Israelis find diverse reasons to make Barak prime minister

Power of Orthodox, security, alienation among major themes

May 23, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Two months before Israelis went to the polls to choose between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Ehud Barak, Yoav Weiss was papering the city with a get-out-the-vote message.

The posters read: "There is hope with Barak."

For Weiss, and apparently for many other Israelis, the election turned on that simple declaration.

For three years, the 31-year-old painter had felt like a stranger in his own land. He felt alienated by an arrogance of power reflected in the prime minister's attitude toward the Ashkenazim, the Jews of European ancestry whom Netanyahu derisively called "the elite."

Netanyahu is of European origin, but his politics of the right appealed most to the non-Ashkenazim and the ultrareligious.

"Netanyahu literally took the country away from me. He made me feel it's not my home, like I don't belong here, that my opinions, my world view is illegitimate," said Weiss, who is active in the peace movement. "The left became a curse word."

Barak won a stunning victory last week. The majority of Israelis from most sectors gave him a 56.08 percent landslide in the vote, bestowing on him a mandate that neither Netanyahu nor Barak's political mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, could claim.

But the reasons for Barak's victory cannot be ascribed simply to the negative feelings toward Netanyahu or to the sole desire to resume the Middle East peace process, which he tied up. The reasons are as varied as the Israelis who cast their ballots for and against him.

Weiss voted for Barak, even though his views on the peace process differ from those of Barak, a former army chief of staff. His was an anti-Netanyahu vote and then some: He wanted to feel at home again, he wanted to feel hopeful about his future here.

And it wasn't just the hope that Barak brings to people who want progress in the peace process. Many voted for him because they want to curtail the increasing power of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who also made impressive gains in parliamentary elections Monday.

Some voters relate personal stories to explain why they voted for Barak or against Netanyahu. Most attribute the decline in terrorist attacks to Netanyahu's hard line with Israel's Palestinian peace partners. But that positive didn't outweigh the negatives ascribed to him.

Alberto Piperno, 50, an engineer from Jerusalem, counts himself among Israel's modern Orthodox Jews who observe the Sabbath and other Jewish laws but are full-fledged participants in the secular world. He believes Netanyahu morally cheated the Israeli public. More than that, Piperno worries that the rift between secular and religious Jews is widening. He foresees not one Jewish state, but two.

"The extremes of some people push the nonobservant [secular] people far away," said Piperno. "It means in the future we will have two countries."

Piperno is a member of an Orthodox movement known as Meimad. It supports a separation of church and state. Barak joined forces with Meimad and Gesher, the party of former Foreign Minister David Levy and Jews of Arab countries, and campaigned under the banner of One Israel.

"Until now, observant Jews voted only for parties that interpreted the Bible in a special way -- God gave us this land; we have to keep it. If you don't keep it, it means you are not a Jew," Piperno said.

"We came out with a different view -- that you have to respect your brother, whether he's an Arab or not. To be an observant Jew is to respect other people's rights and to love your brother, not to go to war and not to take another human life."

In his victory speech early Tuesday, Barak invoked that Meimad philosophy and referred to his fellow Israeli citizens as brothers.

During Netanyahu's government, the religious divide widened. The ultra-Orthodox parties, key members of Netanyahu's coalition, received large public subsidies.

"He carried divide-and-conquer to its logical limit," said Weiss, the painter. "We've had enough of playing one side of the nation against the other. The secular left is going to be a minority in this country very soon. These four years are going to be the time when the secular left can build its fortress."

Weiss acknowledged Netanyahu's success on terrorism. Since Netanyahu was elected in 1996 on a pledge to bring peace and security, the number of terrorist attacks has declined. But the atmosphere in which Netanyahu achieved this success bothered Weiss.

And therein lay the difference between hope and hopelessness.

"The conflict is between people who think the world is a safe place, a good place where people can be trusted, and people with a world view that this is a threatening place, where you always have to keep guard, a paranoia, a natural paranoia," Weiss said.

"With Bibi," Weiss said, using Netanyahu's nickname, "I felt there was no hope."

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