NEW YORK (Nov. 2)
Israeli and American observers offering instant analysis of the Israeli election results bemoaned the fact that neither Likud nor Labor had received a clear mandate from the electorate Tuesday.
Even Likud supporters appeared subdued discussing the results on a special post-election broadcast over the Council of Jewish Federation’s closed-circuit satellite network Tuesday evening, just a few hours after the Israeli polls had closed.
Although they felt confident that party leader Yitzhak Shamir could piece together a ruling coalition with the cooperation of the religious parties, the Likud analysts joined others in talk of reforming Israel’s parliamentary election system, to allow voters to send a clear signal to their leaders and the world what course they want to see charted in foreign and domestic policy.
“It is a pity from our point of view that people did not give a very clear vote,” Jewish Agency Treasurer Meir Sheetrit said in an interview from Tel Aviv.
Once a rising star in Likud ranks, Sheetrit said that while Israelis seemed to have shifted clearly to the right, “it may be time to act seriously to change the elections.”
More than a dozen Israeli and American experts were interviewed during combined broadcasts from New York and Jerusalem. They based their opinions on early projections of a virtual dead heat between Likud and Labor, with the religious parties holding the balance of power.
NO ELECTION-NIGHT REVELRY
The program, sponsored by a coalition of American Zionist organizations, was aired in 32 cities in the United States and Canada.
For North Americans, the program offered a rare glimpse of Israeli politics in action. Footage of both major party headquarters showed no revelry or American-style hoopla, but an atmosphere of gloom that infected panelists in both countries.
In Jerusalem, none seemed as dismayed as Hirsh Goodman, the former military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
“I’m disappointed, but I suppose we should have seen the writing on the wall,” said Goodman.
There exists, he said, a potential for a national consensus, but Israel “lacks the leadership able to deliver it. The future is decided by minorities,” meaning the smaller parties, he said.
” ‘You won’t fund my yeshiva, you won’t give me money for another settlement, I’m leaving the government,’ “he said the religious parties might threaten.
Goodman had scorn for two scenarios that he said could shape up in back rooms over the next few weeks. Either Shamir would head another schizophrenic unity government, or Labor would sit in opposition to a Likud government ruling by the narrowest of margins.
But the vote appeared decisive to one expert. In New York, Yosef Olmert, an analyst at the Shiloah Institute at Tel Aviv University, said the election results are portentous for Labor.
They appear to be at the end of the road, even after making some internal changes,” said Olmert, whose brother, Ehud, was re-elected to the Knesset on the Likud list. “They need an extensive soul-searching. Among Israeli Jews, a decisive majority have swung to right-wing parties.”
IMPACT ON U.S.-ISRAELI RELATIONS
Samuel Lewis, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, also believes that, based on historical precedent, an Israeli government could act decisively with only a slim majority.
For Lewis, that possibility could have a significant effect on “the fundamentals of U.S.-Israel relations.”
If Likud makes good on promises of using harsher measures to put down the nearly 11-month-old Palestinian uprising, or pumps new life into the settlement program in the territories, said Lewis, “that sort of policy has the potential of stirring up quite a lot of static in Jerusalem and Washington.”
Joining Lewis in New York was Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, why put a positive face on the likelihood of a Shamir government.
According to Abram, Shamir has appeared willing in the past to engage in direct negotiations with Arab leaders with “no preconditions.” Abram said others’ fears of intransigence on Shamir’s part “may prove to be a shibboleth.”
In Jerusalem, one expert argued that Likud may represent a modicum of continuity for the next administration.
“When it comes down to it, the American government feels peacemaking depends on actions taken in other parts of the Middle East,” said Eytan Gilboa, a senior research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University.
IS REFORM POSSIBLE?
Another analyst had a good word to say about a unity government. Alan Dowty, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University, said in New York that despite its deadlock on foreign policy, the unity government succeeded over the last four years in stabilizing Israel’s once wildly inflationary economy.
But for most, another four years of “unity” seemed a disheartening proposition. Said Haim Ramon, a member of Labor’s young guard interviewed in Jerusalem:
“The best thing for Israel would be a government based on the present situation for the next six to 12 months, during which time we can change the electoral system and ask the public to clearly decide for Labor or Likud.”
Is reform possible? Dan Patir, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, does not think so. After all, he said in New York, the decision would be up to the electorate, which knows the parliamentary system gives voice to smaller groups that may not be heard in a majoritarian system.
“It would be difficult to get 60 to 70 percent to choose political suicide,” he said.
Ya’akov Kirschen, who draws the “Dry Bones” cartoon in the Jerusalem Post, gave this unconventional commentary in Jerusalem:
“As a cartoonist, I would say that if we hated our politicians, then we have handed them the worst punishment: We’ve forced them to sit together for the next four years.”