WRMEA Archives 1988-1993

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 9, 10

To Tell the Truth

New "Democratic Israel" Party Could Form Peace Coalition With Labor

By Leon T. Hadar

The coming Israeli Knesset (parliamentary) elections and the continuing Middle East peace process have produced one of the strangest political creatures in Israel's history. A collection of former Marxist activists, a group of Milton Friedman's groupies, and opponents of the rabbinical authorities of the Jewish state, all of whom together currently control 10 Knesset seats, have formed a new "Democratic Israel" (DI) party, which hopes to become the kingmaker of a new "peace government" following the June 23 elections.

The goal of what is now the largest political bloc in the Knesset after Likud and Labor is to win 15 parliamentary seats in the elections, join a new Labor-led cabinet and reinforce the new government's dovish orientation. DI leaders, who toyed with the idea of naming their party "Peace Camp," hope to pressure a government headed by Yitzhak Rabin to negotiate with the PLO-supported West Bank leadership an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories and establishment of a Palestinian state.

DI's long-term objective is to replace the religious-orthodox parties as the third largest political force in Israel's politics and become the critical element for formation of any future coalition government.

Labor's Refugees

Many developments have made the birth of the new party possible. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have made it easier for MAPAM (the United Workers party, whose leaders adhered in the '40s and '50s to dogmatic Marxist principles and even worshipped Joseph Stalin) to band together with Shinui (Change), which is headed by a group of millionaires who advocate reforming Israel's economy along free market lines.

Those two parties have established a new political force with RATZ (Citizens Rights Party), led by Shulamit Aloni, Israel's most famous female politician, who has called for years for separating synagogue and state. Aloni, Shinui leader Amnon Rubinstein and MAPAM chairman Yair Tsaban all detest Rabin, whose brutal policies as defense minister ignited the intifada. Indeed, several RATZ leaders, including Member of Knesset Yosef Sarid and Abraham Tamir, a former aide to Ezer Weizman, are political refugees from Labor. They feared that their former party was drifting to the right and turning into a Likud II. They suspect that the new Labor Party chairman, in contrast to his predecessor, Shimon Peres, will be inclined to form a new "National Unity" government with Likud that will only lead to a stalemate in the peace process.

It is the possibility of a Labor-Likud National Unity government that DI leaders hope to prevent by providing Labor with an alternative partner for a "peace coalition." As Aloni explained in a newspaper interview, DI's best-case scenario is that Labor under Rabin will be able to "steal" close to 5 seats (that is, about 150,000 voters) from Shamir, whose party holds 38 seats. With DI's potential win of 15 seats, Labor could form a coalition of 58 seats that would enjoy the backing of the Arab parties, which are expected to win about 6 seats.

The new peace cabinet would then move, as Rabin has promised in several recent statements and interviews, to complete within six to nine months negotiations with the Palestinians over an interim solution. It would then seek a new and more impressive mandate for peace from the Israeli electorate. After winning public support for his peace strategy, according to this scenario, Rabin-like South Africa's De Klerk-would then be able to continue the negotiations with Syria and Jordan and move toward a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.

This scenario is not nearly as far-fetched as it might have seemed only two months ago. Then, after Rabin's defeat of the more dovish Shimon Peres, many Israelis predicted that the June 23 elections would only reaffirm the current parliamentary balance of power, and that the hawkish Rabin would have no choice other than forming a new National Unity government.

Such a replay of the previous Likud-Labor coalition would have perpetuated the status quo, with the Likud partner putting obstacles before any Labor tendency to take conciliatory positions in the peace negotiations.

Moreover, some analysts interpreted Rabin's victory as a weakening of the reformist and moderate wing of Labor, which included many of the young activists who supported Peres. Rabin, it was argued, would turn Labor into a carbon copy of Likud. In that case, the new DI would have emerged as a viable opposition to the new National Unity government, and a political home to dovish Laborites fleeing their party.

However, when Labor activists went to the polls in March for the party's first open primary to elect their list of Knesset delegates, the conventional wisdom collapsed. The new list included new faces from Labor's Young Guard as well as some of the party's hard-core doves. Reflecting the trend, 37-year-old Abraham Burg, who advocates negotiations with the PLO as well as separation of religion and state, was elected to third place on Labor's slate, after Rabin and Peres.

Other prominent "peaceniks" such as Yael Dayan, Yosef Beilin and Haim Ramon, who had met in the past with PLO activists, found themselves in top positions on the Labor list. All three call for negotiations with the PLO and for far-reaching compromises with the Palestinians. Last year, in something of a symbolic act, Dayan, daughter of a famous and hawkish Israel general, the late Moshe Dayan, traveled around the U.S. on a lecture tour together with Faisal Husseini, the son of a revered Palestinian guerrilla leader killed in 1948.

As the doves ascended, such Labor hawks as former chief of staff Haim Bar Lev resigned or, like former chief of staff Mordechai Gur, were demoted to lower positions on the Labor election slate.

Following the Labor primaries, Likud spokesmen were quick to characterize the Labor list's winners as "leftists" or "pro-PLO." However, polls indicate that a majority of Israelis are impressed with Labor's new candidate list that includes more young activists, women and Sephardim.

The decision by the Labor Party members, including some of the chief doves, to select Rabin as the candidate for prime minister stems more from tactical than ideological considerations. Like current consensus among U.S. Democrats, it was the "electability" factor that drove most Laborites to replace as party leader the uncharacteristic Peres, with his "loser" image, with Rabin, who enjoys high popularity ratings even among Likud voters.

With tensions growing within Likud between Ashkenazi leadership headed by Shamir and the Sephardi supporters of the Moroccan-born Foreign Minister David Levy, there is an increasing sense in Labor that some Sephardi voters, antagonized by the Likud's treatment of their leader and anguished over their worsening economic conditions, might switch to Labor. Laborites were cheered by televised scenes from a meeting of Levy's supporters during which some of the angry Sephardi Likudniks began chanting "Rabin, Rabin."

Bad News, Good News

The popular Rabin's ability to crack the pro-Likud Sephardi voting bloc in turn cheers DI leaders who want to see the downfall of Shamir and the militant nationalist-religious bloc. A poll published by the newspaper Hadashot on April 4 suggested that Labor could win 44 seats in the Knesset (compared to 31 seats for Likud).

However, there is also a downside for DI. Now, with a moderate and attractive Labor list, some voters who might otherwise have switched to the new party may stay with Labor. Indeed, the same Hadashot poll indicated that the DI might only maintain its current 10 seats in the Knesset, losing the nearly five seats polls had indicated it might gain after the election of Rabin and before the selection of the dovish Labor list.

However, the best news for DI, and perhaps for peace, is that a majority of Labor's first 45 Knesset candidates strongly oppose a government with the Likud, and support a coalition with DI. Some of the dovish Laborites stated that they do not exclude the possibility of splitting with Labor and aligning themselves with DI in the opposition if Rabin joins a coalition that is not committed to the land-for-peace formula.

In such a case, Rabin would face a major dilemma. By forming a coalition with the Likud he could lose the support of around 10 parliamentarians, and thus lose the slim majority with which he is expected to emerge from the election. A split Labor Party would turn Likud into the winner of the election, with Shamir assigning to Rabin a role of junior member in his cabinet. Hence, the combination of a dovish Labor Knesset list and the presence of a strong DI in the Knesset could effectively prevent any Yitzhak (Rabin)-Yitzhak (Shamir) alignment.

The Russian Vote

Aloni and her colleagues believe they can increase the number of their Knesset seats without hurting Labor. Their hopes center on the close to 400,000 Russian-Jewish immigrants, of whom 240,000 will be allowed to vote. (That is close to nine Knesset seats.) Contrary to early expectations that these refugees from the former Communist bloc would tend to vote for the right-wing parties, recent polls suggest otherwise. A "Tazpit" poll indicated that 43 percent of the Russian-Jewish voters will vote for the centrist and left-wing parties, while only 27 percent support the Likud.

Immigrants blame the Likud government for their problems, especially the high unemployment and housing shortage. The American-Israeli crisis over the $10 billion loan guarantees only verified, for Russian Jews, Labor's argument that the Likud assigns a higher priority to West Bank settlements than to absorption of immigrants.

Secular and non-Zionist immigrants also are alienated by the religious and messianic agenda of the Likud and its satellite nationalist and religious parties. Most of these non-religious immigrants would have preferred to settle in the U.S., and hoped to find in Israel a "little America," that is a secular, consumer-oriented middle-class society.

With, some say, more than 30 percent of the immigrant families consisting of mixed-marriage couples, they are not interested in efforts by the rabbinical authorities to force them to go through religious marriage ceremonies or to circumcise their sons (a religious-orthodox politician controls the absorption ministry). Similarly, most prefer to live in the urban centers on the Mediterranean coast, rather than on the West Bank.

As a result, many of the Russian Jews are attracted to DI's liberal platform, which includes separation of religion and state, adoption of a constitution, support for civil rights and economic reform. They also find themselves more comfortable with the Westernized leaders of the party than with the Gush-Emunim (religious militant "settlers") types, who dominate the right-wing bloc.

DI has recruited Russian-Jewish immigrants to the party and plans to include one in a "secure" place among the first 10 candidates on its Knesset list. Its leaders hope to gain about three seats among the undecided Russian-Jewish voters. Eventually, Labor and DI politicians hope that the immigrant voters will increase their combined power in the Knesset to 60 seats.

This is the optimistic scenario, but even with 55 seats and the support of the Arab lists, a Labor-DI coalition might be able to ignite the peace process and hope that some of the religious-orthodox parties, and even David Levy's group, might end up in the peace coalition column.

A "Shamir Surprise"

There is, however, a pessimistic scenario as well. It is built around a pre-election "Shamir surprise" involving an Israeli show of military force against Arab targets, perhaps in Iraq. Such a development, arousing nationalist feeling, might bring back to the Likud some Sephardi voters who would otherwise vote for Rabin. With the Likud facing likely defeat in the polls in 1981, Menachem Begin used that same tactic. His air attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor raised the Likud's popularity and secured its electoral victory.

Barring such a high-risk adventure by Shamir, DI leaders point confidently to public opinion polls showing DI's growing popularity among new voters. In a poll conducted in several high schools in the Tel Aviv area, the DI captured 38 percent of the "vote," with 17.5 percent "voting" for Labor, 11.5 percent for Likud and 25 percent for the extreme, right-wing parties.

"If the trend continues, we might be able to nominate a prime minister by the year 2000," said on DI activist. "But only if the Likud has not destroyed Israel by then."

Leon T. Hadar is a adjunct scholar in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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