Israel's political landslide

Posted: Feb 09, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Landslides are rare in Israel. The political landscape, while hopelessly fractured, is as stable as the local geology. Israel has so long been frozen in an insoluble existential dilemma--how to deal with enemy neighbors whose most fervent hope is Israel's destruction--that for almost two decades the country has remained quite evenly split between right and left. When former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated 56 percent to 44 percent in the last election 21 months ago, this was deemed so severe a rebuke that he immediately gave up not only his leadership of the Likud Party, but his membership in Parliament, and indeed politics altogether. (He recently came back.) This week's political burial of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, however, makes Netanyahu's defeat look like a Bush-Gore squeaker. Barak was slaughtered. To lose by 25 points (62.5 percent-37.4 percent) in a finely balanced political system like Israel's is to suffer a repudiation that can only be termed epic. Barak had come into office with a reputation as a brainy, supremely self-confident thinker with secret plans to bring peace within 15 months. He turned out to be a grandiose fool. He offered to give away critical strategic assets (like the Jordan Valley) and profound national symbols (like the Temple Mount) without popular or parliamentary support, in complete contradiction to his own campaign promises, and, fatally and most foolishly, in return for nothing from the Palestinians. Well, not nothing. He got an ongoing four-month-old guerrilla war in the heartland of Israel. His is a record of bad faith and incompetence with little parallel in the history of modern democratic states. For all of his bravery as a soldier, Barak turned out to have no resolve, no bottom line as a national leader. Barak offers peace. Arafat gives him war. Barak responds with bluster, threats and ultimatums--all hastily recanted--followed by yet more concessions offered under fire. Israelis are tired, and desperate for peace. But they are a brave people and they don't like to be played for fools. Barak's cowering response to Palestinian violence, rebuffs and insults (such as denying the Jews' connection to the Temple Mount, their holy of holies) was more than Israelis could take. What is important to understand about the election, however, is that this was a rejection not just of Barak, but of his chimerical ``peace process.'' Remember: Barak was going to bring his peace treaty to a referendum. Well, he never got a treaty. But everyone knows the positions he offered and the concessions he made. That was the issue in this election. That is why he lost by an astounding 25 points. Yet even that underestimates the depth of revulsion for the phony peace he kept claiming was just around the corner. Barak was so afraid of an up-or-down vote on his peace policies that he contrived a quasi-referendum that would pit him against Ariel Sharon, a man who is anathema to enormous numbers of Israelis. Through the cynical maneuver of suddenly resigning the prime ministership in December, he forced an election in which the voter could not say ``No" to Barak without saying ``Yes" to Sharon. Yet so calamitous has Barak's tenure been that even Sharon--of all people, Sharon--won the greatest landslide in Israeli history. Sharon is the most improbable Israeli prime minister ever elected. He is old (72), widely feared and twice disgraced. There is not one Israeli in 10 who would have written in his name if given a free choice for prime minister. Barak's final legacy is to have made Sharon prime minister. Barak's accomplice in this, of course, was Arafat. Arafat will soon begin complaining--loudly, bitterly, and surely violently--about the man he just helped elect. Indeed, the very morning after the election, Sharon visited the Western Wall and declared that Jerusalem is indivisible. Arafat is undoubtedly discomfited. Too bad. He had almost two years with the most dovish Israeli leader in history, who had offered to share Jerusalem, and Arafat destroyed him by responding with disdain, impossible demands and finally violence. The last straw came just days before the election. Barak had made yet more concessions in last-ditch talks at Taba, Egypt. He'd coaxed a conciliatory communique out of Palestinian negotiators. Then the very next day, Arafat was at the Davos economic conference delivering an anti-Israel diatribe so hostile and vitriolic--calling Barak's Israel ``fascist''--that it left the international attendees stunned. It left Israelis disgusted. In just 21 months, they had lost practically all of their bargaining chips, their own personal security, and now their dignity too. Hence Sharon. His mandate is to restore the security, relative stability, and national sanity that prevailed before Barak's willful utopianism plunged Israel into its current state of despondent isolation and guerrilla war. He has a lot to repair.