Israel votes on peace and its own identity

Election: Barak poses as the new Rabin, while Netanyahu is known and small parties have own agendas.

May 16, 1999

THE WORLD wants Israel to make a firm accord with the Palestinian Authority and then reach peace with Syria and Lebanon. The world does not vote in Israel's elections tomorrow. Only Israelis do, and they have other things on their minds as well.

Ehud Barak is leading in the polls in the race for prime minister, with even a chance at an absolute majority. Without that majority, there will be a runoff June 1. He is a popular general who heads the Labor Party and is heir to the mantle of the slain military peacemaker, Yitzhak Rabin.

Labor's "One Israel" coalition is making inroads among lower-income groups, Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and recent Russian immigrants. These groups previously found Labor elitist.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the combative prime minister of the Likud Party, tried to keep the Oslo Accords up in the air, never reaching or renouncing agreement, until he was distrusted by all. But as Israel's most resilient politician, he cannot be counted out and is stronger than he seemed earlier.

His re-election would probably doom this chance for peace. The argument had been that a peace he agreed to would be endorsed by all Israelis, while one achieved by General Barak would be opposed by half. A similar argument prevailed by an eyelash in 1996 and proved to have no merit.

The three other candidates for prime minister will do poorly but may collectively deny a first-round victory to the front-runner. At the same time, 32 parties are contesting 120 seats in the parliament, with Labor and Likud likely to get the most.

Increasingly, Israelis prefer none of the above. Some 15 percent, Russians, are on average more secular than Israeli society. An equal number are Arab citizens of Israel, Muslim and Christian. More are Sephardic Jews from North Africa or the Arabian peninsula who feel left out of the benefits of the state. Still more are highly Orthodox Jews whose demands for a pious society transcend other political concerns.

A half-century after its founding, Israel is less united than ever on the essentials of its nationality. Israeli society is a mosaic of separate Israeli identities, not a melting pot. For many voters, issues about their connections to each other and the state -- internal, not external, relations -- are the most crucial in the election.

That is frustrating to people outside Israel who believe its relations with the Palestinians, a problem that shakes the world, should be overarching. The politics of no other small country, not even Ireland, casts so great a spell on the world. But only Israelis get to vote.

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