The Media Campaign in the 2003 Israeli Elections

The 2003 Election Campaign

The January 2003 election posed a number of problems, including a very short campaign season and the fact that the labor and the likud Parties had both scheduled internal elections for party leadership. In likud, the choice was between Sharon and Netanyahu, and in labor, between Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, former minister, Knesset member, and chairman of the Histadrut Haim Ramon, and the mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna. Sharon remained leader of likud while Mitzna ousted Ben-Eliezer from the labor leadership.

The Labor Party under Amran Mitzna

Mitzna had been mayor of Haifa for nearly a decade, following a career in the IDF in which he rose to the rank of major general. In August 2002, Mitzna began his quest for the leadership of the labor Party by making a very strong attack on Sharon’s policies. In declaring his candidacy for the labor Party leadership and thus also for prime minister, Mitzna stated that life in Israel was getting worse every day under Sharon’s leadership and that Sharon was doing nothing to deal with Israel’s security and economic problems.

Consequently, Israelis had lost hope, and labor’s decision to remain in the government prevented it from offering an alternative to the government’s policies. Mitzna argued that the conflict with the Palestinians could not be solved merely by talking about territorial concessions while continuing to use force and to build settlements. He called for a unilateral withdrawal from settlements, if an agreement could not be reached, and while a unilateral move was obviously less than ideal, it would achieve security separation and a secure border.

He believed that only he could present a real alternative to the failing government and policies of Sharon.Traditionally during times of crisis, Israelis have sought a cohesive government to deal with an emergency.

During the 2003 election campaign, Israel was faced with two major security crises: the second intifada, and an escalating threat of war in the Persian Gulf. The al-Aqsa Intifada that had erupted 18 months previously had already led to thousands of casualties on both sides and led many Israelis to consider security and peace to be the nation’s top priority.

At the same time, rhetoric against Iraq was reaching a fevered pitch, and Israelis were concerned about the prospects of a war in the Persian Gulf and the effects it would have on Israel’s security. With widespread public support, therefore, for a coalition government, it would have seemed prudent for Mitzna and labor to agree to a NuG rather than run the risk of alienating voters.

Israel’s last labor government, under Barak, had fallen apart in 2002 for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most central was the issue of funding for the settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Furthermore, labor supporters were becoming disenchanted because they felt that their party was compromising on key issues, going so far as to acquiesce when Sharon decided to reoccupy most of the occupied territories.

Thus, Mitzna found it necessary to move farther to the left in order to distance labor from this stance. One of Mitzna’s main policy initiatives was to take budgeted money away from the settlements and allocate it for social purposes. Mitzna believed that it was necessary for labor to present a viable alternative to the hard-line stance endorsed by the right-wing parties. He advocated a position that would fit the mold of traditional labor policies that encouraged negotiation over confrontation.

Shinui under Tomy Lapid

The secular Shinui Party headed by the charismatic yosef (Tomy) lapid became the arch-nemesis of the religious establishment during the 2003 campaign by promising to eradicate the influence of religious groups and parties on the government.

lapid was born in yugoslavia in 1931, immigrated to Israel in 1948, and became a journalist. He began to reinvigorate the Shinui Party as its leader during the 1999 election campaign, when he first became a member of the Knesset.

In 2003, Shinui campaign ads criticized the ultra-Orthodox Jews for refusing military service. Shinui also opposed strict kosher laws and other religious laws that affected those who were not as religious.

Shinui supporters favored a NuG, overwhelmingly supported the evacuation of settlements in the occupied territories, and were split over whether to conduct negotiations with Arafat. These positions allowed Shinui to appeal to centrist and leftist voters, while its virulent anti-Orthodox message was appealing to all secular voters.

Election Results

The election campaign focused primarily on the issues of security and peace. The religious-secular divide was also a significant element, and various other issues were championed by smaller political parties. The reinvigorated Shinui Party was targeted by many, especially the religious parties, which were concerned with Shinui’s avowedly secular platform; however, Mitzna also attacked it by suggesting that Shinui was a problematic party because it carried “the flag of hostility” toward Israel’s religious population.

Mitzna’s attack on Shinui foreshadowed his suggestion that labor would renew its historic partnership with the religious parties in governing Israel. He also ruled out the idea of labor’s participation in a NuG headed by likud and Sharon. This suggested to many observers his lack of national political experience, since the idea of a national unity government was high on the agenda of many Israeli voters.

The election of January 28, 2003, was in many respects a revolution in Israeli politics and suggested significant changes in both domestic and foreign policies. voters were not confident about the situation facing them and the country as a whole. There was a feeling of inadequate security, and the economy had deteriorated significantly. Generally, depression characterized the political scene. The election results presented a snapshot of Israel in 2003.

likud emerged as the largest political party in Israel, with twice the number of seats of the runner-up, its longtime rival, labor. Clearly likud was now the dominant power in Israeli political life, and Sharon emerged with a stronger mandate to deal with the Palestinians and the security issue. Sharon’s substantial victory, coupled with the significant downturn in the electoral results for labor, Meretz, and Shas, contributed to an usual combination of more right-wing, more secular perspectives in the government.

The labor Party suffered the worst election defeat in its history. labor obtained only 19 seats in the Knesset compared to the 38 seats held by its rival likud. Most saw labor’s significant losses as a direct result of the failure of the party to project a strong image and of its leader to appreciate the need to match party policy with popular views. The party clearly suffered from the leadership of Mitzna, and his announced refusal to join a likud-led NuG was probably a dominant factor in the defeat. By refusing to join a NuG, labor was left with its principles intact but its credibility as a ruling party shaken.

Mitzna had called for negotiations with whichever leaders the Palestinians put forward, even if that was the PlO and Arafat. Mitzna underestimated the resentment voters had toward Arafat and the PlO after so many deaths and so much damage caused by the intifada. Mitzna continued to defend his positions even when his party members argued ardently against them.

Another factor was labor’s undistinguished party platform, which did not adequately address issues that differentiated them from the other parties, especially Shinui. labor’s foreign policy platform called for unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories with two states for two nations and political separation alongside economic cooperation. This also distanced labor from the typical Israeli voter.

On May 4, Mitzna resigned his position as leader of the labor Party and lashed out at his rivals in the party. The resignation came after months of wrangling within labor and was followed by damaging rivalries among party leadership and a lack of a coherent message to restore the party to its previous central position in political life. Peres became acting chairman of labor.Meanwhile, other parties declined in strength and popular support. yisrael B’Aliya received enough votes to secure only two seats, and party leader Sharansky clearly believed that the party had somehow lost its image and message.

He resigned from the Knesset and effectively merged his party into likud. He joined Sharon’s government but noted that he would concentrate his efforts on rebuilding the yisrael B’Aliya Party into a viable force. The other Russian group, Israel Beiteinu, which had been led by lieberman, had merged into the National union Party prior to the 2003 elections. National union won seven seats in the Knesset, and lieberman became minister of transport in Sharon’s government.

Among the religious parties, NRP gained a single seat to emerge with six positions in the Knesset; united Torah Judaism remained stable at five seats. Shas, whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia yosef, had suggested that the party would grow from 17 seats to 26 seats, suffered a significant reversal and declined from its position of third largest party to 11 seats in the new parliament.Besides likud and Sharon, the big winner in the election was the Shinui Party under the leadership of lapid.

lapid utilized his secular message to secure 15 seats in the Knesset, and Shinui became the third largest party by playing to public sentiment. His party joined the coalition government, and lapid became minister of justice and deputy prime minister.Meretz suffered a significant electoral loss of 40 percent of its seats, and Sarid resigned his leadership position. The Arab parties lost several seats in the parliament and shrank to a total of eight seats. One Nation secured three mandates but did not join the government.