Arutz Sheva Israel National Radio -- June 9, 1999 / Sivan 5759


By Yedidya Atlas


Immediately following Ehud Barak's victory over Binyamin Netanyahu in the recent Israeli elections, the Clinton administration, together with its fellows in the liberal-left media, crowed with exultation. Barak won by a landslide, and Israel's new government would go back to peace process business as usual (read: Israeli unilateral concessions, continued Palestinian violations, and photo-op ceremonies for the Clinton White House). But the Israeli political reality is a bit different.

Barak's election brought no shift from Right to Left on the Israeli political scene. True, he beat Netanyahu 56% to 44%, but the political parties on the Israeli Left failed to gain a majority of Israel's 120 seat Knesset. On the contrary, even after incorporating into its ranks the dovish religious party Meimad and the Gesher Party of former Likud member David Levy, the One Israel list lost nearly a third of its Knesset representation. And while the Likud also lost seats, its votes went to other right-of-center parties, not to the Left. The right wing and religious bloc increased its overall number of seats as compared to its representation in the Knesset on the eve of the elections. And there's the rub.

As David Bar-Illan, Director of Communications and Policy Planning in Prime Minister Netanyahu's Office, put it in a recent article in the London Daily Telegraph: "It is a personal rather than an ideological victory for Mr. Barak. Or, more precisely, a personal repudiation of Binyamin Netanyahu." Barak didn't win; Netanyahu lost.


The Clinton administration, beset by a growing foreign policy boondoggle in Kosovo and a domestic explosion over Chinagate, needed this victory. He was relying on a return to the pliant Israeli Prime Minister model in Mr. Barak for vitally-necessary White House photo-op ceremonies to divert attention from the reality of Mr. Clinton's problems. But what they, and many others, failed to realize is that the Prime Ministerial race in Israel is not the same as a presidential race in the United States.

In Israel's multi-party system, there are no dominantly large parties such as the Republican and Democratic parties in the US. Everything must be viewed through probable and conducive coalition partners. A prime minister who fails to put together a viable and stable coalition, will be up for reelection within a very short time. Ehud Barak, long on political expediency, and short on the leftist ideology of his predecessor Shimon Peres, has no choice but to form a broad-based centrist - and possibly even slightly right of center - coalition if he is to have a government to rule. Hence, in practical terms, Prime Minister-elect Barak will have replaced Mr. Netanyahu, but will more or less inherit his government.


Such a situation does not fit in with the Clinton strategy. We can therefore expect the cautious honeymoon with the Israeli election results to cool considerably within six months or so, as Mr. Clinton and Ms. Albright discover that Ehud Barak is not Shimon Peres. He will not, and cannot, continue the great Israeli territorial giveaway they demand. He will not, because as a former Israeli Chief of Staff, he is probably much closer to Netanyahu in these matters than Clinton-crony James Carville realized. (In fact, Barak initially opposed the Oslo Accords on basic national security grounds.) He cannot, because even if he should personally prefer to follow the previous party line, said party has insufficient Knesset seats to rule by itself.

Moreover, there appears to be little substantive difference between Barak's vision of the "final status" agreement with the Palestinians and Netanyahu's. Both are publicly committed to an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, both consider the Jordan Valley to be Israel's strategic eastern border, both oppose withdrawing to the 1967 armistice line, and both have pledged to keep the settlements in Judea and Samaria under Israeli control. Barak may be willing to concede more of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians under certain conditions than Netanyahu, but this will still fall far short of Palestinian ambitions, expectations, and demands.

It is an open secret that Prime Minister-elect Barak dispatched former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Prof. Itamar Rabinovitch to Washington last week. Barak wished to deliver a polite but blunt message to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to lay off pushing him into negotiations with Syria et al, and to allow him to first form a government and work his own way into final status negotiations with the Palestinians.

Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Arafat will soon realize that even after they openly tried to influence the outcome of the recent Israeli elections, they still failed to bring about the narrow left wing coalition government _ including the Arab parties _ that would continue the wholesale unilateral giveaway that so distinguished the Rabin-Peres government. So Ehud Barak can expect to replace Binyamin Netanyahu not only as Prime Minister, but also as the target of renewed Clinton administration pressure and Palestinian violence.


Yedidya Atlas is a senior correspondent and commentator for Arutz 7 Israel National Radio. Atlas also serves as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies. His articles appear frequently in INSIGHT magazine and THE MACCABEAN.

 HOME  Maccabean  comments