Not Really A Peace Vote

June 28, 1992|By JOEL BAINERMAN

Jerusalem -- The immediate reaction by governments and editorialists throughout the world to the victory by the Labor Party in the Israeli elections Tuesday was that "the Israeli people voted for peace."

Yet that's not at all what the election results demonstrated. Labor rode to victory not based on its policies toward the peace process, but because of the popularity of its candidate, Yitzhak Rabin, compared to that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and because of social and economic issues affecting some groups in Israeli society.

Part of Labor's victory can be attributed to the process by which it chose candidates. For the first time, they were elected through a popular primary system, which enabled Mr. Rabin to beat out Shimon Peres -- who hasn't won a national election in five tries. Although he remained number two in the party hierarchy, Mr. Peres was kept far from TV screens during the campaign so as not to remind voters of past electoral failures.

It is likely that much of Labor's support came from "protest votes," cast by Israelis who were tired of Mr. Shamir. Mr. Rabin is a few years younger and few inches taller -- and that may have been enough to attract some extra votes.

As for the peace process as an issue, as far as "hawks" are concerned, there is little difference between Mr. Rabin and Mr. Shamir; the wide gap is between Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres. The choice of Mr. Rabin over Mr. Peres as Labor leader meant that a large portion of the Israeli public wanted a leader with a hawkish posture toward the Arabs. While everyone has called this election a landslide for the peace camp, in fact it could be viewed as a victory for the hawkish wing of the Labor Party.

One factor working in Labor's favor in the general election was the voting patterns of Russian immigrants -- nearly half chose Mr. Rabin in the multi-party contest. Since 1990, more than 400,000 Russians have arrived in Israel, a portion comprising 5 to 10 percent of the electorate. Two Russian immigrant parties were established, but they were unable to attain adequate funding and organization and failed to win any Knesset seats.

The immigrants' support for Labor may have been more a protest vote than the result of any deeply-held ideological support for the Labor platform. During the campaign, Labor argued repeatedly that Mr. Shamir's Likud Party government had done a poor job absorbing the immigrants and was responsible for their high unemployment and general economic misery. This simplistic argument may have been enough to tip the votes of immigrants toward Labor. Likud responded only by attacking Labor's socialist roots.

Likud also lost big in rural towns, a traditional stronghold. While 37 percent of these voters chose Likud in 1988, in Tuesday's election this support was cut almost in half, as Likud polled less than 19 percent. Many here felt Likud was ignoring their problems while directing huge resources to West Bank settlements. And Mr. Shamir had less personal appeal to the working class voters in these towns than did former Likud leader Menachem Begin, who attracted mass support there in 1977 and 1981.

Besides Labor's gains, surprising gains were posted by Meretz, a new left-of-center coalition, which won 12 of the 120 Knesset seats, and Tsomet, a right-of-center party which won seven.

Meretz was formed by a merger, a few months before the election, of three old left-of-center parties, Shinui, Ratz and Mapam. Its internal dichotomy is that while Shinui Party chairman Amnon Rubenstein is Israel's most vocal supporter of capitalism, Mapam represents the remnants of Israel's once-powerful socialist movement.

The 12 seats won by Meretz was only two more than the three parties won separately in 1988. The gain seemed to come not from increasing support from the 850,000 Israeli Arabs, while the two Israeli Arab parties could win only five seats between them. By choosing Meretz, the Israeli Arabs moved the party further to the left in the Israeli political spectrum, leaving many Israelis uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the election created a major restructuring of the right side of the spectrum. Tsomet jumped from two to seven seats, making it the fourth largest party. Tehiya, which represented the West Bank settlement movement, failed to reach the 1.5 percent threshold for representation in the Knesset and lost its three seats.

vTC Tsomet's success is attributed to its leader, Rafael Eitan. When he took office as agriculture minister in the Likud government in 1988, he refused to put a telephone in his car, increasing his

popularity with taxpayers. He dismantled the monopoly on citrus fruit, got rid of an unpopular water commissioner and then resigned from the government (something few Israeli ministers have ever done) over a dispute with Likud. He was chiefly responsible for the passage of a bill providing for direct election of the prime minister in the next elections.

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