Israel, Ehud Barak and the non-Revolution in Israeli Foreign

12 MINS READMay 24, 1999 | 05:00 GMT

Outside of Israel, from Damascus to Washington, the election of Ehud Barak is being hailed as the rebirth of the peace process. The process will be reborn, but the levels of optimism are unwarranted. The 1999 election had less to do with foreign policy than it did with fundamental domestic issues, particularly whether Israel is a secular or religious nation. Even on domestic issues, the outcome of the election was not particularly clear. However, given Barak's domestic agenda, he may have less room for maneuver than foreigners think. With Clinton urgently in need of a foreign policy triumph in the next 18 months, this points to increased U.S.-Israeli tension once the honeymoon is over.


Most outside observers welcomed the victory of Ehud Barak in Israel's elections last week. Everyone from the United States to Syria welcomed the fall of Benyamin Netanyahu, who was regarded as the main obstacle to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East. Barak's election, it has been immediately assumed, means greater flexibility on a host of issues, from the management of Israel's withdrawal from Southern Lebanon to openness to Palestinian statehood and, finally, a peace treaty with Syria, even one involving the return of the Golan. The assumption has been that Barak and a government dominated by Israel's Labor Party was more likely to reach accommodation on these issues than had the Netanyahu-Likud government.

There is no doubt that Barak is more personally committed to reaching an accommodation. This does not mean that he will succeed or that he is as flexible as outsiders might think. But the most important error most observers are making about the election was that it had to do with Israel's foreign and defense policy. Obviously these were elements in campaign, but not as decisive has outside observers might think or even that the rhetoric of the campaign might indicate. In a very real way, for the first time in fifty years, national security was not at stake in the election. National identity was.

The central issue in the election was the relationship between secularists and religionists. Israel, like many countries in the world, is divided into two general factions. There are those who see Israel as the homeland for ethnic Jews, understood as all those who could make a genealogical claim to Jewish descent. Beyond that, the secularists saw the State of Israel, like other Western states, as being essentially neutral on matters of religion. To be somewhat more precise, it was understood that one could be Jewish without practicing Jewish ritual law or even believing in the Jewish God. The state was seen as the guardian of rights and freedoms, and in some vague sense as the heir to some Jewish tradition, but a fundamental distinction was drawn between Israeli citizenship and Jewish religiosity.

There were three factions that were directly responsible for the founding of Israel. All three were secular. There was the liberal democratic tradition embodied by Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, who was a nationalist in the simplest sense of the term. There was the socialist tradition, embodied by David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister, that was wholly secular. Finally, there was the romantic nationalist tradition, embodied by Menachem Begin, which flirted with religion and could comfortably ally itself with the religious, but which was not really religious in terms of its own commitment to using Jewish law as a substitute for secular law.

It must be remembered that the most profoundly orthodox Jews opposed the founding of an independent, secular Israel. Beyond the theological claim that the creation of Israel had to be the work of the Messiah and not of men, there was a deep suspicion to the motives of the secularists creating Israel. The extreme orthodox saw the distinction between Israeli citizenship and Jewish ethnicity on the one side, and Jewish religious practices on the other, with the secularists importing alien teachings from the French and American revolutions into Jewish culture. Israel was, in this sense, anti-Jewish.

Most of the anti-Zionist Orthodox made an interesting shift following the founding of Israel. They had opposed the creation of Israel as blasphemy. Once Israel was created, they were no longer participating in a blasphemous act. Israel was now a fact and participating in its political life was not a violation of Jewish law. They participated deeply and effectively. They were aided by the fact that Israel was divided from its founding between two factions. On the one side, there was the dominant socialist faction. On the other side, there were the romantic nationalists in uneasy, occasional alliance with the small, liberal faction.

Throughout the period from 1948-1973, the socialists dominated Israeli political life. The fundamental issue was foreign policy and national defense. Internally, the massive, inefficient trade union movement dominated economic life and its patronage helped keep the Labor political machine in power. However, that was a trivial matter compared with the survival of Israel in an extraordinarily dangerous environment. Labor's ability to project itself as the most skillful manager of foreign policy and national security kept it in power for a generation.

However, it must be remembered that even during the period of political hegemony, the socialists were forced to form coalitions with religious parties. The reason had to do with the peculiar electoral system created at the founding of Israel, called proportional representation. Voters cast ballots for political parties nationally. Any party that received, on a national basis, a very low threshold of votes, received a seat in the Knesset. Parties with a bit more than 1 or 2 percent of the votes were seated in the Knesset. The result was a multiplicity of parties, no clear majority for anyone and political wheeling and dealing that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed.

The net result of this system is that small minority parties became indispensable for creating governments. The small religious parties, divided among themselves along doctrinal lines and cults of personality, represented a small minority in Israeli life. They nevertheless had a hammerlock on Israeli political life, for unless the large left-wing and right-wing coalitions (today Labor and Likud) formed grand coalitions with each other, the religious parties would have to be induced into coalitions with one of them. After every election, bidding wars were set up in which the dominant coalitions bargained with the small religious parties and the small religious parties bargained among themselves. The Orthodox accumulated power far beyond what their numbers would dictate. They controlled key ministries that in turn made crucial decisions over the texture of daily life in Israel. On issues ranging from allowing public transport on the Sabbath, to whether Reform Rabbis could perform legally recognized conversions, the religious wielded power disproportionate to their strength.

It would be a mistake to see the religious as universally opposed to a Palestinian state or to the Oslo accords. In many ways, the religious were as divided on these issues as was the rest of Israel. That faction of the orthodox that saw the Oslo accords as a violation of Jewish law was not much larger among the religious than was opposition to Oslo in the rest of society. What the Orthodox were committed to was building an Israel based on Jewish religious principles and they saw themselves as the guardians of those principles and therefore the soul of Israel. They were far less concerned with strategic issues than they were with whether movie theaters would be opened on the Sabbath.

Last week's elections were viewed as a referendum on the peace process. They really weren't. They were in part a referendum on Netanyahu's personality, which grated as much on Israelis as it did on Bill Clinton. But far more, and far more seriously, the election was a revolt by secular Israel against the hammerlock the religious parties have over the social life of Israel. The revolt against Likud had much less to do with the West Bank than with the sense that Likud had written a blank check to the religious parties on domestic policy and the feeling that the religious parties had become corrupt with unearned power. It is important to understand that Israel's national security debates are not as socially divisive as they might be in the United States, for example. Critics of Bill Clinton's defense policy personalize the debate with the fact that Clinton is ordering men into combat without himself ever having served. Both Netanyahu and Barak have served with distinction in combat. The policy debate does not generate a class debate as it does in the United States, as Ivy League graduates make defense decisions to be carried out by high school graduates. Indeed, in Israel, it cuts the other way. Everyone but the Orthodox theology students serve in the military. Part of Barak's platform was to end this religious deferment. In Israel the doves have as distinguished combat records as the hawks.

This means that anyone expecting Ehud Barak to make serious compromises on national defense issues are going to be disappointed. He may accept a Palestinian state on the West Bank on the theory that the distinction between the Palestine National Authority and a Palestinian state is meaningless. However, he will neither abandon Israeli Defense Force deployments on the Jordan River line nor permit the Palestinians to build a military beyond a police force. If he withdraws from south Lebanon, it will be a decision made from the perspective of a man who personally been under fire there. That makes for very tough negotiating with a high probability of failure.

What is going on in Israel is, in the long run, far more important than where the Palestinian flag flies. The social fabric is torn apart by utterly incompatible visions of what Israel as a society should look like. At one extreme, we have the Rabbinic tradition going back to the fall of the Second Temple. On the other hand, there is the Israel whose primary concern is building an Internet company that IPOs on the NASDAQ. This division is present in most societies. In the United States, for example, the same debate takes place between the Christian right and secular humanists. In Israel, however, it cuts to the heart of Israel's self-understanding. Is Israel the Third Temple, a light unto the nations, or is it a homeland where ethnic Jews can come, be safe and make money.

In Israel, the battle is far from over. Barak has personally won a mandate, but in the Knesset, he holds a minority and must build a coalition. One of the big winners in the Knesset was Shas, a religious party representing poorer immigrants from North Africa, which takes a very hard line on religious and social issues. It has almost as many votes now as Likud. It takes a fairly hard line on the Palestinian/Oslo question, but is obsessed with religious governance. Left out of the coalition, Shas and Likud leave Barak with a bare majority, just enough for ongoing paralysis.

When outsiders look at Israel, what is on their mind is a settlement of the Palestinian question. This is far from the only issue on the minds of Israelis. It is not even the most important issue. Israel, at fifty, is undergoing an identity crisis of gargantuan proportions. It is the crisis it should have had at the founding but couldn't afford at the time. All of the postponed issues are pouring out of the closet now, and foreign policy issues are on the table primarily as they connect to these social issues.

Bill Clinton badly needs a foreign policy success before January 2001. With his Balkan adventure somewhere between a stalemate and a calamity, he will undoubtedly focus on the Barak election as a chance for a comprehensive, lasting peace that can be Clinton's legacy for the ages. The problem is that, like most elections, the real issues in Israel were, while profound, quite local. Indeed, if Barak is to deliver his domestic agenda, he will probably have to make some compromises on foreign policy. Heavy American pressure for a comprehensive peace settlement creating a Palestinian state, a withrawal from Lebanon and a settlement with Syria will be driven by the Clinton Administration's ticking clock. But it must be remembered that Barak's parliamentary position as opposed to his personal numbers, does not give him anywhere near the mandate needed to deal with all of these issues. Moreover, he faces a Likud in opposition. Likud has always been much more effective in opposition than governing.

So Barak is going to be focusing on domestic issues when a huge and urgent blast from Washington is going to descend on him. Misreading the election as a sea change in Israeli views of Oslo, the administration will find Barak both preoccupied and with a very different agenda than the one Washington would prefer to see implemented. Clinton will feel himself betrayed by Barak, whom he clearly favored in the election and who used his good relations with Washington as a reason to favor him over Netanyahu. Barak, with much less room for maneuver than Clinton will believe, will first cooperate and then resist as Clinton pushes him beyond where the former Chief of Staff of the IDF will want to go and where Israeli politics will permit him to go. Barak is bound to disappoint a lot of people, since his primary mission is to please a large segment of the Israeli public on an issue having nothing whatever to do with foreign policy. Far less has changed in Israel than would appear at first glance.

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