JERUSALEM (May. 18)
Speeding in his taxi through the empty streets here at 3 a.m., Yaakov Amsalem shouts victoriously while describing the rush he felt after the dramatic victory of Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister-elect, just a few hours earlier.
By his own admission, Amsalem is the only left-leaning cab driver in his fleet. He feels vindicated after enduring three years of abuse from his colleagues during the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This victory has uplifted me. I feel like an Israeli again,” says Amsalem, who voted for Barak and the secular Shinui Party, which won six seats. “But we have to be careful not to break the religious — just to reduce them to their real size.”
In contrast to the massive, spontaneous celebrations the night before at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the mood in Jerusalem, a traditional Likud stronghold, is subdued the day after Israel’s political upheaval. Still, many people are talking polities, trying to figure out what kind of coalition Barak will put together with the new constellation of Knesset parties, and what it will mean for the peace process and domestic unity.
Smiles on the faces of One Israel supporters contrast with dejected Likudniks, some of whom refuse to talk to reporter. At the same time, those who voted for fervently Orthodox parties are confused.
The devout are mourning Netanyahu’s defeat — whom they backed overwhelmingly – – yet they also rejoice in the big boost in power to haredi, or fervently Orthodox, parties. Shas jumped from 10 to 17 seats, and together with United Torah Judaism, the fervently Orthodox now command 22 seats in the incoming Parliament, compared to 14 in the outgoing Knesset.
There is one consensus among winners and losers: Bridging the gulfs between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, will be an enormous challenge to the new government, even though Barak came to power on promises of unity for an increasingly divided Israeli society.
“I don’t think there will be unity,” says Shahar, 27, a student at Hebrew University who declined to give his last name. He describes how he almost broke down and cried when he saw how badly Netanyahu had been hammered. “The left wants to make peace with the Arabs, but not with the Jews.”
Binyamin Klugger, a 27-year-old Lubavitch activist who voted for Netanyahu and United Torah Judaism, is not optimistic.
“Barak’s rise to power is a disaster,” he says, as he sets up his tefillin stand on the Jerusalem pedestrian mall. “We will return to the days of `peace’ when buses blew up on the streets, and all of his talk about unity is electioneering propaganda.”
Nevertheless, Klugger is still hopeful that the haredim will not be completely marginalized from power. “Barak will not be able to ignore our power,” he says.
Across the road, Elisheva Halbersberg and Nurit Nardi, both 56-year-old secular teachers, hope Klugger’s scenario will not play out. They are all smiles as they celebrate Barak’s victory with some morning shopping.
“It’s a fantastic feeling,” says Halbersberg, who voted for Barak and Shinui. “Since the assassination of Rabin, all I have hoped for is that there will be no more extremes among our people.
“What Israel decided yesterday was to put a stop to extremism. I only hope Barak will not bring Shas into the coalition — I would even prefer the Likud.”
Halbersberg rejects criticism that Shinui supporters are anti-religious. “I am secular but I want religion to be brought back to me. The extremists took all of the good things, all of the fun, out of Judaism.”
Nardi voted for Barak’s One Israel alliance and completely agrees. “I do not hate religion,” Nardi says. “I am just extremely angry at the those who turned religion into horse-trading.
“I hope Barak will have enough intelligence and strength not to bow to the ultra-Orthodox — but we are still worried. I guess it’s like Judaism, you can never be completely happy.”
People like Halbersberg and Nardi are exactly the reason that Herzl, a 44-year- old kiosk owner and traditional Likud voter who declined to give his last name, cast his ballot for Shas this time.
“I had to stop the left,” says Herzl, who stayed up until 3 a.m. on Tuesday watching the results come in on television. “The big question now is who will Barak choose — Shas or the secular Shinui and Meretz parties.
“I am only afraid that the rift is about to get wider. The only solution is for all of us to calm down.”
However, amid the pessimism prevailing in Israel’s right-wing and religious camp, Yehuda Ledgeley, 29, a West Bank settler from Tekoa, offered a sober analysis of the new political reality.
Ledgeley, an immigrant from Canada, voted for Netanyahu and the far-right, settler-backed National Union Party led by Ze’ev “Benny” Begin. He is worried that Barak will take steps to evacuate the settlements as he presses ahead with the peace process, but he says the religious community is responsible for the new power of secular parties.
“The religious community is partly to blame for the backlash,” he says. “They have not conveyed a positive message on Judaism, and there is a lack of understanding of the needs of the other side. We are part of the problem.”
“I’m trying to be optimistic,” he says. “Ehud Barak may not be pro-religious, but maybe he is more suitable for this country right now.”