The Netanyahu and Barak Governments

The Netanyahu and Barak Governments (1996–2000)

The assassination of Rabin and the tension and conflict that followed inaugurated a new period in Israel’s domestic as well as in its international relations. Continuity was not the central characteristic of the transition from Rabin to Peres to Netanyahu to Barak. The Israeli electorate shifted its voting patterns and its policy perspectives. At the same time progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations slowed dramatically.

The 1996 Election

Shimon Peres called for elections in May 1996. Preelection polls indicated a close race for prime minister but also suggested that the configuration and membership of parliament might prove unusual in its makeup. The Israeli national election of May 29, was the 14th since Israeli independence but differed from those previously conducted in its format and structure, as well as in its outcome and portent. This was the first direct election of the prime minister utilizing a new electoral system introduced in 1992 in which voters chose both a prime minister and members of parliament in separate ballots cast at the same time.

As usual, the campaign was relatively brief but intense, and the turnout was relatively high. When Israelis went to the polls they were faced with two ballots, and this permitted them to split their vote. In the 1996 elections, the prime ministerial ballot was seen as a vote on the peace process, while the ballot for the Knesset allowed voters to focus on more specific issues, individuals, or interests.

Thus, for example, ultraOrthodox Jewish voters could still vote for their preferred religious party (e.g., Shas or NRP), as they traditionally had, and at the same time vote for one of the candidates of the two major parties to express their views on the peace process.Peres, the incumbent prime minister who campaigned on a theme of continuity and expansion of the peace process, was defeated by Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who focused on the need for security as the first imperative during the peace process. Netanyahu’s victory was narrow, a margin of less than 1 percent.

The election results may have been in part due to a fateful decision by Peres, made soon after the assassination of Rabin in 1995, not to call for early elections. The reason, apparently suggested by the United States and conforming to Peres’s view, was that a deal between Israel and Syria could be achieved in time for both Clinton and Peres to run for election in November 1996 with a Syrian-Israeli agreement as part of an overall theme of their foreign policy successes.

But Peres thereby also allowed time for terrorists to remind Israelis of the security issue and to question the speed with which the existing peace arrangements had been achieved. His decision to make Ehud Barak, the former chief of staff of the IDF, minister of foreign affairs, and to keep the defense portfolio for himself, did little to enhance Peres’s security credentials, essential for a prime minister seeking peace with security.

In the period between the 1992 and 1996 elections, Israel had undergone a substantial movement toward peace with its neighbors. Israel had negotiated and reached several agreements with the PLO and a peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. On the other hand, a string of gruesome bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in February and March 1996 left numerous Israelis wounded and killed. Terrorism had become the main threat to Israelis’ security.

A resumption of bomb attacks by Islamic fundamentalists before the elections would almost certainly result in Peres’s defeat. Because terrorism would facilitate a Likud victory, Peres, in a theme used by Labor since Rabin was assassinated, urged Israelis not to let terror determine the government. At the same time, the public was reminded by the political Right that more Israelis had been killed in terror attacks since the signing of the Oslo Accords than were killed in the same period before the signing.

The election campaign was, in a sense, a referendum between Peres’s and Netanyahu’s approaches to peace and security. The incumbent Labor Party employed the legacy of assassinated prime minister Rabin to evoke sympathy for its cause. Likud used the memory of those killed in suicide bombings to inspire distrust of the Labor government’s position on security. External influences such as the broad threat of terrorism and the strong pro-Labor stance of the Clinton administration also had a role. Other issues, such as economic policy and social problems, remained in the background.

The peace process included other issues that were central to Israeli concerns, such as the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Peres suggested that compromises would be necessary in either one or both of these areas, and not all Israelis were ready to make concessions of this sort. In response, Peres assured voters that he would hold a referendum before any permanent deals were struck; Netanyahu interpreted this pledge as a suggestion that Peres was deceiving the public and avoiding the issues. Netanyahu declared the election a referendum to force the public to define their beliefs.

Israeli Arab voters retained a strong interest in the success of the peace process and, generally, the creation of a Palestinian state. For this reason, they had supported Labor consistently, but their support wavered in 1996. They felt betrayed by the Israeli military action in Lebanon in April 1996 and by the strict closure of the occupied territories following Hamas terrorist bombings. (The extent of the “closure,” or prevention of Palestinians crossing from the West Bank and Gaza Strip into Israel, could vary in terms of who, how many, and from where Palestinians could leave their area and travel into Israel.) Likud, aware of the sentiments, sought to sway some of this constituency by pointing to the harsh measures employed by the Peres government.

The 1996 elections also marked the first time immigrants from the former Soviet Union had the opportunity to vote for their own party, yisrael B’Aliya, led by Natan Sharansky. Aware of his constituency’s focus on security and the peace process and in the interest of his party’s success, Sharansky did not demand that his voters choose a particular position on the peace process. He told his supporters to follow their conscience in their choice of a prime minister and to vote for yisrael B’Aliya in support of immigrant issues for parliament.

The ultra-Orthodox camp supported Netanyahu. One reason was a shared hard-line view of the peace process. Perhaps more important, however, was the religious parties’ loathing of the stridently secularist Meretz Party (a coalition of left-wing Zionist parties formed in 1992), which had been Labor’s junior partner in the outgoing government, and of the secularists within Labor, who also were seen as threatening the Jewishness of the state.The May 29, 1996, election outcome was important in several ways.

Clearly Netanyahu defeated Peres because of two significant factors: the Arab vote, which did not turn out to support Peres, and the religious party vote, which did turn out in very high proportions to support the less secular and more nationalist Netanyahu. This created a narrow but sufficient victory for Netanyahu over Peres.The 1992 electoral law had been intended to alter the process of politics and its dynamics; the prime minister and the larger political parties were to be strengthened.

Although the prime minister’s position was strengthened, he was still limited by the parliament’s ability to cast a vote of no confidence and by the nature of the coalitions in the Knesset. At the same time, there was the assumption that the large parties would get larger and the smaller parties would get smaller, or lose their positions in parliament entirely, thereby facilitating coalition formation and reducing the bargaining power of the small parties in the Knesset.

The assessments proved to be inaccurate. In 1996, the voters split their ballots, choosing Peres or Netanyahu for prime minister and voting for another party for parliament. Thus, rather than facilitating coalition formation and strengthening the prime minister, the changes in the law resulted in more parties in parliament that could bargain with the prime minister for their demands because the prime minister needed their votes to form a government.

In the end, the religious parties received their largest-ever vote totals and seats in the Knesset, and 11 new parties proved able to secure enough votes to gain seats in parliament. The results thus portended changes in government personnel and policies, and the big parties were the big “losers” in the Knesset vote. Labor went down from 44 to 34 seats and Likud from 40 to 32.

Despite forecasts to the contrary, Shas posted the most significant improvement of all parties, increasing its share to 10 seats and becoming the third-largest party in the Knesset. The NRP increased its share to nine seats. The left-of-center parties, Meretz especially, lost the most. yisrael B’Aliya, with the support of Soviet immigrants, obtained seven seats. The Third Way, a political party that offered an alternative to Labor and Likud, sought to assure the role of the Golan Heights in Israel’s future and obtained four seats.

The outcome of the election was also atypical in that although Netanyahu defeated Peres by a very slim margin (50.49 percent to 49.51 percent) in the vote for prime minister, the Labor Party outpolled the Likud by a margin of 34 seats to 32 in parliament. Netanyahu thus faced the challenge of forming a government despite the small size of his own party in the Knesset.

Netanyahu cobbled together a government that was endorsed by the Knesset on June 18, by a vote of 62 to 50. Netanyahu spoke of a new government that would introduce fundamental changes in the country and would lead Israel into the 21st century.

In reference to particularly the presidents of Syria and Lebanon but also other Arab leaders, he called for direct negotiations for peace that would be sustainable and stable. And, he reminded the country of the relationship with the United States, which would continue to be the cornerstone of Israel’s foreign policy. He also noted the government’s commitment to encourage settlement throughout Israel, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and Gaza.

Netanyahu pointed out that he was the first prime minister to have been born after the establishment of the state. He stressed that the government would follow a new path, new in its approach to security and to the quest for peace. He believed that genuine peace with Israel’s neighbors could be attained; nevertheless, the political parties opposed to the Oslo peace process were considerably strengthened in the election, as were the religious parties.

Netanyahu was able to form a coalition government that included the religious parties (Shas and NRP), yisrael B’Aliya, and the Third Way. His cabinet included some of the most prominent and well-known figures in Israel: David Levy as foreign minister, yitzhak Mordechai as minister of defense, and Dan Meridor as minister of finance. Natan Sharansky became minister of industry and trade, an important post for the representative of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and Eli Suissa of the Shas Party held the interior portfolio, an important post for that party.