On Sunday, December 10, 2000, Barak formally delivered his resignation to Israel’s president. Barak’s resignation forced an election for prime minister, but not for parliament, and under the existing legislation only sitting members of parliament could run for the prime minister’s position. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had resigned from parliament after his 1999 defeat and thus was not eligible to contest the race. There was an effort to change the Basic law to permit private citizens, who were not members of the Knesset, to run for prime minister.
The amendment, referred to as the “Netanyahu Amendment,” was passed by the Knesset on December 19. However, Netanyahu conditioned his candidacy for prime minister on general elections in which he assumed (as public opinion polls suggested) that right-wing parties, especially likud, would gain seats in the Knesset.
Thus, he reasoned, he could win and govern with a right-wing coalition majority. The Knesset voted against general elections, apparently because elections could jeopardize the status of the incumbent members. Netanyahu announced that he would not run, leaving Sharon as the sole likud choice. Peres sought to challenge Barak as a center-left candidate but failed to gain the necessary support. Barak was left as the sole candidate of the center-left camp.
The stage was set for a face-off between Barak, who was to ask the nation for a new vote of confidence and a “referendum on peace,” and Sharon the leader of likud. The context would be the continuing and escalating violence of the intifada that began after the failure of the Camp David II summit as well as the continuing lack of progress on the peace process. It was both a time to reassess the political/policy landscape and to identify a leader and direction for the state.
Two candidates with clear differences in policy and perception presented very different choices to Israeli voters. Many Israelis believed that Barak’s credibility had deteriorated when he failed to act against the perpetrators of Palestinian violence in the al-Aqsa Intifada and continued to offer further concessions under fire. Barak had failed to achieve any significant movement toward peace (no new agreements were reached although there was implementation of previous accords) despite substantial concessions to the Palestinian position.
At the same time, Israel’s Arab population was concerned about the apparent deterioration of its status in the country. Israeli Arabs expressed their dismay and distress by demonstrating (and some were killed and wounded) and by voting in small numbers (primarily through absences and abstentions), rather than supporting Barak in substantial numbers as they had in 1999.
Sharon made clear in his campaign that he considered the Oslo process “dead” and that security was the central requirement and objective of his administration. He demanded that an end to Palestinian violence must precede a return to negotiations that would not be restricted by the Oslo process. Sharon understood Israeli concerns about security, especially personal security. Israelis sought, and Sharon promoted, “security and peace.”
The political fortunes of Barak were also hurt by Israelis’ recent pattern of voting against the incumbent, as well as a general view of Barak as a political neophyte and someone who had too much selfconfidence or, perhaps, arrogance. He was attacked for constantly changing his mind and for consulting with few of his advisers. An effective campaign slogan against him was “Is he Dr. Zig or Mr. Zag?” referring to the fact that his positions could change from one day to the next, be it on domestic issues, foreign policy, or people with whom he worked or trusted.
The 2001 election had the lowest turnout in Israeli history. Generally about 80 percent of eligible voters participate; this time only about 62 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls. It was the first and, so far, the only election in Israel’s history in which voters went to the polls to choose only a prime minister. The low overall voter turnout included a virtual boycott by Israel’s Arab voters.
The Israeli voters made a clear decision—Sharon defeated Barak by a margin of 63.3 percent to 37.7 percent of valid votes cast.Sharon won the election overwhelmingly, primarily because he suggested a different way to ensure personal security for the average Israeli. He became the sixth prime minister in a decade, unusual in that before then there had only been 11 prime ministers in all of Israel’s history.
The focus of the debate, the election itself, Sharon’s victory speech, and the government’s program was on security and peace. In his victory statement, Sharon noted that there was a public thirst to stand together to focus on the challenges facing Israel and thus he called “for the establishment of a national unity government, as wide as possible” to restore security to the citizens of Israel and achieve peace and stability in the region.
Soon after the election, Barak announced his resignation from the Knesset and from politics, setting off another internal search for a labor Party leader. Knesset member Salah Tarif, grandson of Sheikh Amin Tarif who had been the spiritual leader of the Druze community, took Barak’s seat in parliament. He was appointed as minister without portfolio in the government and became the first non-Jewish cabinet minister in the history of Israel. Reactions were widespread and varied. Tarif had served in the IDF and was mayor of Julis before joining the Knesset. Tarif resigned in January 2002 anticipating criminal charges in an alleged bribery scandal.
The Aftermath of the Election
Following Sharon’s overwhelming victory, his first priority was to create a governing coalition, and his most urgent challenge was Palestinian violence. Sharon’s election and his formation of a broad government based on a fractioned parliament inaugurated a new phase in Israeli politics. He took office with broad popular support from a population that believed that its security had deteriorated significantly during Barak’s tenure.
In a press conference on February 25, 2001, Sharon said: I would like to emphasize that Israel’s citizens have the full right to live in this country, tiny small country, the only democratic country in the region, that is the only place where the Jewish people have the right and the capabilities to defend themselves by themselves, and that is something that they have to preserve.Sharon focused on the need for the PA to take immediate action to stop acts of terror and violence and noted that he would conduct negotiations with the PA only following the cessation of hostilities.
On March 7, Israel’s largest government ever, with 26 ministers and 15 deputy ministers from eight parties, was installed. It was supported by the votes of likud, labor, Shas, Israel Beiteinu, National Union (a coalition of right-wing political parties), yisrael B’Aliya, One Nation (a centrist party), and the New way (the one-person faction led by Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, Rabin’s daughter). But there was the potential for additional supporting votes from some of Sharon’s natural allies who were not part of the cabinet, including the NRP, Gesher, United Torah Judaism, and ex-likud members from the remnants of the Center Party. Despite the coalition’s large size, there were outstanding issues, especially for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, that made the coalition potentially fragile.
Sharon’s government, approved by a Knesset vote of 72 to 21, was wide and broad-based, including both likud and labor as well as a number of smaller secular-nationalist and religious parties. Noteworthy was the inclusion of former labor Party leader, prime minister, and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres as foreign minister and labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer as minister of defense. The cabinet also included two wellknown “hawks” on the Arab-Israeli issue, Rehavam Ze’evi and Avigdor lieberman.
labor and likud were joined by a wide-range of other parties and individuals from points across the political spectrum. Among them was Rabin-Pelossof, who joined Sharon’s government as deputy defense minister because, as she noted, the issue of national unity was a top priority and she was willing to make compromises for it. The government reflected a broad Israeli consensus that the time was not ripe to achieve a peace treaty. Supporters and opponents of Oslo joined a cabinet whose first objective was to stop the violence and restore security to the average Israeli.
In his inaugural speech to the Knesset, Sharon stressed: “Citizens of Israel, the government, under my leadership, will act to restore security to the citizens of Israel, and to achieve genuine peace and stability in the area. I know that peace requires painful compromise on the part of both sides. Any diplomatic accord will be founded upon security for all peoples of the region.”
He lauded Peres and the labor Party for joining the national unity government to work with him “in the national struggle for security and peace.” Sharon’s assessment of the situation was that “despite considerable concessions we made on the way to peace—by all governments of Israel—in the past few years, we still haven’t found a willingness for reconciliation and true peace on the other side.”
Thus, “we will demand of the Palestinians that they renounce violence, terror, and incitement, and of the Palestinian Authority that they fulfill their obligations and combat terrorism directed against Israel, its citizens, and soldiers.” with the end of violence would come negotiations: “we will conduct negotiations with the Palestinians to achieve political agreements—but not under the pressure of terror and violence. . . .
If our Palestinian neighbors choose the path of peace, reconciliation and good neighborly relations they will find that I and the government I lead are honest and faithful partners.” He noted:Jerusalem is the great dream, for which Jews yearned for and prayed for in every generation. . . . Jerusalem was and will be the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
Israeli Prime Ministers have always reiterated this commitment in their inauguration speeches, including the late Yitzhak Rabin. So, too, in the words of the vow: “If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning” . . .He left room for potential compromises on portions of the city.At the outset, the coalition members set aside their differences and focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, despite the breadth of views of the parties on security issues. Sustaining the coalition consensus on how to deal with the intifada and the Palestinian negotiations was Sharon’s central task.
The Peace Process Restarted? Or, Violence Continued The establishment of new administrations in Jerusalem and in washington, D.C. (George w. Bush took office in January 2001), suggested that the peace process would take new form and have new content. The first objective was to reduce, or eliminate, terror and violence so that negotiations could resume. This had been stressed by Sharon during and after his election campaign and was noted by Colin Powell during his first visit to the region as U.S. secretary of state in late February 2001.
Powell spoke out against the spiral of increasing violence, counterviolence, provocation, and counterprovocation. He argued that calm must be brought to the region, and security coordination must begin again. Powell stressed continued U.S. support for direct negotiations between Israel and the PA based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, a position of continuity in U.S. policy. Powell also stressed the traditionally close relationship of the United States and Israel.
The violence continued. On March 12, the Israeli army sealed off the city of Ramallah, the unofficial seat of government of the PA in the west Bank, blocking roads with trenches, mounds of earth, and checkpoints backed by tanks and armored troop carriers. It was the first action against the Palestinians by the newly inaugurated Sharon government and the most severe blockade imposed by the Israelis on this major Palestinian commercial and cultural center. Palestinians protested.
Sharon denied that he was pursuing a new security policy and noted that it was directed “against those who attack and those behind them” while easing the situation for the majority of the population. Some members of the government, led by Foreign Minister Peres, believed that the policy should be reassessed. Toward the end of March, Israeli helicopter gunships bombarded training camps and bases of Arafat’s personal security forces after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed two Israeli teenagers.
Sharon came under mounting pressure to take decisive action against Palestinian attacks that had escalated since he took office. Israel adopted as policy the targeting of individuals directly responsible for violence and terrorism as deemed by the Shin Bet (General Security Service). If the PA did not act to prevent terrorism, the Israeli military would respond in “self-defense.” Sharon’s office stated: “The government’s guiding principle is constant and persistent action against the terrorists, as well as against those who both dispatch and assist them.”
The Bush administration spent much of the spring of 2001 determining its course of action on a number of Middle Eastern issues. President Bush conspicuously refused to meet with Arafat, focusing on the need for the violence to abate and trying to avoid the appearance of the constant meetings of Clinton with Arafat.