clear hawkish stance on the peace process they could not join the government without loosing face and they were left out of the coalition that was formed in the wake of the elections. This was not an easy sacrifice since the NRP's institutional needs require holding of the key ministries controlling religious patronage and educational resources. Even though the NRP as an established party with its own economic and ideological institutions would not be wiped out in opposition, the implications may be far reaching. Shas more than willingly assumed the role of the NRP as the guardian of religious public life in Israel. By staying out of Government the NRP confirmed its commitment to the national component at the expense of its religious component.
Changing Fortunes among the Haredim
The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties took into account the constitutional changes and unlike the right wing parties as a bloc did not loose votes as a result of the higher 1.5 percent threshold. With the formation of the United Torah Front (UTF) through the federation of Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah, the two main Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties appeared as one. The Lubavitcher Hassidim did not campaign this time for any party so they did not bring out those extra votes that the two parties had received last time. Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, who, left out of Shas, was added to the UTF list in the hope of winning Sephardic votes, proved to have little following at the polls. In the Haredi camp the lack of competition reduced the incentive of its people to turn out in the numbers they had previously. Rabbi Shach's statement regarding the backwardness of Sephardim in terms of leadership must have also induced many of the Haredi Sephardim to vote for Shas while many of them had voted in 1988 for Agudat Israel. The vote for Haredi parties among Russian immigrant was nil. All of these factors combined caused them to decline from 7 seats to 4.
The religious vote must be evaluated in terms of demography. In geographic units that were defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics as "young," meaning that over 50 percent of the population was between the ages of 18-34, the religious parties received 33 percent of the vote while the Labor bloc received there only 27 percent, and the national bloc 33.7 percent. The reverse was in units where the majority of the population was between ages 35-64 and above 65. There the Labor bloc led over the two other blocs. The UTF received 13 percent in the "young geographical units, while only 1 percent in the predominantly "older units." Since 18-34 are the most "productive" ages in terms of child bearing, this data may have far reaching implications for future patterns of voting, and Israeli society in general.8 One can assume that Haredi voters will prefer a national camp candidate for prime minister over one from the Labor camp.
In 1988 Shas picked up previously Likud voters who saw in Shas the only party that had paid attention to the development towns and the poorer urban neighborhoods over the last number of years, and whose El Hamaayan organization is bringing real benefits to them with its social service and educational programs. It was remarkable that Shas, with all its contradictions and anomalies -- with some of its major leaders under police investigation, despite its affair with Labor in the spring of 1990, abandoned by the charismatic Rabbi Peretz, and with hardly any voters among the Russian immigrants -- still maintained its 6-seat strength. Shas' strength was maintained partially by the Arab sector. Arye Deri as Minister of Interior extensively dedicated resources to bridge the gaps between services for Jews and those for Arabs, an investment that brought him votes from the Arab sector. The Arab vote for Shas rose from half a percent in 1988 to almost five percent in 1992.
The Role of the Center
A certain decline in the Likud's Sephardi vote had started in the previous election. But the deserters stayed within the national camp or went to the religious camps and did not cross the line to the Labor camp. The gains of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the last election were attributed to some protest vote in the development towns against the Likud that had been portraying itself as a centrist and a ruling party. The Likud in 1988 deliberately, as part of an overall strategy, had penetrated traditional Labor territory and increased its power significantly in the middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods in the major cities.9 The Right was compensated by gaining from the center, votes that would have otherwise gone to Labor.This time, many of these votes seemed to have swung back to Labor that portrayed the image of a centrist party.
In 1988 following the full merger of the Liberals and Herut as Likud, and four years of a national unity government with Labor the Likud was able to portray itself as a centrist party. In contrast, in 1992 after governing Israel since May 1990 with the support of three small right wing parties, the NRP and three ultra-Orthodox parties, centrist voters were deterred from another four years of a government controlled by right wing and religious parties. The fact that Labor chose to be headed by Rabin attracted the centrist vote more than Labor under Peres who headed the party in 1988.
The lack of an alternative party to absorb the centrist vote influenced those voters' turn to Labor. The lack of centrist parties was related to the bad record of such parties. The last time a centrist party did well was in 1977 when the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) gained 15 seats in Knesset. Its subsequent disintegration spoiled things for other centrist parties.10 Yitzhak Modai who deserted Likud in 1990 and later forced Shamir to appoint him to minister of finance, now ran under the banner of the New Liberal party and intended to fill that vacuum was unable to project credibility.
Meretz (an acronym that forms the Hebrew word for energy), winning 12 seats, increased its power as compared to the share each component of the party had received in 1988 by only 1 percent, absorbed some of the centrist vote. The seeds of Meretz, the federation of Mapam (the United Workers Party), Shinui (Change), and Ratz -- the Citizens Rights Movement, can be found in the local election campaigns of 1989, where the three, on a local basis, formed federated coalitions in various municipalities and did very well.11 Mapam, in the wake of worldwide tendencies, receding from its avowed socialism and essentially became a welfare state party, joined with the free marketeers of Shinui, and the Civil Rights Movement Ratz interested in environmentalist/quality-of-life issues to form Meretz. This party represented the Israeli equivalent of the kind of parties that have emerged throughout most of the West, that are made up of younger, market-oriented, environmentally-oriented, quality-of-life populists, a combination of "Greens" and "yuppies." Even though the main common denominator to the merger was foreign policy and peace, people were attracted to Meretz for its domestic policy. Meretz thus attracted centrist voters who could not bring themselves to vote for socialist Labor associated with the Histadrut. The self-image of Meretz as a centrist party on domestic politics was further advanced when in May 1994 it ran and defeated Labor in the Histadrut elections headed by MK Haim Ramon who had deserted Labor in his fight against the Socialist bureaucracy that controlled the trade union federation. Mapam joined the Ramon list despite appeals by Prime Minister Rabin.
While attracting some of the centrist-liberal vote on domestic issues Meretz enabled Labor to appear as a centrist party on foreign policy issues. The endorsement of Meretz by a list of leading Israeli authors like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua known for their support of a Palestinian state assisted Labor under Rabin to appear as a centrist and more populist party replacing its elitist image especially among Sephardi voters.
Tzomet (an acronym that forms the Hebrew word for crossroads) winning 8 seats appeared as the political right equivalent of Meretz. It is clear that Tzomet attracted many votes from Likud, supporters of a hawkish foreign policy although from a security perspective. In addition to those who voted for its policy on the territories, it attracted the voters who did not like the Meretz position on peace but who resembled them on clean government. The fact that Meretz and Tzomet together won 20 seats shows that there is a substantial bloc of voters of this particular kind. The achievements of Tzomet were especially significant considering the fact that Meretz had twelve "stars" while Tzomet had its leader, former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, and seven unknowns. Moreover, while Meretz performed above its average in the three big cities and the kibbutzim (12%), Tzomet's performance was more equally distributed. Obviously, Tzomet received hardly any support in the Arab sector, while Meretz received there over 10 percent.12
How did the center perform in the past? The role of the center in the transformation of power in Israel had been critical in 1977; it had been the desertion of the center that expressed itself in the DMC that brought down Labor and allowed the Likud to form a government with the religious parties. In 1981, a large portion of the center went back to Labor that won 47 seats. Begin's peace treaty with Egypt improved his standing with the centrist voters and he gained some of this vote to balance off the return to Labor with 48 seats. Following the Lebanon War uproar and the economic crisis they deserted the Likud in 1984 bringing it down to 41 seats. But in 1988, following four years of a national unity government a large share of the centrist vote went to the Likud. In 1992 the centrist vote shifted back to Labor.
The Israeli political center is scattered around three cross-cutting axes: issues of religion and state, economic policy, and of course the territorial issue. The issue of religion and state has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception, and to a certain extent, the compromise that was reached at the turn of the century still serves as the basis of Israeli politics. The attempts of the Zionist left to replace traditional religion have failed, and a strong Jewish identity has been identified in Israeli society. It has been confirmed that Israeli Jewishness was rooted in traditional Jewish values. While only a minority, constituting between 14 and 38 percent of Israeli Jews, preserve or try to preserve the Orthodox practices of Judaism, a clear majority aspire to preserve at least a part of traditional Jewish values and symbols. Most significant, according to this latest research, only 20 percent could be defined as totally secular or "left" on the religious-secular axis.13
The surprising ascendance of the ultra-Orthodox parties in 1988 and the association of Shamir with those parties especially since March 1990 following the break away of Labor from the government induced many in 1992 to punish Likud and vote for Meretz and Tzomet, two parties that presented themselves as anti-clerical. As the Guttman Institute poll indicated, the mainstream Israeli Jews reject both extremes-the pure secularist and the Ultra-Orthodox one. They seem to prefer a kind of non-compulsory, non-binding respect for tradition. This message is well-received among the center, center-left, and center-right. Labor was very careful not to adopt an antagonistic stance on the issue of religion and state and amended a decision to sperate politics and religion that had been brought to the floor by MK Avraham Burg and initially adopted by the party convention, but brought an outcry by its religious members caucus. Burg, the son of veteran NRP leader Yosef Burg explained that his goal was not a secular Israel but rather to protect religion from politics. The centrist position of Labor on religion and state helped the party among religious voters who were looking for an alternative to the NRP which had moved far to the right on foreign policy.
Turning to socio-economic issues recent research confirms that among both the leadership and the general public, the ideological differences that had once characterized Israeli society in economic affairs were much reduced. There is very little difference between the two major parties or any of the others these days on economic matters. To a certain extent, because of its populist support the Likud's record on social legislation was closer to that of left than that of Labor. They are all in favor of the principle of a free market, but none of them want high unemployment.14
The socio-economic issue has been bound up in an intergenerational struggle. Above a certain age, the old-timers in the Labor camp think first of preserving Labor institutions, while many of the younger ones, some noted doves and some not, see the salvation of Labor in jettisoning those connections. Some are fiscally conservative, environmental and quality-of-life-oriented, and they pushed for change. Under their pressure, in a clear attempt to attract centrist voters the red flag that had always been present at their conventions was removed at the fifth congress of Labor on November 11, 1992. The red color disappeared from Labor's propaganda material and was replaced by heavy emphasis on blue and white, the colors of the national flag colors traditionally used by the national camp. This split ultimately resulted in the break away of Haim Ramon and his struggle against Haim Haberfeld in the primaries and later on in the elections in the Histadrut.
The division between left and right was salient on the territorial issue. But even here, Israeli researchers found a certain regrouping among the public around autonomy, or other power-sharing federal solutions.15 While in January 1986 47.1 percent preferred the status quo to giving up the territories, around five percent did so in 1990 and 1991. This decline in support for the status quo was related to the intifada that broke out in December 198716. The endorsement of autonomy by the Likud and its inclusion in the Camp David Accords legitimized it among the moderate elements of both the right and the left wings of Israeli society. Autonomy insured both Israeli control of the strategic region of the West Bank and Jewish historical rights in Judea and Samaria. However, the Camp David Accords specified, and the Madrid conference reassured that autonomy was only an interim arrangement.
Labor did much that was right to attract the centrist vote. Its primaries indicated the opening and democratization of the party. Labor's selection of Rabin was critical for winning this sector. They renamed the party "the Labor Party Headed by Rabin". Rabin made it clear that he supported the Camp David autonomy plan as an interim agreement, and that there was no chance of Israel abandoning the West Bank during his first term in office. Since the negotiations of the final status of the West Bank were to start only three years after the institution of autonomy, and the target date for completion of elections in the West Bank were nine months after Rabin entering office, there was no threat of Israeli withdrawal and establishment of a Palestinian state during the tenure of the next government. The whole notion of a territorial compromise in Judea and Samaria was dropped from Labor's campaign. Rabin who stressed his credibility and his "strong fist" policy when serving as minister of defense under Shamir was able to attract the centrist security oriented vote that Labor under Peres would have been unable to do. Rabin also came out and committed himself to a state public health system. Having been an outsider to Labor's apparatus such statement were accepted as genuine.
Rabin also surrounded himself with outsiders and centrist figures. An example of an ideal candidate to attract both centrist and Sephardi voters was Gen. (Ret.) MK Binyamin Ben Eliezer (nicknamed Fuad) who had entered politics after having served as the military governor of the West Bank by joining the Sephardi and traditional party Tami in 1981. In the 1992 campaign he was nominated to the post of chief of the Labor party's information staff, a position once occupied by leftist Yossi Sarid when he was still in Labor. The ideological purist that had been placed on the ticket as a result of the primaries, diminished their participation in the campaign and concealed by figures like Gen. (Res.) Avigdor Kahalani, a 1973 war hero and other security oriented candidates.
In short, the Rabin candidacy allowed Labor to portray itself as a centrist party, an image that Likud had radiated in 1988, when Labor had been led by Peres. The abandonment of that image in 1992, and the appearance of Meretz as the party that assembled all the forces of the left under one umbrella, also assisted Labor's desired image as a centrist party. Tzomet who reflected an image of a right wing party, but a security oriented not mystical or a nationalist one like the other right wing parties, attracted votes from the center-right and thus weakened the Likud even further. The centrist-right strategy of the Likud that served it so well in 1988 thus collapsed in 1992. One can assume that in the future, should Likud adopt a more centrist leader and image, these voters could easily swing back.
The Role of the Arab Vote
The Arab vote gave Rabin and the Labor-left camp their winning margin over the right. In addition to at least two Knesset seats that Labor and Meretz received from Arab localities, the five MKs of the two Arab parties, the Communist and the Arab Democratic Party, provided the edge that the left-center needed to ensure its rule. These five MKs brought Labor and Meretz to 61 mandates and thus closed the way for a national-religious coalition government. They provided flexibility to Rabin to maneuver without the fear of being outflanked by an opposing coalition. Most significant was their vote (53 percent of the vote in Arab localities) for the mainstream Zionist parties, where their votes have more influence. By making a difference in the number of seats Labor and Meretz received they had more impact than they would if they gained more Arab seats, since even Labor would hesitate to count on Arab parties in determining the governing coalition because of the mores of Israeli politics. In this election, they demonstrated that the Arab vote must be taken into account in Israeli politics, and its influence may even grow in the future.
The Arab vote constituted a much larger share (over 9 percent) of the total vote than the Jewish vote in the settlements (2 percent) that almost totally went to the national or religious camps. But beyond that, the Arabs' divisive tendencies continued and they wasted many of their votes in the fight between the Darawshe and Miari factions. One may assume that in direct elections to the Prime Ministership the Arab vote could become even more important. The Likud and the religious parties have started to absorb this new reality, which accounts for one of the main reasons why Shamir opposed electoral reform in the first place. While the NRP and Shas received close to 9 percent of their total vote in Arab townships 8.5 percent of the vote in these localities went to the Likud.17
The Impact of Constitutional Reform
In addition to the impact of raising the threshold percentage the Right also suffered from a forthcoming constitutional reform that was not yet applied constitutionally but was felt in the elections to the 13th Knesset. Labor sensed rightly the mood of the public in the wake of the 1990 March-May government crisis that was alienated by the political blackmail that was made possible by the combination of a parliamentary and an extreme proportional electoral system.18 The public supported reform favoring direct election of the prime minister. While many in Likud understood the public's desire for change, Shamir on February 10, 1992 succeeded in convincing his party to vote against the reform and it was sent back to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Shamir calculated that the current coalition system of governance provided his camp with an advantage since it enjoyed a built in majority through its alliance with the religious camp. In contrast a direct vote for the PM rendered an advantage to Labor as it would legitimize the Arab voters thus endangering the Likud's advantage.
Ultimately, sensing the public's mood the Direct Elections law was passed with Likud's support but only to be applied in the elections to the 14th Knesset. Labor decided to benefit from the public's desire to see this change enacted and adopted an electoral strategy as if the direct elections system was already in effect. Selecting its candidate for Prime Minister through primaries and then appearing on the ballot as "The Labor Party Headed by Rabin," even though constitutional change itself is only due to be implemented statewide after the next elections, provided a flavor of direct elections and reminded the electorate who was in support and who opposed reform.
The impact of this campaign strategy on the results was so clear to Rabin that he interpreted his victory in a personal manner and his first statement upon being elected was to declare that he was going to act as if he were directly elected as prime minister. He declared that he alone would choose his cabinet ministers, and he would take charge and make the policy. Rabin was unable to make that promise stick. He had to divide governmental power not always according to his liking. Rabin also tried repeatedly to bring in Tzomet, and thus reduce his dependence on Meretz, and was blocked by Meretz and his left wing. Despite his long feud with Shimon Peres the latter was nominated to foreign minister and he appointed Yossi Beilin whom Rabin also despised as deputy minster of foreign affairs. Haim Ramon, a known opponent of the Histadrut was chosen to be minister of health in order to try and reform the linkage between the federation of trade unions and the largest Israeli Sick Fund -- Kupat Holim. Rabin's aim to devise an efficient and non political public health system was obstructed by the Histadrut Secretary-general Haim Haberfeld and he gave in. Coalition politics was also exhibited when Meretz leader and secularist Shulamit Aloni was nominated as minister of education and thus destabilized the government for almost a year. When finally forced to resign her post by Deri, the portfolio was kept in the hands of Meretz.19
In calculating the impact of constitutional reform Likud's response to the direct election campaign of Labor and campaign must also be taken into account. While Likud displayed its talented and attractive new generation of leaders, the electorate ready for the forthcoming reform was more influenced by the head of the ticket rather than the list. Nor was the Likud able to hide its internal leadership fights among Minister of Defense Moshe Arens, Minister of Housing Ariel Sharon, and Foreign Minister David Levi. On February 20th, a day after the victory of Rabin over Peres in the Labor primaries Shamir defeated Levi and Sharon in the Likud's Center, a party organ of delegates instead of Labor membership vote. A year after the Labor reform, learning the lesson of the 1992 elections and preparing for the next direct election, the Likud adopted a system of primaries and elected Binyamin Netanyahu as its leader.
Most devastating to the Likud was that its nominating system reawakened an internal Sephardi issue that surfaced and now received national proportions. David Levi who was defeated by Shamir in the race for number one of the ticket, a week later on February 27, ended up as number Nineteen in the preference race of the party team. In the actual distribution of places on the party list that was selected three days later, Levi was located fourth after Shamir, Arens and Sharon, and his supporters ended up at the bottom the of list. Levi claimed that he was the victim of a plot between the Shamir and Sharon factions inspired by anti-Sephardi feelings. The Likud was being torn apart by Levi's accusations and threats reaching to a point where he rendered his resignation from the foreign ministry. Even though he retrieved his resignation after gaining concessions from Shamir the damage was done, and the Likud's image as the champion of the Sephardim was tainted. Most damaging was the comparison to the clean and well organized primaries that took place on March 31, among Labor membership.
The Israeli electorate in June 1992 was split around the middle with a small advantage (7,000 votes) to the parties identified with the national and religious camp. The advantage of the Labor-Meretz camp was the result of the higher casualties of the right from the 1.5 percent threshold than the left which could have been prevented before the elections. While the Israeli public seemed to be alienated with Likud after fifteen years of Likud rule, a natural phenomenon in Western democracies, it would be difficult to call it a decisive shift of the electorate. A better Likud campaign, a different configuration on the right, accompanied by disappointment by the center from the left or the appearance of a genuine centrist party would produce different results in the next elections.
These are expected to be the last elections held under the old electoral system that was hardly changed for over four decades. In the elections to the 14th Knesset the prime minister will be elected directly by the voters, and will have to receive 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first or second round. Obviously this consideration will have a major impact on the polls. The fact of the matter is this consideration already influenced the June 1992 elections, and if so undoubtedly in favor of Labor. Thus to perceive the elections to the 13th Knesset as a turn about in the Israeli polity would be premature. The identification of Rabin with the right wing of his party while Labor essentially adopted Begin's autonomy plan, and dropped territorial compromise from its campaign also reduced the sharpness of the electoral decision. The role of the Russian immigrants who contributed three seats to Labor, and the Arab vote for the left-Labor bloc also dilutes the implications of the June 1992 electoral decision, since both may be one time phenomena.
A political transformation, though, did take place. For the first time in fifteen years the Likud returned to the opposition, while the NRP did so for an extended time, the first time in its history. A Labor government supported by the left was ruling Israel for the first time in a decade and a half. A shift of six MKs (five percent) is significant in Israel. The collapse of Tehiya, the quadrupling of Tzomet and the victory of Netanyahu in Likud may signal the emergence of a new right on the scene. The David Levi affair in the midst of the election campaign as well as the inclusion of Shas in the government may generate a new relationship between Sephardim and the Ashkenazi left and between religious and secular Israelis. The estrangement between Rabbi Eliezer Shach and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef may signal new attitudes among Haredi Jewry and a new direction for religious Sephardi Jewry. Could Shas replace the NRP in reconciling the tension between state and religion, and provide a new direction for the religious camp in foreign policy. The decisive role of the Arab voters in the transformation of power may prepare them for a new role in Israeli politics, one that they had not enjoyed during the previous era of Labor rule. Moreover, opposition in a parliamentary system like Israel may be very frustrating, while government provides chances of consolidating power beyond the limited term of the cabinet. Being out of power can be particularly hard on a party like Likud that unlike Labor is not an institutional party. Thus while the polls did not indicate a major earthquake in terms of public opinion and electoral choice, the political results may produce opportunities for a Mahapach in the future. While not a turn about, these may prove to be very significant elections in the political history of Israel.
One lesson that was confirmed by this campaign was the role of the Israeli political center. Lacking its own political party the 1992 elections outcome like those of previous elections could not be explained without the center's voting behavior. Its possible defection to a moderate right or left will be influenced by the performance of the Rabin government. The ability of the center to join each of the two camps has put constrains on both major parties in the past and will continue to do so in the future and restricted them from moving too far to any of the two directions on the question of the territories, the peace process, and foreign policy in general.
1. The Financial Times, June 25, 1992 summarized the reaction to the Israeli elections in terms like 'revolution,' 'earthquake.' Ehud Sprinzak was quoted as saying "these were the most significant elections since 1977," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 1992. For an analysis of the 1977 Mahapach see Howard Penniman, ed., Israel at the Polls: The Knesset Elections of 1977, (Washington D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1979).
2. Chaim Kalchheim and Shimon Rosevitch, "The 1989 Local Elections," in Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler Who is the Boss in Israel, Israel at the Polls 1988-1989 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992) pp. 231-250.
3. For analysis of this phenomenon see Giora Goldberg, "The Likud: Moving Toward the Center," In Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler, eds., Who is the Boss in Israel, Israel at the Polls, 1988-1989, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992).
4. For an account of Shamir's popularity soaring after the opening of the Madrid Conference see the summary of the campaign in the Jerusalem paper Kol Ha'ir, June 19, 1992, and the Washington Post, June 24, 1992.
5. Central Bureau of Statistics, Ministry of the Interior, Malam Systems, Special Series, no. 925, Results of Elections to the Thirteenth Knesset, (Jerusalem, 1992), p. 30.
6. G. Goldberg, G. Barzilai and E. Inbar, "The Impact of Intercommunal Conflict: The Intifada and Israeli Public Opinion," Policy Studies, no. 43 (Jerusalem: The Leonard Davies Institute, 1991): especially 32 and 58-60; and Asher Arian, "Israel and the Peace Process: Security, and Political Attitudes in 1993," JCSS Memorandum, (January, 1993) pp. 8-10.
7. Results of Elections to the 13th Knesset, p. 31.
8. Central Bureau of Statistics, Results of Elections to the 13th Knesset, p. 32.
9. See footnote #2.
10. On the DMC experience see Nachman Orieli and Amnon Barzilai, The Rise and Fall of the DMC, (Tel-Aviv: Reshafim, 1982). A previous attempt to build a centrist party was that of Rafi led by Ben-Gurion in the 1965 elections, and it also disintegrated and merged in the Labor Alignment in 1968. For the story of Rafi see Nathan Yanai, Split at the Top, (Tel-Aviv: Lewin-Epstein, 1969). Both books are in Hebrew. Other centrist parties have not done well in recent Israeli elections as the experience of Telem under Moshe Dayan (two MKs in 1981) and Yahad under Ezer Weizman (three MKs in 1984) have indicated.
11. See Daniel J. Elazar and Chaim Kalchheim, "The 1989 Israeli Local Elections: What Happened?" Jerusalem Viewpoints, no. 87, (May 1989).
12. Results of Elections to the 13th Knesset, pp. 30-31.
13. Shlomit Levi, Hanna Levinson, and Elihu Katz, Beliefs, Observances and Social Interaction among Israeli Jews (Jerusalem: Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, 1993), p. 12, Table 1.
14. See Asher Arian and Michal Shamir, "The Primarily Political Functions of the Left-Right Continuum," Comparative Politics, (January, 1983): 368-77.
15. Gad Barzilai, Giora Goldberg, and Efraim Inbar, "Attitudes of the Israeli Leadership and Public Attitudes Toward Federal Solutions for the Arab Israeli Conflict Before and After Desert Storm," Publius, vol. 21 (Summer, 1991): 191-209.
16. Goldberg, Barzilai, and Inbar, "The Impact of Intercommunal Conflict,": 32, and 58-60.
17. All the data in this section of the Arab vote is taken from Results of Elections to the 13th Knesset, p. 34.
18. For a summary of the March-May 1990 crisis and the electoral reform see Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler, "Who is the Boss Today? Coalition Government in Israel and the Need for Electoral Reform," in Who's the Boss in Israel?, pp. 277-302. See also the Epilogue in the same book.
19. For the coalition agreement between Meretz and Labor see Ha'aretz, July 10, 1992.