September 2, 1999
A Sea Change Ahead?
History may record 5759 as the year Israel made a historic turn to peace
Will 5759 be remembered as a year of radical change in the course and direction of Israel's history, or merely as a year when the government changed hands after an election and life went on much as it did before?
The answer, as 5760 begins, is that the jury is still out. But if history and Israel's recent election are any guide, the radical-change scenario is more likely.
While there have been many different governments in Israel's 51-year history, only three times has there been a change in the party that controls the country. While this is a regular enough event in most parliamentary democracies, in Israel's case, each of these changes ushered in a veritable cataclysm in the domestic and diplomatic directions in which the country was headed.
In 1977, after nearly three decades of uninterrupted rule by the Labor Party or its predecessors, Menachem Begin won an election, at last, as the head of the Likud bloc.
Begin's victory signaled not only a sharp turn to the ideological right but also the emergence of new power blocs. Israel's Sephardic communities, in particular the large Moroccan community, were solidly identified with Likud.
For them, Begin's success meant they had finally "arrived" after years of alienation and discrimination. Begin, moreover, created what was to be a stable and lasting alliance between his Likud and the Orthodox parties: the National Religious Party, Agudat Yisrael and, later, the Sephardic, and fervently Orthodox, Shas Party. That alliance was the pivotal axis of Israeli political life through the late 1970s and '80s.
In foreign affairs, of course, Begin's advent, far from triggering tension and war as the left had feared, brought about the first breakthrough to peace: the Camp David conference and the peace treaty with Egypt.
But the Likud and its allies, determined to perpetuate Israel's rule over the West Bank, held on tenaciously to the Greater Land of Israel.
It took the return to power of the Labor Party, under Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, for the second great cataclysm in Israel's diplomatic saga: the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.
On the domestic front, Rabin's victory seemed to signal the beginning of a turnabout in the party-political configuration too: Shas, by now the largest Orthodox party, entered his coalition alongside the secular Meretz Party.
But this marriage of convenience did not last, and, in 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu, the head of Likud, regained power for his party and reconstituted the Likud-Orthodox alliance. The Oslo process, which Netanyahu reluctantly embraced, barely flickered under his stewardship. But it was not extinguished.
Does Ehud Barak's impressive electoral victory in May, and his creation of a broad government encompassing the left and all the Orthodox parties, indicate a further irrevocable surge toward peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Arabs?
And does it mean a historic return to the traditional alliance between Israel's leftist and Orthodox parties, which Begin smashed and which Rabin failed to re-create in a lasting way?
Netanyahu calls Barak's 12-percent margin of victory in the direct election for prime minister a result of moral fatigue, but leftist writers and thinkers are welcoming the less chauvinistic, less militaristic mood that has swept much of secular, Ashkenazic Israeli society and begun to make inroads among the traditional and the Sephardic sectors, too.
Barak's supporters make the point that, unlike Rabin, the prime minister rules with a solid "Jewish" majority in the Knesset, and the hard-liners, still fighting against Palestinian statehood, are reduced to less than one-quarter of the Parliament.
The prime minister's apparent readiness to cede all of the Golan Heights for peace seems likely to win wide support in the referendum he has promised -- if and when Syria accedes to his demands on security and normalization.
If, as Barak has publicly and repeatedly pledged, the next 15 months see historic breakthroughs toward peace both on the Syrian-Lebanese and the Palestinian tracks, then last year's change of government will turn out to have been a real watershed in Israel's century of conflict with its Arab neighbors.
Barak says his aim is to end that conflict once and for all. The method of partial, incremental steps forward seems to him too risky, too slow and too unstable. His most oft-repeated statement in his early sallies in international diplomacy -- in the Middle East, in Washington and Moscow and in key European capitals: "I am not Netanyahu. I seriously intend to make peace."
If he can translate his intentions into concrete results, moreover, the authoritative and domineering way he put together his governing coalition will be forgiven, even by those within his own party most deeply hurt and offended by his brushing them aside.
If his peacemaking succeeds, his deliberate deferring of pressing domestic issues, especially religious pluralism, will be accepted, in the light of hindsight, as an act of wisdom and political perspicacity. Indeed, the delay -- while ideological foes such as Shas and Meretz cooperate with Barak to bring the peace treaties -- may well turn out to be the most salutary approach to these intractable state-religion dilemmas that will, to a large extent, determine the shape of society in the Jewish state into the next century.
The partnership between ideological opposites over peace will, with luck and leadership, blunt their animosity over the issues that divide them.
The Orthodox parties -- Shas, United Torah Judaism and NRP -- sitting in coalition with the left, may develop a new sense of respect, or at least of tolerance, for the "secularists." And vice versa.
The perniciously rigid right-against-left, religious-against-secular parallelogram that furnished the parameters of Israeli politics for a whole generation will have been permanently erased, leaving a more mature and less dogmatic political community, better able to grapple with the state-and-religion disputes that lie ahead.