Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Constitution, Government and Politics

The Battle over Jewishness and Zionism
in a Post-Modern Era

Israel at the Polls 1996, Introduction

Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler

On the 11th of Sivan, 5756, May 29, 1996, Israelis went to the polls for the fourteenth Knesset elections since 1949 and the first direct election of the head of government. Under the new system the voters cast two ballots, one slip indicating their choice of party for the Knesset and one slip indicating their choice of person for prime minister. By the next day it was clear that Labor had been defeated in both votes.

The Likud candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, won the prime ministership and the Labor-Meretz camp lost almost a quarter of its delegation in the Knesset (13 seats). All in all, the Left together with the Arab parties, declined by fifteen percent. While the gap in the vote for Prime Minister was much narrower, it was even more insulting, especially to Shimon Peres. As Dan Margalit, one of Israel's most respected columnists, expounded it: "Shimon Peres, fell at the polls while guarding his political legacy. The giant of Oslo was defeated because he was lacked thirty thousands votes, but he failed because he should have gained an advantage of half a million ballots."1 Indeed, the victory of a relative novice in Israeli politics, of the unprecedented young age of 47, over political master and the most experienced leader in Israeli politics, in a system that has always given its support to veteran politicians for Prime Minister, raises the most interesting question of the 1996 Israeli elections.

In our introduction to Israel at the Polls, 1992 we questioned the common wisdom expressed at the time, especially by the media, which interpreted the Yitzhak Rabin victory as a "turn-about" (Mahapach) in Israeli politics. Our conclusion was that "What the 1992 election confirmed was that this process of normalized change of power, that is relatively new to Israel and [has] important implications for the constitutional health of the Israeli body politic, has now become an integral part of Israeli democracy."2 The defeat of Labor in 1996, while continuing this pattern, however, deserves a more probing analysis which should be undertaken, especially by the Labor elite. A defeat following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin which caused almost the whole country to rally around the Labor camp, the initiation and advancement of the Oslo peace process for which almost all the polls indicated broad support, and an apparently booming economy, calls for a profound examination as reflecting deeper dissatisfaction than most electoral transfers of power.

When he entered the prime minister's office half a year prior to the elections Shimon Peres enjoyed an unprecedented level of public support. An impressive convergence of forces supported him also on the eve of the elections. It included almost the entire Israeli written and electronic media, the lions share of the Israeli business community, and the President of the United States, Bill Clinton. The President, perceived as one of the best friends Israel has ever had in the White House, came out with what could be considered an almost open endorsement of Peres three days before the elections. [On the impact of external forces on the elections see Barry Rubins article below.] Neither the timing alone or factors like Hamas bombings explain the results. The latter had stopped by the end of February 1996 after a tough crackdown by the Peres government and pressure on Arafat that seemed to work.

True, the elections took place half a year ahead of the scheduled time, which was to be November 1996, but the date was chosen by Peres himself in consultation with his advisers, at a time when he had a decisive lead.

Nor could anybody blame incitement as a factor that worked in favor of the right. The 1996 campaign and elections were among the quietest in Israel's electoral history. Half a year after the assassination of a Prime Minister every party was afraid of being accused of arousing political violence and consequently of being punished at the polls. So how do we explain both the defeat of Shimon Peres and the fall of the Labor-Meretz camp from almost half of the Knesset in 1992 to just above a third four years later? Were the 1996 polls a vote against the peace process, an expression of disapproval of Peres the man or were the results related to deeper factors?

In answering these questions we must recognize two opposing trends that were noticeable over the last several elections. On the one hand the Israeli polity has been moving toward postmodern Western politics and thus has been abandoning some of the unique features it had developed during the Yishuv era such as the emphasis on ideology reflected in a consociational political regime.3 At the same time, it has kept some of those characteristics, but above all its dedication to maintaining the Jewish nature of the state. By demonstrating a desire for prosperity and innovation while attempting to preserve identity and tradition Israel is not unique among Western democracies. Those parties and candidates that apparently did not understand these realities were on the losing side of the 1996 polls.4

The Primaries and the Continued
"Americanization" of Israeli Elections

Israel continued its shift from European to American-style politics this year with the introduction of the direct election of the prime minister. For the first time, the Israeli voted directly for the head of the government. In addition, all the major parties adopted and implemented some system of primary elections to select their candidates for the Knesset. The Americanization, was expressed by the mere fact of adopting the American term; although there is a Hebrew term for primaries, "bichirot mukdamot," the term that is universally used is "primaries." The two main parties' leaders, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu, had been chosen beforehand. Netanyahu was elected in March 1993 following the defeat of the Likud in the summer of 1992, while Peres was elected to carry the party's banner following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Since the primaries are "private" to each party choosing to hold them and are not required by law, each party may schedule its primaries as it pleases. The primaries of 1996 were concentrated in a single week, between March 24 and 28. The Labor and Likud primaries were held back-to-back on March 25 and 26, with Meretz holding its the day before. Thus, while the format of each party's primaries was different, there was a kind of "American" atmosphere for the country as a whole with two successive days of action, hoopla, and maximum coverage by the mass media. Indeed, the event was shaped by the mass media who built it up into an American-style show with all the hoopla involved.

The parties, of course, realizing that the media wanted a show, did their utmost to attract media attention and therefore encouraged full exploitation of the event, including pre-primary meetings, with 12,000 balloons let loose (Likud), grand entrances by the party heads at exactly the right TV prime-time moment (both), and exit polls to give the listening audience a preview of the results (which failed miserably, principally because of the deals between interest groups and candidates.) The results, should have reminded professionals of the 1948 polling debacle at the time of the Truman election, and hence serve as a prelude to the May poll of 1996, where the pollsters predicted a Peres victory.

Even though there is no state law requiring primaries and the fact and the form of the primaries was a matter for each party to decide on its own, once one major party went in that direction, the other could hardly avoid doing the same in a populist age. Labor chose its candidates through primaries in 1992 and Likud did not but had a complicated arrangement involving the Likud Central Committee. That arrangement, which in itself was not unfair, created a lot of bad blood within the party when the Shamir majority faction pushed David Levy's faction out of the first rank, and led to aggressive media and public attacks on its "undemocratic" character. The Likud got the hint and this time tried to produce an even more up-to-date primary system than Labor, that principally took the form of using computers rather than hand ballots for the actual voting, recording, and counting of the vote.

In the past, the parties had earmarked safe seats for special constituencies: in Labor, the kibbutzim, the moshavim, the Histadrut, the Arabs and Druse, and more recently women; in the Likud, for the various components of the party (e.g., Herut, Liberals, La'am), the factions within it (e.g., the Levy bloc, the Sharon bloc), and for a Druse.

The idea behind the primaries was, in part, to end this allocation of safe seats to special interests, but in practice it has not worked that way. After eliminating the old special interests, both parties had ended up introducing the reservation of seats for new ones or sometimes the old ones in new guise. For example, Arabs and Druse have lost their preferential treatment (although Labor actually nominated four, including a very dynamic Christian Arab woman from Jaffa), but safe seats have been reserved for women in both parties. Hence, seats are no longer "reserved" for kibbutzim in Labor, the party has formed a separate "district" for Labor kibbutzim similar to the territorial districts.

Where matters did not work as planned, the party leadership intervened after the vote. Thus while Labor hoped to have an oleh from the Former Soviet Union on the ticket as the "representative" of the olim from the FSU, the person elected for the seat reserved for new olim was the leader of the Ethiopian political community. Labor was thrown into confusion. While happy to accept the Ethiopian nominee, they realized that this was a real problem for them in appending to the 600,000 olim from the FSU. At an emergency meeting of a special committee appointed for the occasion of the most senior party leaders the following week, it was decided that there would be a special primary election at the Labor party convention in which the 17,000 party members who qualified as new olim from the FSU would be allowed to vote to choose a nominee who would then be placed on the list, one position ahead of the Ethiopian victor.

The Likud has had an even more difficult problem. Coached by his rival, Ariel Sharon, one of the sharpest strategic minds in Israel, who tutored him that the national camp has no chance of winning without forming a "coalition of minorities" (see below), Netanyahu understood that his only chance of winning the elections was by forming a united front in the national camp for the prime ministerial elections. The rules of the new direct elections and the realities of Israeli politics obliged him to make far-reaching concessions to two smaller parties: Tzomet, headed by former chief-of-staff Rafael Eitan, and Gesher, a new breakaway party headed by former Likud minister David Levy.

Levy, embarrassed and angered by his experience in the previous elections when Shamir's people froze his people out of the leading positions on the list, broke away this year and, with his followers established this new party, presumably to advance social issues but actually to ensure that, one way or another, he and his leading colleagues would be in the next government.

In the 1992 elections Tzomet had attracted the votes of the yuppie right wing, that is to say, those successful younger Israelis who are analogous to suburbanites in other countries, interested in the environment, personal achievement, private enterprise, and fiscal conservatism on the part of government, and were similar to Meretz in that respect but who rejected Meretz's peace platform and supported the security platform of the national camp. It was successful beyond all expectations but during the subsequent four years Tzomet broke into pieces because of Eitan's dictatorial style and the fact that he had picked people who had more personal political ambition than commitment to his "movement."

This time Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud party head, brought Tzomet into the Likud for the elections, promising it seven reserved seats. Naturally, Levy demanded the same for Gesher to establish a similar link and Netanyahu was compelled to concede that to them. So, out of the 42 seats deemed safe to the Likud, one-third had to be given away before the polls even opened on primary day. This meant that at the end of the day a substantial number of veteran Likud politicians were left out of the "safe" 42 including such veterans as Dov Shilansky, the former Likud Speaker of the Knesset, and Geula Cohen (trying for a comeback after leaving the party at the time of the peace treaty with Egypt). Also "losing" were the designated nominee for the new immigrants, Yuli Koshorovsky, and the Druse community, veteran Knesset member Assad Assad, provoking considerable bitterness in both communities and requiring serious damage control measures.

The Campaign

On election day everything was calm. As in every previous election, the Israelis -- Jews, Arabs, Druse; religious, traditional, secular; left, right, or center -- demonstrated their maturity and the maturity of their democracy in the way the elections were conducted. It seems that there were even fewer complaints of violations of election rules this time than in previous years, and the complaints that there were, were almost all related to minor technical matters. It was reported that Prime Minister Shimon Peres had received more threats from Jews threatening violence against him on the election morning and was under heavy guard. Peres himself accused Habad of being the only ones who had broken the general calm of the election campaign. Otherwise all was quiet. The country quietly went to the polls in astounding numbers.

The behavior at the polls, however, did not reveal the tension that many felt as they entered the last day of four very troublesome years in Israeli history, to set stage for at least the next four years and, in all likelihood, for the longer term future. Among the religious and the Haredi communities, many experienced a comparable feeling to the one on the Day of Atonement. Some rabbis even called for a fast day. The collective decision to be made would determine public life for the next four years, and to the more Zionistic among the Orthodox community the fate of what they regarded as the third commonwealth.

The most distinct indication of the tension felt at least among some sectors of Israeli society was the rise in voter participation in comparison with the previous election. A major characteristic of the June 1992 campaign was that it also had been a very quiet election. Participation in the 1992 polls declined from the usual rate of 79-80 percent in the 1980s to 77 percent.5 In light of the results we concluded in our previous book that most of those that decided to abstain from participating in the vote were Likud supporters who, while they despaired of the incumbent party, could not bring themselves to cross the lines. Indeed this time, the overall voter turnout was 79.3 percent, with turnout in the Jewish sector exceeding 80 percent. Undoubtedly, the greater turnout worked in favor of the religious and national camps.

There may be no country in the world without compulsory voting, where a higher percentage of the voters go to the polls than in Israel. Considering that Israel's automatic registration system continues to include hundreds of thousands of people who have left the country, and with the exception of diplomats and sailors abroad, have to be in Israel in order to vote, or who are too old or infirm to get to the polls, there was an over 90 percent turnout of those who physically could vote. Even though the percentages are not excessively disparate among the different groups in the country a closer look would reveal that certain sectors mobilized their voters almost to their utmost capability. Nor had the electoral campaign indicated the hidden tension. The vote came after a campaign that was also relatively gentlemanly. Even Shimon Peres admitted as he entered his polling booth that the 1996 election campaign was one of the mildest he had ever encountered. There was little "below the belt" campaigning by anyone. Perhaps the worst examples were the accusations by Likud that Peres would divide Jerusalem and the Labor-counter attack that Bibi (Netanyahu) was not fit for the job.

The exception to this was Meretz. Trailing in the public polls which indicated a likely decline in its strength of almost fifty percent, Meretz under Yossi Sarid who had displace Shulamit Aloni, opened an anti-religious campaign which sometimes seemed almost anti-semitic in its messages. The Meretz campaign which seemed to have had some beneficial effect for them among their voters, raised their Knesset delegation from an indicated six in the polls to nine in the elections, a drop of three from the 92 elections. However it also seems to have led to an immense backlash that hurt Shimon Peres, probably more than any other single factor.

There was also the not so subtle anti-Arab campaign waged by certain elements of the right led by Habad who took the lead in distributing stickers saying that Netanyahu was good for the Jews. There was a certain symbolic irony in this scheme promoted by Habad, a non-Zionist religious movement, yet very hawkish in its foreign policy stands, and traditionally very active in such issues as Russian Jewry, as well as preserving Jewry world-wide. The issue of the Jewishness of the state was probably the most salient issue in Israeli public life throughout the last administration, pushed forward by the Olso agreements and their results. The question of whether a state could be democratic and Jewish was very prominent in the discussions of Israeli intellectuals, highly salient in the constitutional decisions of the Supreme Court and the Knesset, and the most debated issue on the country's political agenda. The mere fact that the Jewishness of the state was even questioned sent chills up and down the backs not only of religious people but many other Israeli Jews as well. The promise by Labor leaders, in contrast to Statements by Minister Communications, Science and Culture Shulamit Aloni and others of meretz and Labor's left wing supporting the transformation of Israel into a civic rather than a Jewish State, were frightening to many. Statements of the opposite character by Labor's mainstream leaders were was not reassuring. Everybody remembered how Labor leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had committed themselves never to negotiate with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), or to withdraw from the Golan Heights. While the more extreme elements on the right still hoped to reverse the decision on the Land of Israel, the more moderate elements and much of the center felt that the struggle was now over the essence of the Jewish state. This was part of the atmosphere on the eve of the elections to the 14th Knesset.

Apparently to many, the fear of the downfall of the Jewish state was stronger than the disgust over the assassination of a Jewish Prime Minister by a Jew. Hence the former had more influence over the request of Shimon Peres, Israel's veteran and most experienced statesman, to be reelected for a full term as Prime Minister. To a majority of Jewish Israelis the choice at stake was not the integrity of the Land of Israel, but rather a contest over the essence of the Zionist revolution, their identity and the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Why did this question come about in 1996?

Zionism, Post-Zionism, and the Jewish State

The end of the twentieth century has witnessed the collapse of one of the most influential ideologies of the modern era -- international Communism. The death of the ideology was expressed through the collapse of the Bolshevik regime which, against all expectations, began to unravel in 1989, bringing down with it the Soviet Union in 1993. Both the Communist revolution and its subsequent demise touched almost every corner of the globe. The Zionist response to this collapse was that Zionism, one of the great historic enemies of Bolshevism, had outlasted its seemingly more powerful rival. Following that sense of triumphalism, there was room for concern that what had happened to Communism as an ideology and to the states that ideology informed might happen to Zionism and Israel also. The fact that the major reason for the Soviet collapse came from within, internal decay rather than external military defeat, only adds to the apprehension. Is there a basis of this anxiety?

Signs of the metamorphosis of Zionism could be detected in domains traditionally considered the heart and the pride of the Zionist enterprise, the Israeli academy, the military, and the settlement institutions. In recent years, a group of "new" historians and radical sociologists have adopted a critical historical revisionist view of Israel's birth. Essentially their argument can be condensed into one major idea: The State of Israel was born in sin but that fact was kept unknown because the Israeli academia has been mobilized to defend the distorted Zionist narrative.6

Their writing varied from "corrected" research which pointed out the often neglected mistakes that accompanied the Zionist enterprise like any other, to outright fabrications about the intentions of the Zionist founders. In the military, while the level of volunteering to the elite fighting units stayed high, a declining motivation to serve in the ground fighting units was observed. A slow but steady shift from the traditional sources of mobilization leadership, of the Kibbutzim, to the national-religious elements also was taking place particularly in connection with the officer cadres.7 At the same time, the senior leadership of the army, for the first time consisting of professionals who had chosen army careers rather than the first generation civilians who had remained in Israel's military service because they recognized the necessities of Israel's situation, despite their basically non-military orientation, were transforming the army into what the former hoped would be a more professionalized instrumentality, no longer relying on equal responsibility to serve on the part of all but concentrating responsibilities on those with combat roles and easing them in connection with those serving behind the lines. These new inequalities which are possible in a volunteer force had the opposite effect in a conscript army which had prided itself on the relative equity of the distribution of responsibilities in the past, thereby encouraging those people who found themselves with what they considered to be an undue relative burden to seek to escape it, at least in part.8

At the same time, the Kibbutzim were undergoing both a financial and social crisis, and in order to rehabilitate themselves entered the capitalistic market place more fully than before, especially by trying to capitalize on government and JNF owned land rented and cultivated by them. Within the kibbutzim the collectivist elements were being reduced. The introduction of private telephones, television sets, and kitchen facilities reduced communal dining to a minimum. People were being paid for their work in scrip which they could then use to purchase goods from the kibbutz stores and in many kibbutzim people were even able to take on second jobs within the kibbutz for pay. While the previous Likud governments directed Israel's urban population's desire to dwell in suburbia to the territories, the Labor government steered them to areas within the "Green Line." With the decline of agriculture in the technologically expanding Israeli economy, the attractiveness for the kibbutzim and moshavim of selling their land was increasing. By doing so they vulgarized one of Israel's sacred symbols traditionally identified with Labor.

The decline of the old symbols also was felt in the traditional institutions. A principal target of the Labor government were the old institutions that to a large extent had brought Labor to power during the early years of the Yishuv. Part of the secret of the Labor camp's ascendance to power was that it was the most successful of the camps in institution building in pre-state Palestine. Those institutions included the kibbutzim and moshavim, the Jewish Agency and the Histadrut.

Over the years these institutions, especially the last one, lost their attractiveness for many Israelis, interalia, because they developed manifestations of bureaucracy and corruption. The investigations and trials of officials from the latter two institutions on corruption charges in the early 1990s added to the shaken image of the establishment and its symbols. Even though the young leaders of Labor such as Yossi Beilin and Haim Ramon called for reform of both organizations, their success was more in the realm of demolishing what existed rather than renovation.

Interestingly, the young leadership of Labor did not shy away from competing for the leadership of these institutions; Haim Ramon became the Secretary-General of the Histadrut and Avraham Burg another member of the young Turks of Labor or the "gang of eight" as they were dubbed, competed for and won the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency.

Labor leaders uttered several remarks that shocked the whole country, and essentially hurt them as the heirs to the symbol system promoted by their predecessors upon which the Zionist enterprise rests. Among these statements were Yitzhak Rabin's comment that the Bible was not our "Kushan" (land title) to the Land of Israel, or that the Golan Heights was a land of tanks and not a land of settlement. For a movement that boasted that it was the true settlement movement while its opposition Herut (the predecessor of Likud) was a movement of rhetoric such statements undermined Labor's previous advantage.9

Similarly destructive was the decline of Labor's image as the party of security. By projecting readiness to yield the Golan Heights to the Syrians, which was conceived as a strategic threat to Israel, accompanied by rumors that the Jordan Valley, the virtually unanimously accepted "security border with Jordan" since the Six Day War, was not included in the lands to be retained by Israel in the Beilin sponsored secret negotiations with the Palestinians (the so called Beilin - Abu-Mazen negotiations), Labor was abandoning its image as the party of security. A plan formulated by Minister Yossi Beilin and Abu-Mazen regarding the division of Jerusalem robbed Labor of another image that had accompanied it since 1967 as the party that would not allow the re-partition of Jerusalem.

In short, Labor was relinquishing a whole set of positions and symbols that had been traditionally identified with its policy. The automatic beneficiary was the Likud, the heir of Herut that had been once perceived as a party that was too committed to its abstract ideology of "greater Israel" but now acquired a new image as motivated by security concerns.

While the impact on the electorate of the decline in Labor's commitment to accepted national symbols is difficult to evaluate, the image of Meretz and Labor as left-wing pursuing the dejudaization of the state, was a factor that can be measured more easily, evident in the gap between the two candidates in the final vote. A careful look at the voting figures in the Jewish and Arab sectors shows this much more starkly than the gross totals. While overall Netanyahu won over Peres with only 50.4 percent of the total vote as against 49.5 percent, taking the Jewish vote alone, Netanyahu won by 11 full percentage points (55.5 to 44.4), a landslide rejection of Peres by the Jewish voters. That was only offset by the landslide vote of the Arab voters for Peres (94.7 to 5.2), with only 17,000 Arabs voting for Netanyahu.10

Aside from the peace process itself, the Jewishness of the state, an issue raised to prominence by the peace process, was the most visible on the agenda of the Labor government. Rabin who deep down sensed the importance of this issue tried to bolster the identity problem in traditional ways. Therefore in 1992, despite a parliamentary majority based on the support of Meretz and parties with predominantly Arab constituencies, Labor chose to strengthen its coalition with the inclusion of Shas reaffirming a point made in the earlier volume in this series that no Israeli government was considered to be fully legitimate in Israel without including one or more religious parties. It was Rabin who, in 1992, uttered the word which had never before been expressed, the need of the government to rely on a Jewish majority in the Knesset.11

In order to maintain the arrangement, Rabin and Labor went so far as to amend two of Israel's basic laws: the "Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty" and the "Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation" the latter of which had been found by the supreme court to validate the knesset-enacted prohibition on importing non-Kosher meat. In both, a paragraph was added stating that its purpose was "to anchor in the Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."12 Henceforth, this combination became the major issue on Israel is constitutional agenda, with the left wing of Labor and Meretz challenging the compatibility of democracy and Judaism.13 Not surprising, once legitimate by a major Zionist party, similar voices were also heard from Israel's Arab parties.

Undoubtedly the alliance between Labor and Meretz in the previous government contributed greatly to Labor's defeat in this election. Although Meretz was filled with self-congratulation the morning after when it received 9 seats as compared to the earliest polls which showed it receiving as few as a third of that number, it was still down from the 12 that it had won in 1992. Moreover, the disappearance of Tzomet, which in 1992 also ran on an anti-religious platform, but was integrated into Likud and apparently was unable to deliver its previous bloc of voters to that party, also indicated the overblown claim of Meretz and some of its allies that it represents a secular Israeli majority, which, in fact, does not exit. Most Israeli Jews remain traditional with ideological secularists and ideological religious more or less equally balanced.

Meretz nevertheless represents a hard core secular sector that should not be underestimated.14 Meretz voters returned to the Meretz fold for the same polarizing reasons that so many religious voters voted for religious parties this time. That is to say, they are the hardline ideological secularists or advocates of making Israel neutral in matters relating to Jewish religion and culture. Many of them see Jewish culture as well as Jewish religion as incidental to a much more important (to them) universal or European cultural heritage rather than as central to Israeli life. Others advocate the replacement of Jewish tradition and civilization with a new Hebraic culture that was generated a century ago with the Zionist awakening in Europe.15

The continued strength of Meretz is another sign of polarization within the country. Many of the people who were attracted to it were probably attracted by hard-core, anti-traditional Judaism feelings or by even stronger sentiments than other Jewish voters for the continuation of the Peres peace process, but in the end this was not quite enough. All in all the combined vote for Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties declined from 48.2 to 41.3 percent with Labor and Meretz declining from 44% to 34%.16

There is no way of knowing conclusively how much Labor lost because of voter repudiation of its left wing or anti-religious stances. Leading members of the party such as Prime Minister Shimon Peres, his closest advisor Minister Yossi Beilin as well as the two main contenders for the party leadership Ministers Haim Ramon and Ehud Barak as well as Minister Efraim Sneh made overtures to the religious parties. The first three were identified with Peres' visionary dovish line in foreign policy the latter two with more security-oriented policies. At the same time several highly visible Labor MKs, like Dalia Itzik and Yael Dayan, were identified with anti-religious and anti-national stances.

While by no means the majority, visible dedicated secularist or left-wing Knesset members were high enough on the party list to be reelected to the Knesset, even with the party's great loss. One can only speculate about that. Ironically, since they are among the younger leadership, they will probably inherit the party if there are changes in the aftermath of this election. At the same time one should not confuse issues of religion and the Jewishness of the state. Jewishness is the value system, to use Edward Shils' metaphor, that is reflected in the institutional network that forms the central zone of a polity.17 It was the capture of this zone and its assortment of symbols that brought the Labor movement into power in the early 1930s even prior to the establishment of the State. Similarly, it was the alliance with the religious parties, especially with the NRP (the Mizrahi at the time) and parties from the Civil Camp that brought them into power in 1935. It was the decoupling between them and this assortment of Jewish values and symbols, as well as moderate parties in the other camps that contributed to their fall in 1977 and again in 1996. This argument will be further elaborated below.

In short, one major error of the Labor-Meretz elite was that it thought that it received a mandate not only to try new and risky avenues in Israeli foreign policy but at the same time to transform the normative essence of the State.18 The reality was that they miscalculated the strength of those who would not stand for the latter even as they favored the peace process.

The Peace Process and the "New Middle East"

The defeat of Labor and Peres despite arguments attacking the peace process from both the extreme right and the extreme left, should not be interpreted as a rejection of the process by the rank and file voters. Here we must distinguish between the peace process and the myth of a "New Middle East." Except for Moledet, the party that emerged two elections ago to advocate "transfer" of the Arab population from west of the Jordan River to other Arab states and which lost one seat even though it kept the same 2.3 percent of the total vote that it received in 1992, no other successful Israeli party or personage campaigned on an anti-peace process platform. Sensing the public support of the peace process, Netanyahu, by April 1996, essentially had accepted the Oslo Accords publicly.

Nor was this just the usual pious endorsement of the desirability of peace. All of the parties accepted the reality and binding character of the Oslo accords. The division was over the details of their implementation and the desirable next steps, with the Likud-led national camp and a majority of the religious camp attacking the Rabin-Peres government for moving ahead without due regard for Israel's security and allowing the Palestinian Authority to get away with actions that were contrary to the agreements made, most especially in the matter of the revocation of the PLO Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.

At the same time, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud candidate for prime minister, during the last months of the campaign repeatedly and consistently indicated that a government led by him would accept the accords as binding and move on from there in a more cautious manner that would give the Palestinians full autonomy without sovereign statehood. In the aftermath of the elections, first Foreign Minister David Levi met Chairman Arafat in Gaza, followed by Netanyahu on September 4 and Minister of Defence Itzhak Mordechai on September 13, to discuss the redeployment of the IDF in Hebron.

To a large extent both the Israeli opinion-molders and public opinion were becoming more moderate. Some of the contributors to earlier volumes in the Israel at the Polls series identified the development of a dovish trend since the Lebanon War, in contrast to the common wisdom.19 Although the Likud was pressed toward the right in the 1992 campaign and in the following four years while it was in opposition, that was an aberration. In seeking victory in 1996, Netanyahu had to move the party back toward the center and, indeed, to form a center-right coalition which he did. Subsequently he has had to strengthen the centrist elements in the Likud in order to govern effectively. In our previous book, on the basis of polling data, Efraim Inbar argued that for all practical purposes the Likud was becoming a centrist party while Labor had moved to the left.20 Although the Likud was pressed toward the right in the 1992 campaign and in the following four years while it was in opposition, that was an aberration. In seeking victory in 1996, Netanyahu had to move the party back toward the center and, indeed, to form a center-right coalition which he did. Subsequently he has had to strengthen the centrist elements in the Likud in order to govern effectively. Even during the Knesset vote on Oslo, Likud MKs such as Meir Shitrit and Tel Aviv's Mayor Roni Milo of the Likud, a former minister in Yitzhak Shamir's government, indicated their support for the Oslo accords.

Within the new Likud led coalition, parties such as the Third Way (4 MKs), Gesher (5 MKs) Israel B'Aliya (7 MKs) and even a sizable share of the Likud and half of the NRP could be considered as in principle supporting the peace process with the Palestinians. A close look at the delegations to the Knesset would show that nearly two-thirds of the Knesset seats went to the individuals actively supporting the present peace process in some meaningful way. At the same time, if looked at from another angle, almost as many of the Knesset seats went to parties that supported a more cautious process.

In contrast, there was much less support for Shimon Peres's "New Middle East," a vision that went a few steps too far and produced a reaction against the man and the government that represented it. The term was actually uttered for the first time during the Gulf Crisis and "Desert Storm." At that time, the meaning was more of a future vision of what some Israel leaders hoped would develop in the aftermath of Sadam Hussein's fall. But the war had produced hardly any change in terms of leadership in the Middle East.

The only country in which a change of leadership occurred was Israel. Iraq's mass destruction capability was only curtailed but not totally destroyed and a new threat was developing in Iran and Syria. Terror, instead of declining, was on the increase and even spreading to other parts of the globe. While some of the Arab states were opening up for ties with Israel, these were the moderate and distant states that did not present a threat to Israel, or Jordan with whom Israel had friendly relationships even prior to the peace process. Syria, in contrast, was not ready for full normalization, unless Israel would withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, namely sharing with them the water reservoir of the Kinneret. Islamic Fundamentalism was terrorizing not only Israel but also Arab states like Egypt and Algeria.

It seems that Rabin himself was unsure about his Foreign Minister's assessment. Had Peres and his supporters taken a more cautious position and convinced the voters that they were sincere about their caution, they probably would have won. But the combination of extremism in pursuit of their vision of peace, most especially with regard to Syria, a palpably reluctant partner, or Arafat who at best could explain that Hamas terror was due to Palestinian Authority inefficiency. Instead they maintained an attitude of arrogance as the only pursuers of peace and let victory slip away from them. A decleration following the 3 March 1996 bombing in Jerusaelm by Peres "We are in full war with the terrorist organizations" was not reassuring for the New Middle East.21 Nor was the onslaught of Operation Grapes of Wrath a month later. The Likud's slogan "a secure peace" seemed to many as more realistic than "the new Middle East" that seemed to exist only in the mind of Israeli government leadership.

The Ascendance of the Religious Parties

Besides Netanyahu, the biggest victors in May 1996 were the religious parties. All told, the religious camp received 23 seats, more than ever before. Shas and the National Religious Party received 19 seats, 7 more than in the previous election, while the United Torah Front, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, held on to its 4 seats. In addition, Yisrael b'Aliyah (Israel on the Rise) the Russian Immigrants' party, representing probably the most secular constituency in the country, sent two Orthodox members and two traditionalists to the Knesset, thus reflecting most accurately the situation in the state. The surge of the religious parties while influenced by what we argued was perceived as an attack on the "Jewishness of the Jewish state" also had additional dimensions.

How Religious are Israeli Jews?

For years, the narrative from Israel and the consensus of the Israeli academicians who analyze the socio-political life in Israel was that Israel's Jews were sharply divided into two groups: the overwhelming majority who were secular and a small minority who were religious. While figures, even percentages, were not always stated, the general estimate was that 80 percent of Israelis fell into the secular camp and were being religiously coerced in one way or another by the Orthodox 20 percent. More than that, all religious Jews in Israel were assumed to be either dressed in black, demonstrating against the desecration of the Sabbath, or with knitted kipot (skull caps) performing religious acts presumed to have connotations of nationalist fanaticism, i.e., Jewish settlers in the territories.

On the surface, the 23 seats won by the religious parties in the new Knesset, just under 20 percent of the total (see below), seemed to measure the strength of the religious sector in Israeli society in the Knesset. But such an interpretation also would be misleading as we know that non-orthodox and even secular Jews voted for the religious parties (especially NRP and Shas) and religious people voted for other parties including the two major parties Labor and Likud. Indeed, the addition of religious Knesset members from other parties are added, brings the total religious representation closer to 25 percent. Ignoring the religious vote would thus be a blunder, especially as the religious voters provided the critical votes for the election of Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

But the main blunder was the confusion of strict Orthodox observance religious practice with a more casual observance of traditional Jewish practices. Indeed, both the religious parties and especially Meretz emphasized this inaccuracy as it assisted them in mobilization of their voters. The latest survey on the subject by the prestigious Guttman Institute of Applied Social Research, published in 1993, tells the true story. The tables below summarize the critical results from that study of Israeli Jews' beliefs and practices.22

Taking into consideration the entire Jewish population, Jewish religious practice is high on most of the usual measures. While the maintenance of those Jewish observances could be explained as residual among Israeli Jews still close to their traditional roots, the claims of the same public with regard to Jewish belief, often a problem of some embarrassment to those who wish to seem modern, is especially impressive.

What we learn from this and other studies is that Israel's Jews are not divided into two groups but into four: in Israeli terms, ultra-Orthodox (haredim), religious Zionists (datiim), traditional Jews (masortiim), and secular (hilonim). The ultra-Orthodox, those strangely (to Western eyes) garbed, black hatted Jews who are featured in all the pictures, represent only 8 percent of Israel's Jewish population. Another 17 percent are religious Zionists who normally are lost to view in many of the studies and the statistics because they are generally lumped with everyone else. The religious Zionists are similar to the modern or centrist Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, partaking of most or all aspects of modern civilization except that they maintain Orthodox observance of Jewish religious law and tradition.

The third group consists of the vast majority of Israeli Jews, some 55 percent, who define themselves as "traditional." These Jews are from many backgrounds but most are Sephardim from the Mediterranean or Islamic worlds. They are people who value traditional Jewish life but who are prepared to modify halakhically-required Jewish practices in those cases where they believe it to be personally necessary or attractive to do so. They cover the whole range of belief and observance from people of fundamentalist belief and looser practice to people who have interpreted Judaism in the most modern manner but retain many of its customs and ceremonies, particularly those connected with home and family.


Religious Practice Always Sometimes Never
Light Shabbat candles 56% 22% 20%
Recite Kiddush (Friday night) 46% 21% 32%
Synagogue Saturday morning 23% 22% 56%
Don't work [in public] on Sabbath 42% 19% 39%
Paraticipate in Passover Seder 78% 17% 5%
Light Hanukkah candles 71% 20% 9%
Fast on Yom Kippur 70% 11% 19%
Bless Lulav (Sukkot) 26% 15% 59%
Observe Kashrut at home 69% 18% 14%
No pork, shellfish, etc. 63% 16% 21%
Brit Milah 92%
Bar Mitzvah 83%
Wedding 87%
Burial/Shiva/Kaddish 88-91%
Mezuzah on front door 98%
Contribute to charity 74%


"To what extent do you believe or not believe in each of the following?" Believe Completely Not Sure Do Not Believe
There is a God 63% 24% 13%
There is a supreme power guiding the world 57% 29% 14%
Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai 55% 31% 14%
Good deeds are rewarded 52% 33% 14%
The Jewish people was chosen among peoples 50% 29% 20%
A watch from above is kept over everyone 49% 32% 19%
The Torah and mitzvot are God's commands 47% 29% 24%
Prayer can help one get out of a bad situation 45% 35% 20%
Bad deeds are punished 44% 38% 18%
The coming of the Messiah 39% 29% 32%
There is a next world 35% 35% 30%
Those who don't adhere to mitzvot are punished 27% 36% 37%
Non-observing Jew endangers the Jewish people 21% 29% 50%

Source: Levy, Levinson, and Katz, Beliefs, Observations and Social Interaction Among Israeli Jews, ch. 14, p.101, Table 38.

Many of these "traditional" Jews differ from the Orthodox only in that they will drive their cars on the Sabbath, use electricity, watch television, or go to a soccer game or to the beach, frequently after attending religious services in the morning and the evening before. Many of the men don tefillin every morning. What is critical is that all are committed to a major religious component in the definition of their Jewishness and the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

The fourth group consists of those who define themselves as secular, at most some 20 percent of the Jewish population. These are people whose beliefs are secular. The practices of a significant percentage of them, on the other hand, may be quite similar to those of many traditionalists, only they claim to maintain those practices for family and national reasons rather than for religious ones. The fact that Jewish religious observance has such a strong national component makes it a major component of most Jews' national identity even if they no longer see themselves as believers in the Jewish religion.

The Guttman study shows that an astounding three-quarters of the "secular" 20 percent follow the most common traditional religious practices. Only a quarter, or 5 percent of the total Jewish population, say they observe no religious practices whatsoever, a figure which is belied by data showing that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have mezuzot on the doorposts of their houses and 92 percent circumcise their male children, to mention only two of a number of observances that are so deeply entrenched in the culture that hardly anyone thinks of them as religious observances.23

Moreover, nearly two-thirds of all Israelis believe that there is a God and another quarter believe that it is possible that there is ("not sure"). In a poll conducted by secular Haaretz out of 120 Members of the Knesset, 91 MKs answered that they believe in God, 20 refused to respond and only 9 answeredin negative.24 Even more impressive is that 55 percent of the populace believe in the literal revelation of the Torah by God to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, while those who believe that it is possible that there was ("not sure") raise the total to 86 percent. So, too, with other measures of belief. At the same time, like in other Western countries, only 27 percent believe that God will punish them for not observing His commandments, even though twice as many believe that the commandments are of Divine origin.

Why, then, have Israelis not sought to eliminate the formal dominance of the Orthodox establishment? Since a majority of Israeli Jews are Sephardim and the Sephardi world never had a reformation like the Ashkenazi world, where religious Jews divided themselves into three or more "denominations," even those who do not pretend to be Orthodox believe that Jewish tradition itself should stand relatively unchanged and should not be fragmented. They reserve for themselves the informal right to pick and choose, but they want the formal religion to remain as is, as in the rest of the Mediterranean world. Identifying with the Jewishness of the state serves as roughly equivalent to the role of the Reform or Conservative Synagogue in the diaspora. Indeed, in the whole history of the Zionist enterprise there has been no indigenous movement to reform Judaism or Jewish religion, this on the part of a people who are prepared to have reform movements for everything.

The 1993 survey simply replicates earlier surveys going back some thirty years, despite the Russian Aliya which was almost entirely secular. True, the amount of observance has dropped over the years but not appreciably. What is also true is that almost all the elites in Israeli society cultural, intellectual, political, and economic are found within the secular 20 percent, so that they frame the public domain of Israel. Moreover, that 20 percent is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, either Jews from Eastern and Central Europe or descended from them, the ones who are most likely to know English, and to be contacted by journalists coming to the country, thus allowing this skewed picture to emerge. At the same time, Israel does not have a secular conservative intellectual elite. The Israeli right wing is identified as such either because of its Jewish-religious or ethnonationalist standings in foreign affairs, two tenets not very relished in the West.

In the early stages of the campaign, the polls showed Shas dropping from 6 to 3 seats and the others holding their own. Shas's success was a concrete indication of the inaccuracy pointed out above in defining the Israeli population as "religious" or "secular."

Many Sephardim have been drawn to the haredi-oriented Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians) movement, that has grown from a small handful of Jerusalemites dissatisfied with the then Ashkenazi-dominated religious parties to become the third largest party in the country with 10 seats in the present Knesset. Shas has brought to many Sephardim a revival of the religious traditions they knew, presenting them in a way their communities demanded, through the warm-hearted activities of Shas-appointed rabbis, educators, and preachers. In a way Shas was countering the efforts of cultural secularization by the secular Labor elite of many of the olim (immigrants) in 1950s and early 1960s.

Despite the secularization process, as analyzed above there are very few truly secular Sephardim. These people were extremely upset by the hardline secularism of Meretz and the left-wing of the Labor party since, as one of them put it, "our Jewishness is in our souls," and they reject all assaults upon the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

Shas has been successful all along by appealing to that population and their needs. For example, the State Religious schools, long dominated by the Ashkenazi-led National Religious Party, and the Ashkenazi-dominated Haredi "independent" schools demanded a change in the parent's religious code of behavior prior to accepting the children of Sephardi parents who do not live fully according to the canons of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy. Shas which saw itself as the alternative to both Agudat Israel and the NRP came along and established El HaMaayan, their own educational movement to provide after school supplementary classes and training for those children in Judaism, of course as Shas understands it, thus providing a needed, valuable, and much appreciated service to tens of thousands of Israeli families. By providing this service, they provided an educational framework as well as extra-curricula activities for children who otherwise would have found themselves in the street. This service was particularly appreciated by large families residing in small apartments in the cities or development towns, who suffered from being situated on the country's periphery. Moreover, since the religious patterns of ultra-Orthodox Sephardim allow more room for interaction with people of different degrees of belief and observance, the ultra-Orthodox Shas leadership could easily reach out to the traditional Shas voters and gain their support reciprocally. One need only contrast Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues in Israel to see that reality in action. It is not that the Ashkenazim are not "pluralistic." There are appropriate Ashkenazi congregations for every nuance of Ashkenazi religious belief and observance, but each congregation is homogeneous in relation to its particular nuance. Just the contrary occurs in Sephardi congregations where every congregation is a mixture of worshippers ranging from ultra-Orthodox to minimally traditional who come together to celebrate the same liturgy and religious calendar.

The NRP attracted the equivalent voters especially from among the Ashkenazim, including those who defined themselves as religious but who had never before voted for a religious party and those who defined themselves as secular but who were concerned about the preservation of Jewish tradition in the Jewish state. The increasingly prominent role of national religious young men in the IDF and the work of the NRP girls who instead of the army volunteer to do national service in development towns and welfare institutions was also appreciated by voters.

But above all, this resounding victory was a direct reaction to the intensely anti-religious atmosphere that seemed to pervade the Rabin-Peres government, although neither Rabin nor Peres intentionally fostered that atmosphere and, Peres, unlike Rabin, even made serious efforts to counter it. The fact that Meretz was Labor's principal coalition partner and was given control of the Ministries of Education and Culture and Communications, where Amnon Rubinstein and Shulamit Aloni either pressed for or presided over major steps to both publicly and quietly eliminate signs of Israel as a Jewish state, was seen as an enormous threat not only to those who were themselves religiously Orthodox but to many Jews who, whatever their own beliefs and practices, felt that Israel's whole raison d'etre was in peril. It was estimated that about 50,000 secular Israelis voted for the NRP in 1996, accepting their slogan of "Zionism with a soul."

This alienation was intensified by Labor's Minister of Religious Affairs, Shimon Shitreet, who in a rather oafish way took steps to recognize and foster non-Orthodox forms of Judaism and to bring them within the institutions of the state's religious establishment, steps that the vast majority of Israelis, whether Orthodox or not, do not understand or accept. Even secular Israelis, unless they have ideological reasons for wanting to hit at the Orthodox establishment, are not interested in non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. In the words of Israel's esteemed professor of political philosophy Shlomo Avineri, "the synagogues to which we do not go are Orthodox."

The coup de grace was the Meretz election campaign which emphasized what that party saw as the need to further reduce the role of Judaism in the formal functioning of the state. The result was a backlash. Many Sephardim who were religiously traditional and had shifted to Likud after 1977, moved to support Shas, and many Ashkenazim who were sympathetic to Jewish religious tradition voted NRP. Even more important, many religiously Orthodox, who in the past had voted for one or the other of the two major parties, apparently voted this time for a religious party out of concern, even fear, for the direction that Israeli society was taking under the Labor government, thus increasing the polarization and sectoral voting. Their ability to vote for the prime minister in one ballot and thus express their national priorities and with second to vote for a religious party also contributed to the strength of the two religious parties. In the past, the religious parties were never able to obtain more than half of the potential religious vote in the country. This time, they seemed to have won a major share of it.

All this no doubt seems strange to voters in many Western, particularly English-speaking, countries where religion and politics, when mixed, are mixed in different ways, mostly because of the differences between Christianity and Judaism (or Christianity and Islam, for that matter) and the tradition of Western liberal democracy that has grown up out of that difference over the past 300 years. The vote for the religious parties was certainly not a vote to turn Israel into a theocracy or even a halakhic state, despite the attempt by the extreme left to portray the victory of the religious parties as such.

The religious party leaders have reiterated that they had no intentions of moving any government that they would join in that direction. They reiterated that they only have two interests: (1) to strengthen the Jewish character of the state, which in concrete terms means to insure that what Americans have come to call "the public square" will remain infused with Jewish symbols and some actions, as it has been since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, and to have the educational system serving Israel's Jewish population teach the Jewish heritage in appropriate ways; and (2) to see to it that the material and educational interests of the religious population are taken care of, that is to say, that adequate housing and benefits available to all citizens also be made available to those in the ultra-Orthodox community and that state support be available for the various forms of general and Jewish education that the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox desire, in the same way that such support is made available to other segments of Israel's educational system. In both respects, the religious parties should be seen as representing the legitimate interests of a large segment of Israel's population, just like any other segment with legitimate interests.

The novelty of the pro religious vote was that it was depicted as a vote for Judaism and Zionism. We must recall that a large share of the ultra-Orthodox community did not embrace the Zionist idea of building a Jewish state. Both Haredi parties campaigned under the banner of the Jewishness of the state of Israel. Undoubtedly, the leaders of the two parties have always perceived themselves as the "real" Zionists. We need not accept this interpretation as they do. It would be more accurate to define them as neo-Zionists.

In more strictly political matters, there is no monolithic religious view. Indeed, well over half of the religious vote, perhaps over two-thirds, is centrist with regard to the peace process, very much committed to its continuation, albeit with greater caution on Israel's part. That is why, even before the elections, Israeli pundits saw the religious bloc as able to go with either prime ministerial candidate when it came to the formation of a new government. On the peace issue, we may include most of the religious bloc among the centrist parties.

The Centrist Parties

As usual, the non-religious centrist parties had difficulties in the election, although as we have argued throughout our series the centrist vote constitutes the largest share in the Israeli population. Except the 1977 elections, and especially following the collapse of the Democratic Movement for Change, centrist parties have had difficulties in gaining a large share of the electorate. The two parties that were considered centrist were the Third Way, a breakaway from the Labor camp over the issue of whether or not Israel should retain the Golan in any peace settlement, and Israel B'Aliya, the party of olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union led by Natan Sharansky, which appealed principally to the olim who were new voters. The former won four seats and the latter, seven.

The four seats were predicted but, considering the way the Third Way movement started, and the potential strength of the centrist vote, this has to be classified as a somewhat disappointing finish. This must be related to the fact that many of the initial leaders of the Third Way, in the end, could not bring themselves to leave their "home" in the Labor party and withdrew when the issue came to a head, moving Avigdor Kahalani, a war hero relatively new to politics but a Labor Knesset member and its candidate in Tel-Aviv's mayoral race in 1993, into the party leadership. The first three candidates on the list were ex-Labor members while the fourth was Prof. Alex Lubotzky a religious resident of Efrat, slotted to attract the centrist religious vote.

They waged a fight to convince Israeli voters to support the center but the fight that they waged seemed to most of those voters to be too non-committal; that is to say, they did not make the centrist position forceful enough to attract Israeli voters who seem to have a penchant for sharper stands even when the voters' overall tendency is to the center. This somewhat ambivalent situation has consistently weakened the power of centrist parties to attract voters throughout the history of the state. Yet, the Third Way did better than all the earlier centrist parties in the last decade and a half, that were headed by charismatic figures like Moshe Dayan or Ezer Weizman. The mixture of a "war hero," a settler from the Golan Heights, and a settler from Gush Etzion were forceful credentials for people looking for peace but not at the cost of abandoning vision and security. What was outstanding about this party was that aside from the Golan Heights where it received 17.7 percent, and the Arab sector 0.6 percent, the Third Way support throughout the country hovered evenly around 3 percent.

Israel B'Aliya, did surprisingly well. It is unclear at this point whether these were basically dissatisfied olim or whether Sharansky served as a major drawing card. There is no question that Sharansky is an imposing figure. In fact, had he campaigned more broadly as a candidate for general Israeli, not only immigrant, voters, he might have done even better since he rightly gives the impression of having as much leadership stature as Peres and, at the same time, shows the kind of solidity that helped Netanyahu to defeat Peres's "visions." If his Hebrew improves, Sharansky could turn out to be an important contender for even higher office in the future. Most impressive about him was that he was perceived as a genuine believer in the Jewish people and the Zionist idea, a vision that seemed lost among the traditional leadership of the state. His victory as well as that of his colleagues was comparable to that of the religious parties, both falling within this category of neo-Zionism.

The Israeli Arabs

The Israeli Arabs both won and lost. Obviously, they feel that they lost with Peres's loss. On the other hand, they clearly established themselves as an important voting bloc in Israeli politics that must be considered as such in political campaigns from now on. Their vote continues to be divided between predominantly Arab parties and mainstream ones, and it is clear that their vote counted for both Meretz and the Labor party. Having established themselves as coalition partners during the Rabin-Peres years, they also gained from the electoral system which elevated their importance in the election of the Prime Minister. Considering their demographic growth and the electoral system one could assume that even the right wing candidates will be unable to ignore their weight. But in order to become a true balancing faction they cannot align themselves with one camp. Should they accept the opportunities that were opened before them via the political game they will be able to continue and increase their political power.

Peres and Labor lost votes among the Israeli Arabs because of the anger of the latter at the civilian casualties in Lebanon caused by Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" operation there during the election campaign, which undoubtedly was launched in part to demonstrate that Peres would stand firm on matters of Israel's security in the face of the widespread feeling in the Jewish sector that he was "soft" on security issues. This may be an example of the uncomfortable situation in which the Israeli Arabs may find themselves when confronted by contradictions between their political and ethnonational interests. 25

The Coalition of Minorities

In the last analysis, Peres and his coalition lost to an opposition that in many ways was not as attractive as they were. There were many comments during the election that, on one hand, the election was the most fateful in Israel's history, but, at the same time, the voters seemed rather withdrawn. Many voters seemed to have perceived great weaknesses, albeit very different ones, in both candidates for the head of the government and in their parties, and that they were forced to make a choice for the lesser evil. Except for some of the young (below voting age) activists on the streets, there was little real enthusiasm for any of the political parties or camps among the great bulk of the voters. They turned out in record numbers but without any feelings of excitement or happiness, rather with feelings of trepidation and hoping for the best.

Since the 1981 elections, one of the authors of this essay, has noticed that the persistent victory of the Likud could be explained according to the "coalition of minorities' or electoral alignment and realignment theory. According to this rationale, the winner in an election is the party or candidate that puts together a broader coalition of sub-system groups that together form a majority. The ability to put together such a majority would also result in the dominance of the parties in power over extended time although not necessarily winning every election. The winning coalition would control most of the institutions but ultimately would lose its power once minorities would become disappointed in the ability of the coalition leader to pursue their interests and hence defect to the contending major party.26

The winning coalition that ruled Israel since its inception, and even prior to it in the pre-state Yishuv since 1933, collapsed in 1977, when Labor under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres lost the support of many segments in Israeli society that slowly defected to the Likud coalition. Starting in 1963, Menahem Begin the leader of Herut formed a coalition with the Liberal party and doubled the size of its delegation in the Knesset. The Sephardim, who, when new immigrants had voted for the party in power, were slowly drifting towards Herut, reaching a level of approximately 70 percent voting for Likud (the heir of Herut) in 1977. In 1973, Begin extended the Herut-Liberal coalition to include the Laam faction which in itself was a coalition of right wing fractions including the hawkish wing of Labor once headed by David Ben-Gurion.

The last camp to be attracted was the religious camp. The NRP, the traditional partner of the Labor camp since 1935, was going through a transformation with its young guard turning hawkish. Nevertheless, the traditional leadership was moderate. especially the Lamifneh faction in the NRP. The final breach of confidence occurred when then Prime Minister Rabin, following an incident over a religious issue, fired the NRP ministers and called for early elections. The victory of the Likud as the plurality party resulted in the NRP, followed also by Agudat Israel, joining the Begin government.

This coalition of religious, hawks, nationalists and Sephardim held together throughout the eighties. In the course of that period the religious parties twice bailed out the Likud; in 1984, when they refused to join a Labor government and forced Peres to form a national unity government with the Likud and share the premiership with Yitzhak Shamir, and again in 1990 when Shimon Peres almost formed a government relying on deserters from the Likud. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin succeeded in splitting the coalition of minorities because of his hawkish reputation and the desertion of Sephardim and the center from the Likud. Rabin's readiness for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, his the verbal attacks on the settlers accompanied by the lack of attention given to development towns and poorer neighborhoods in the cities while courting the Arab vote on whom the Labor government was depending in the Knesset dismantled that majority.

The person who understood the implications of assembling a coalition of minorities was Ariel Sharon. Understanding the tendency to rally around Labor in the wake Rabin's assassination, Sharon withdrew his candidacy for the premiership and compelled Netanyahu to persuade the other candidates on the right, Rafael Eitan, the leader of hawkish Tzomet, and David Levi, leader of Gesher, the Sephardi breakaway party, for the price of giving them and their key supporters realistic places on the Likud list. While this was a high price for Likud, ultimately this strategy paid off and the coalition held out through election day.

In these elections the impact of the coalition of minorities was even more critical than in prior elections. While in the previous elections the heads of the largest parties would negotiate the coalition following the elections, in a direct vote for the prime minister the winner is determined by the size of the coalition that would vote for him. The broadest coalition would decide who would be prime minister at the polls. Being in this position provides the winner with an advantage when negotiating with the parties in the legislature. In essence, Netanyahu's victory was composed of three coalitions: first the coalition within the Likud composed of Gesher and Tzomet, then the one that elected him to the prime ministership, and finally the coalition in the Knesset.

The lack of heterogeneity in the Labor coalition was reflected in several dimensions of the previous government. Out of 21 ministers only four (19 percent) were Sephardim, out of which two were of Iraqi origin (one a wealthy lawyer and the other a former general). While no minister was religious, after the resignation of Arye Deri, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was added as minister without portfolio when Shimon Peres became Prime Minister. Approximately 60 percent of the ministers resided in the Tel-Aviv area, most of them in the northern suburbs of that city, the heartland of the Israeli secular upper and middle class. Two members came from Kibbutzim and another two resided in Jerusalem. None of the ministers came from development towns or the south of Tel Aviv (considered the poorer section of the city).

In comparison, in the Netanyahu government over 40 percent of the ministers are of Sephardi origin. A similar percentage of the ministers reside in Jerusalem. Five out of the 17 ministers are religious, (Minister Edelstein came from the Russian secular party), David Levi and Moshe Katzav consider themselves as religiously traditional and both of them also come from development towns. Minister Elyahu Suissa, had moved to Jerusalem from a development town only following the ascendance of Shas in the mid 1980s. Only one minister resided in Tel-Aviv and two ministers reside in the greater Tel-Aviv area, but in Bnei Braq and Petah Tiqwa both towns having large religious constituencies. Ministers Sharon and Eitan, both former generals, reside in agricultural regions, the first one on his farm and the second one as a member of a moshav. In both governments the number of ex-generals was similar four. Only three ministers belonged to the traditional Herut "royal family" (Netanyahu, Begin, and Meridor) and another two to the second circle of Herut (Tzahi Hanegbi and Limor Livnat).

Netanyahu and the Formation of the Government

Thus Netanyahu's "rainbow coalition," was reflected in his cabinet, and determined by traditional coalition politics, which he hoped to mitigate when building a "presidential" system. Confounding veteran Israeli politicians and political pundits alike who were used to the old system of coalition formation, Netanyahu nevertheless attempted to initiate a premiership as close to an American-style presidency as he could. But Netanyahu's main problem was the dissension between his government and a peace process framework that had been concocted by the previous government that was composed of totally different social and ideological fabric.

One of his first steps was a conciliatory speech to a nation which a year earlier was almost on the verge of a civil war. He did so facing a puzzled audience of Likud faithful which he was able to turn around, and backed by a glum looking collection of his Likud colleagues on the platform behind him. Netanyahu spoke of continuing the peace process, praised Shimon Peres for what he had accomplished, and spoke in terms of moving ahead on the basis of national unity a most unusual speech for a victorious political candidate in Israel. Nevertheless, as the first year of his rule confirmed the other side was not ready to forgive him for daring to win the elections.

Netanyahu's speech was far different from that made by Yitzhak Rabin four years earlier who, also influenced by the idea of a strengthened premiership through the selection of the prime minister on a near personal basis, said "I will navigate, I will take charge, I will lead, I will set policy," or words to that effect, mostly directed against his internal rival, Peres. Netanyahu, on the other hand, appeared statesmanlike and tried to open the door for himself in Israel and the world.

In what followed he was less successful. He soon found out that he did not exactly have a free hand in selecting his cabinet and assigning cabinet position, that there were those in his party and his coalition who also had demands and who were in a position to force him to deliver. The end result was a de facto compromise between Netanyahu's desires and those of his partners and colleagues, between a presidential and a parliamentary system. Indeed, it is easier to change an electoral system than a political culture. The new prime minister, however, intended to hold the reins of government as closely as possible. His personal staff and entourage consisted of new people rather than veteran members of the Likud, and they were his people. This had contradictory implications. On one hand, it did give him more control; on the other, it also meant that neither he nor his aides came with much experience and all had to do on-the-job learning together which led them to make a number of mistakes early in the game.

From the first, Netanyahu set out to shift the peace process on to a new base, away from Peres's vision of a New Middle East as the grounding of the process, a grounding that dictated major concessions to the Palestinians and the Arab states for the sake of Israel's integration into the New Middle East and the new economic order it was expected to bring. This meant that the first two months of the new government were spent primarily with rhetorical commitments to the peace process while slowing matters down in the field and planning for some renegotiation as, the most immediate of which were the terms of the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron, the last of the major Arab cities under Israeli rule. While the Palestinians initially greeted Netanyahu with a wait-and-see attitude, lack of rapid progress in fulfillment of the Oslo Agreements as they understood them and as the previous government was fulfilling them, led to increasing dissatisfaction on the part of both the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian street.

Netanyahu avoided meeting Arafat during those months, although he sent Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai to do so, and then when he did take the step, the obligatory picture of the two shaking hands not only showed Netanyahu with a sour face. This meeting led him to a major confrontation with his party's right wing, which, while he survived it relatively easily, undoubtedly convinced him to continue his cautious forward motion, further disappointing the Palestinians and many of Israel's allies.

On the domestic front, shortly after the new government took office it was discovered that the rosy picture of a healthy economy that the Labor government has fostered had been built upon false premises whereby the previous government had utilized American loan guarantees and other devices to allow a splurge of consumer spending that the country could not afford; in other words, a long period of what in Israel is called an "election economy." The result was that inflation was rising, the government's estimates of the in balancing the budget were false and measures had to be taken immediately to belt-tighten. Forward progress in economic growth slowed, in part because of those economic uncertainties and in part because of the new doubts as to the future of the peace process under a Likud government. By the end of the 1996 fiscal year, following tight monetary policy of the Bank of Israel, it seemed that at least the major problems of inflation were under control.

Throughout the first nine months, Netanyahu and the new government have been racked internally by personality-based quarrels and externally by a hostile Israeli and world media that did not seem to want to let the new government govern. Netanyahu did not receive a hundred days of grace to get started or, for that matter, even ten. Still, by the time of the Fall Jewish holidays, both assaults had been brought under some control, only to have it all undone by a poorly-executed decision to open the Hasmonean Tunnel adjacent to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall which provided the spark that ignited the Palestinians, ostensibly on the grounds that the opening of the tunnel was an effort to destroy the Muslim religious sites on the Temple Mount. Arafat seemed perfectly willing to use this pretext to refocus world attention on the Palestinians' plight and the performance of the peace process, and the spark ignited a larger fire than anyone expected. For the first time, Palestinian police, most of whom were former PLO terrorists, fired on Israeli soldiers causing serious losses in dead and wounded. After three days, Arafat ordered his people to clamp down and they succeeded in ending all but incidental violence. They also succeeded in bringing the international community back into the picture, forcing Israel to accept an American presidential invitation to a Netanyahu-Arafat summit in Washington attended by other Arab leaders as well.

Netanyahu under pressure both at home and abroad to move ahead with the peace process on the one hand and from the right to build new settlements on the other hand tried to formulate a balanced strategy. Bound by the commitments of the previous government and despite strong opposition from his right wing he nevertheless implemented a pull-back from most of Hebron leaving a Jewish enclave in the city. In addition, he committed the new government to turning over more parts of the territories in three stages to the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, after a prolonged delay by the previous government he started the building of a new neighborhood in the south-eastern fringes of Jerusalem. The massive condemnations by the Arab states and the international community indicated the confines that "Oslo" put on Israeli foreign policy. As the first year of the Netanyahu prime ministership was progressing it was becoming clear that the discord between his coalition and a process conceived by the previous government was extended to a critical level. It is at this stage that Binyamin Netanyahu as well as his Arab and other partners in the peace process are asked to exhibit innovative leadership.


1. Dan Margalit, "Farewell to Shimon Peres," Ha'aretz (June 3, 1996), p. B1.

2. Daniel J. Elazar and Shmuel Sandler, "The 1992 Israeli Elctions: Mahapach or a Transfer of Power?" in Israel at the Polls, 1992 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), pp. 1-24.

3. The best book on the Yishuv era that emphasizes these features is Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, The Origins of the Israeli Polity (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1977), See especially, chs. 6 and 9. See also Daniel J. Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

4. For a theoretical-philosphical analysis of these dilemmas see Yael Tamir, Liberal Nationalism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Unversity Press, 1993). See also Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London: Routledge, 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. The founding father of the group is considered to be Simha Flapan, the editor of "New Outlook," in The Birth of Israel: Myths and Reality (New York: Pantheon, 1987). This school was carried on by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe. For a critique see Efraim Karsh, "Rewriting Israel's History," Middle East Quarterly (June, 1996): pp.19-29.

7. For the depth of the problem see Ha'aretz, September 12, 1996, B2, p. 2. and Yediot Ahronot, October 22, 1996, The Yom Kippur Supplement, pp. 20-22.

8. Efraim Inbar, "Contours of Israel's New Strategic Thinking," Political Science Quarterly, vol. 111, no.1 (April 1996), pp. 41-64.

9. Yediot Ahronot, April 22, 1994. p. 3. On another occasion, 1994 Rabin declared that he favored evacuation of settlements from the Golan because the supremacy of peace over a few settlements, Maariv, April 22, 1994.

10. Binyamin Nuerberger, "The Knesset Election in the ARab and Druse sectors," The Israeli-Arab Politics Programme, The 1996 Elections (Tel-Aviv: The Dayan Center, May 1996), p.18.

11. See David Landau's column in Ha'aretz, (June 3, 1996), p. B1.

12. On the debate in the cabinet and legal interpretation of the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, see Ha'aretz, 29 November 1993, p. 4a. See also Ha'aretz, 24 October, 12, 19 November 1993. See also comments by Dedi Zucker and Eliezer Schweid on "The State of Israel: A Jewish and Democratic State," Constitutional Reform in Israel and its Implications (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs), pp. 4-14.

13. For a comprehensive collection on "A Jewish and Democratic State, see a special issue edited by the late Professor Ariel Rozen-Zvi, Tel Aviv University's Law Review, vol. 19, no. 3, (July 1995).

14. On the latest poll conducted by Mina Zemah on Israeli secular society see Yediot Ahronot, Sept. 22, 1996, The second supplement of Yom Kippur, pp. 13-20.

15. Amos Oz depicted this culture as Beit Brener and Beit Bialik in a lecture given at Bar-Ilan University on the dedication of the Sara and Simha Lainer Chair in Democracy and Civility, Novemebr 15, 1996.

16. Appendix to The Results of the Elections to the 14th Knesset (Jerusalem: The Central Elections Committee, n.d.) p. 3.

17. Edward Shils, Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 8.

18. The best articulated essay on this misconception was by David Landau, in Ha'aretz (June 3, 1996), p. B1.

19. Efraim Inbar and Giora Goldberg, "is the Israeli Political Elite Becoming more Hawkish?" International Journal, 45, (Summer, 1990): 631-60; Gad Barzilai, G. Goldberg, and E. Inbar, "Israeli Leadership and Public Attitudes Toward Federal Solutions for the Arab Israeli Conflict Before and After desert Storm," Publius 21, (Summer 1991):191- 209.

20. Efraim Inbar, "Labor's Return to Power," Elazar and Sandler, Israel at the Polls, 1992, p. 28.

21. Haaretz, March 4, 1996, p. 1.

22. In the late 1970s, the religious observant population was estimated at 23%, the secular 40%, and the remainder traditional. See Y. Ben-Meir and P. Kedem, "An Index of Religiosity for the Jewish Population in Israel," Megamot 24/3 (February 1979), pp. 353-362. Another index for measuring religiosity is the distribution of students in elementary schools. The percentage of students attending the state-religious and the "independent" (ultra-Orthodox) was 25.8% in 1985. See Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel (Hebrew) (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1990), p. 93, table 2. For another index see next endnote.

23. See Shlomit Levy, Hanna Levinson, and Elihu Katz, Beliefs, Observances and Social Interaction Among Israeli Jews (Jerusalem: Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research, 1993). It should also be noted that almost all Israeli Jews have some form of Passover Seder. Indeed, one of the observed phenomena in Israel is how many Israelis who are planning to travel abroad during Pesach, which means that they are not concerned about keeping strictly kosher for the holiday as Jewish law requires, schedule their departure from the country after the evening of the Seder. 24. Ha'aretz, July 26, 1996, Weekend Magazine, p. 19.

25. See also Eli Rekhess, Efraim Yaar and Tamar Herman, "The Attitudes of the Arab and Druse Publics in Israel Towards the 1996 Knesset Elections," in The Program for the Study of Israeli-Arabs Politics, No. 1 & No. 4 (April, Moshe Dayan Center, 1996) and Asaad Ganem, "Political Influence - to the Arabs in Israel Too," ibid., No. 4, (July, 1996).

26. Shmuel Sandler, "The Religious Parties," in Howard Penniman and Daniel J. Elazar eds., Israel at the Polls, 1981 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 124-125. On applying this theory to American politics see Theodore Lowi and Bejamin Ginsberg, American Government, Freedom and Power (New York: Norton, 1993), pp. 483-489. See also, Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy, (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).

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