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Israel Diary

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April 3 (later that night): POLITICS

About the Author

Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine.

Everywhere I look the country has grown. Something like 700,000 new immigrants have been absorbed since 1989--more than 10 percent of the population. New roads and housing are everywhere, not just in the West Bank settlements and around Jerusalem. Most striking, a row of corporate pillboxes has spread along the coastal road north of Tel Aviv around Herzliyya, named for the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. With company names like Cellcom, Scitex, Optibase, Intel, Sony and Compaq, this is Israel's Silicon Valley and the country's most important economic engine. Thus the comments of Scitex founder Efi Arazi in Yediot Ahronot suggest one reason that Netanyahu just might lose the coming election: "It isn't enough that there isn't a war. The tension of war stays in the air, and it doesn't matter if it's our ayatollahs or their ayatollahs; the world smells it, the economy smells it. We'll never know why Microsoft didn't shift its whole Internet section to Israel, but the fact is that they don't feel secure enough to do so. High-tech doesn't go with long-term occupation and oppression. If they see a crown jewel, they'll buy it, but only peace will bring more investment."

Bibi is in trouble. Three years ago, he was the fresh option--a tough guy for tough times. Even though Shimon Peres--already a weaker candidate than the assassinated Rabin--was undermined by Hamas's bombings and his own stupid and murderous sally into Lebanon, Netanyahu triumphed by only 29,000 votes. Now, Bibi has presided over the souring of the economy, which has gone from a 6 percent annual growth rate under Rabin to just 2 percent today. Unemployment is around 10 percent. Three times as many jobs were created under the Rabin/Peres government as under Netanyahu. As Netanyahu's standing has fallen, Rabin's aura has grown. By far the most popular bumper sticker we saw read "shalom, chaver," an echo of President Clinton's comments at Rabin's funeral. Some cars carry a whole series of Rabin tributes: "Goodbye, my friend," "You are missed, my friend," "Time has passed, but you are not forgotten, my friend."

But Bibi, a media master, has Arthur Finkelstein, of Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato fame, again running his campaign. The negative themes that worked in 1996--terror, attacking the media and "peace with security"--are being retrod. Thus Bibi keeps suggesting that "Arafat wants Barak" and that Barak, like Peres before him, will divide Jerusalem in the final-status talks with the Palestinians. As of now, Bibi is trailing in the polls, though not by as much as he trailed Peres at this point in 1996.

For political theorists, the big news is the fragmentation of the Israeli party system. A record thirty-three parties are running for seats in the Knesset, Israel's 120-member Parliament. Only 1.5 percent of the vote is needed to get a seat; even in the country's biggest parties--Labor and Likud--no one expects to win more than thirty-five seats each. Even more startling, twenty-nine members of the current Knesset have left the party that brought them to office three years ago to run on a different ticket. The reason: Now that Israelis elect their prime minister directly, without relation to party strength in the Knesset, ticket-splitting is rampant and support for narrow-interest parties is rising.

The biggest splinter from the big parties is the Center Party, led by Netanyahu's former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and other ex-Likudniks who are simply sick of Bibi's autocratic style. Like Barak, Mordechai says he is open to a Palestinian state coming out of a permanent settlement that maintains Israel's security. As a candidate for prime minister, his main attribute is that he is of Sephardic origin, thus defusing some of the harsh communal tension between Ashkenazi Jews (who traditionally vote for Labor) and Sephardim (who usually vote Likud). But he's run a mostly lackluster campaign so far--his big slogan translates as "Positioning the Country in the Center"--and every day the newspapers carry reports speculating about the Center Party's collapse and the possibility of Mordechai throwing his support to Barak. The Likud has also broken on the right, in the personage of Benny Begin (Menachem Begin's son), who is running for prime minister as the head of a new nationalist coalition. Backed by former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and settlers opposed to any further withdrawal from the West Bank, Begin's breakaway has contributed to a real decline in morale among Likud activists. What remains to be seen is whether this division will depress support for Netanyahu in the second-round runoff vote for prime minister--or if Begin's supporters will rally around Bibi in the final days.

Barak's "One Israel" list is presenting a broader and more unified face to the voters. He has wooed to his side top leaders from the Sephardic and religious camps, most notably former Likud Foreign Minister David Levy, and he is making a smart bid for the Russian swing vote [see Hillel Schenker, page 18] by criticizing the treatment of new immigrants by Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister, Eli Suissa. Barak's buzzwords--peace, security, high-tech, Jerusalem: Israel's "eternal capital"--are as generic as Bibi's, and he says he is as much a proponent of privatization as the incumbent. But his main message, that "Netanyahu caves in to extremists, which is why the peace process and the economy are stuck," is well targeted. He reminds me of Clinton running against the Christian right while co-opting the GOP's other themes and harping on the need for "change."

Would Barak bring change? The former chief of staff is as much a warrior as the other two candidates, having taken part in elite commando raids in the past, assassinating Palestinian leaders. He says he favors spending money on education rather than on new West Bank settlements, and it's possible that he would rein in their rapid growth (20 percent under Netanyahu). But he also tells settlers that he wants to keep most of their lands as part of Israel in the final settlement with the Palestinians. Barak is only a shade more conciliatory than Bibi. Perhaps that is why Nurit's husband, Baruch, supports him.

April 4: BELIEFS (II)

Of every ten Jewish children entering kindergarten in Jerusalem, five are ultra-Orthodox, three are Orthodox and two are secular. My wife's cousin Sara, a midwife who lives in a secular Jerusalem neighborhood near the Hebrew University, reinforces this sense of demographic pressure as we chat over breakfast. Suddenly, she blurts out that the only politician with any integrity is Benny Begin. "He's the only one who's refused to have anything to do with the religious," she says. "Not that I would ever vote for him." Sara says that ever since a religious majority took over the City Council, "they've bankrupted Jerusalem." Most of the ultra-Orthodox are very poor, live in subsidized housing, lack jobs or live off of subsidized religious institutions, while "people who work, like us," she says, are forced to pay higher and higher property taxes. Secular Jews in Jerusalem won a small but real victory when a judge ruled that local restaurants can stay open on the Sabbath. One restaurant across from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim was picketed after it opened. Sara and her husband made a point of eating there the next Friday night in solidarity. The restaurant has remained open.

Leaving Sara's, we drove past a park near Israel's Supreme Court where men in black suits and ties, women in long skirts and headscarves, and children were streaming out of a large gathering. I learned later that this had been the annual picnic of a nonprofit, state-funded organization close to the Shas Party of Aryeh Deri. Shas, the movement of religious Sephardic Jews, made its first big splash in the last elections, winning ten seats as the voice of Sephardic assertiveness and religious fundamentalism. At the same time, it was a partner in Rabin's coalition and a supporter of the Oslo Accords. For its leaders, the sanctity of Jewish behavior is more important than land--even biblical sites.

Shas is now at the center of Israel's struggle between secular and religious authority. In fact, all through our trip we heard far more about people's fears of this conflict than about the Israeli-Palestinian question. A few weeks ago, after a nine-year trial, Deri was convicted of massive bribetaking. The judges issued their ruling on live TV. In response, Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef--formerly one of the country's two chief rabbis--said that the court's ruling is illegitimate, and Deri has refused to leave politics. Politicians from across the spectrum are saying that Deri should be expelled from the Knesset and that no party should agree to form a coalition with Shas as long as he is at its head. This may be a real flash point in the wake of the election.

More culture shock followed. We drove south on the new Begin Highway, which links the northern and southern Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem (huge "facts on the ground," as Moshe Dayan used to say), past a new soccer stadium and biotech research park, to the Jerusalem Mall. "The largest mall in the Middle East," my wife's cousins Jenny and Isaac say, and they may well be right. After a cursory security check, we hustle to find a parking spot, and then we are in a mall that would make a Valley Girl proud. Another piece of the United States imported whole.

After an expensive dinner in the center of the mall, with a Nike store on one side and a video warehouse behind us blaring away, I ask Jenny what she thinks of the coming elections. "I don't think it will make any difference, whoever wins." Her 16-year-old son agrees: "Left, right, center--they'll all mess up," he says. I'm surprised to hear this from him, a longhair into mild rebellion who is thrilled with the Sony Discman we brought him from the States. It is either a measure of how meager the current crop of candidates is or a sign of Rabin's assassination killing youthful idealism. Or evidence that Israel has also begun to import US-style voter alienation.

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