New Elections Planned in Israel

By Mitchell Bard

On December 21, 1998, the Knesset voted 81-30 to hold new elections. The decision to call for elections before the scheduled date in the year 2000 came as Israelis on the right and left of the political spectrum united in opposition to the policies of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and after the Labor Party rejected a last minute appeal from Netanyahu to form a national unity government.

The disaffection with the government was rooted in divisions over how to proceed in the peace process. Politicians on the right are upset that Netanyahu was going too far in giving up territory without getting enough concessions from the Palestinians, while those on the left are angered by his failure in their judgment to comply with the signed agreements and to vigorously pursue the completion of negotiations.

Netanyahu asked the Knesset to approve his position that the Palestinians must satisfy five conditions before Israel resumes implementation of the Wye agreement. This position was rejected by a vote of 56-48. The impending campaign will now almost surely delay the implementation of the Wye accords, though Netanyahu says that Israel will fulfill its obligations after the Palestinians meet theirs.

By mutual agreement of the two major parties, the election date was set for May 17, 1999. The Labor Party reportedly wanted to hold them in March while Netanyahu preferred May. The Prime Minister hoped to use the timing to discourage the Palestinians from unilaterally declaring their independence in May as Yasser Arafat has threatened to do.

Reacting to the news of the election date, Palestinian officials said Arafat was unlikely to go through with his plan if it would help Netanyahu be elected. The Palestinians clearly prefer to see the Prime Minister replaced by someone from the Labor Party. Their problem is that if they openly support Netanyahu's opponent, they will create a backlash among voters who do not want to help the Palestinian leader. For his part, Netanyahu has already made plain his attempt to paint his Labor opponents as more interested in concessions than security.

The peace process will be the central issue in the upcoming election campaign, which will be enlivened by the likely candidacies of one or more third party candidates for Prime Minister. In addition to the head of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, a member of the Likud, Dan Meridor, announced he was quitting the party to form a new centrist party, and Ze'ev Benjamin Begin, the son of the party's founder Menachem Begin, declared his intention to run for Prime Minister as head of a new nationalist party opposed to the peace accords with the Palestinians. Other Likud officials have also hinted at leaving the party.

Netanyahu also faces opposition within the party from Uzi Landau, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committees and another opponent of the peace accords. The man seen as his main rival in the party, Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, decided against challenging Netanyahu. The Prime Minister is expected to easily defeat Landau, but there are additional signs that Netanyahu is losing support within his own party, including reports that one of his closest allies, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon is also considering running for Prime Minister.

One wild card is former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who public opinion polls currently rate as the most popular leader in Israel, but whose political views are largely unknown. Lipkin-Shahak rejected an invitation to join the Labor Party and has apparently decided to join Meridor's new party. The two men are reportedly discussing who would have the best chance to win before deciding who will head the ticket.

Every Israeli election is also heavily influenced by the positions taken by the various religious parties. As with the rest of the public, some religious leaders believe Netanyahu has gone too far and others not far enough. Should they throw their support to a third party candidate, he or she would have a far better chance of victory. On the other hand, the presence of a new party headed by a popular figure virtually guarantees that no party will win a clear majority, thereby forcing the creation of another coalition government. Given the current divisions in the country, a coalition would be likely in any case, and has been the result of every past Israeli election.

Given the multiple candidates, it is likely that none will receive 50 percent of the vote. If this happens, a runoff election will be held June 1, 1999.