The Israeli election is good news indeed. For the first time ever, the majority of Israeli Jews have voted for a man who says out loud that “the Palestinian state is inevitable,” a “de facto phenomenon” and it is “not up to us.” Ehud Barak promised during the campaign that as Prime Minister he would “focus on the security of Israel.” He also said, “I assume that Palestinians will take care of their interests. We don’t have to intervene with their decisions about stamps and passports and so on.”
By overwhelmingly repudiating Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party, Israelis shattered the stalemate between right and left that has dominated Israeli politics since the seventies. The fact that Barak can form a majority coalition in the Knesset without relying on the religious parties may be his greatest opportunity, although he must take care not to exacerbate the religious-secular conflict.
Barak is not a felicitous politician. He cannot speak in soundbites, nor is he particularly adept in front of a crowd. Like his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, there are unpleasant aspects to his past vis-à-vis the Arabs, and he will have to grow into the job if he is to realize anything approaching a just peace for the long-suffering Palestinians.
The new Prime Minister will have to negotiate a social compact between Israel’s secular majority and its militant, ultra-Orthodox, fundamentalist minority. The government must find a better way to integrate the Russian immigrants and the Sephardim from the Middle East and North Africa into Israeli society. And it must finally bring its Arab population into the mainstream of Israeli life and offer them equal opportunity. The United States can help by keeping both sides on track in negotiating a final peace settlement, including a sovereign Palestinian state with territorial rights to part of Jerusalem. There are, of course, enormous obstacles to a final settlement: Barak, like Netanyahu, is committed to total Israeli control over Jerusalem, and he will be a difficult negotiator on the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
Underlying these challenges is the one that has faced Israel ever since its founding more than half a century ago: How to become a normal country? Most Israelis never wanted to live in a nation that is an occupying power or see their children serve in a repressive army. With the Palestinians offering genuine peace and Israel having elected a tough-minded leader who is ready to negotiate a final settlement, perhaps the time is finally at hand.