Israel's 'prime minister for everyone'

Barak can pick up pieces and craft a consensus

May 23, 1999|By Aron U. Raskas

AMID THE patchwork of winners and losers of the Israeli election last week, the traditional concept of Am Yisrael -- a unified Israel -- was dealt perhaps the greatest setback by voters. No longer can the Jewish people claim to be "one nation" in their own land. After this election, Israeli society is more fragmented than ever.

Yet the election's results could serve as the catalyst for the statesmanship necessary to bridge Israel's broad divides.

The two-vote system (one for prime minister and one for parliament) continues to erode the major parties' representation in parliament and to nurture special interests. From early 1996, when they jointly controlled 76 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Labor and Likud will see their representation in the 15th Knesset dwindle to less than 26 and 19 seats, respectively. Likud barely maintained its position as the second-largest party, as Shas, the rigidly Orthodox party of Sephardic Jews, gained 17 seats.

Together, the various religious parties increased their representation to approximately 30 seats -- a quarter of the Knesset.

At the other extreme, parties fervently advocating the separation of religion and state -- Meretz and Shinui -- will control 16 seats. The Russian immigrants' party, Yisrael B'Aliyah, also campaigning against the influence of extreme religious parties, will hold six seats, down from the seven that it captured in its first electoral campaign in 1996. For years, the fringe elements of Israeli society had little effect on the workings of the government. The recent election demonstrates, however, that the many groups feeling alienated on ethnic, religious and economic grounds are gaining influence.

Most Israelis likely still aspire to the mandate articulated by Israel's founding fathers in their Declaration of Independence: to make the country both a "Jewish state" for "the Jewish People" based upon principles "envisaged by the prophets of Israel," and one that guarantees the "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."

Most Israelis seem to want their country to, in some measure, reflect both components of this equation. Just how much it should reflect those values remains the central question with which they must grapple.

What has been made clear is that coercion by extremists galvanizes those in the center to react in measured proportion against the extremes. Thus, Meretz's 1996 campaign -- with the party boasting that it would be the instrument to remove the centuries-old Jewish presence from Hebron -- brought about the repudiation of Meretz and other left-wing parties in favor of parties advocating more traditional Jewish values.

Similarly, the extreme religious parties that ascended to power at Meretz's expense in 1996 and that immediately began to boast of their intention to "turn the Knesset into a Beit Knesset" (a house of prayer) abused the power of responsible government in order to push a coercive religious agenda. That seismic event created the wave that Meretz, Shinui and other secular parties rode to power this week.

Ehud Barak, Israel's next prime minister, has correctly recognized that he must be "the prime minister of everyone." Indeed, the political landscape created by the election leaves Barak in an unprecedented position to act boldly and magnanimously to begin to close the society's rifts. He can do so by forming the most inclusive government possible. His ability to accomplish this is enhanced by the extraordinary range of choices that he has in assembling his coalition.

Barak should begin by openly inviting Likud, the new Center party, Yisrael B'Aliyah, Meretz, the National Religious Party and Shas to join his coalition. Such a group would hold 89 votes and include the parties most capable of making necessary compromises.

The invitation should include the proviso that each party is welcome so long as it enters without demands. The Cabinet ministries should be spread among the coalition members in a way that blocks any party from influencing its special interest. The incentive for each party to join the coalition under such circumstances would be to ponder the alternative: Its ideological opponent might accept the invitation and thus gain greater influence over the governing process.

Most important, with the knowledge that on any critical issue sufficient votes would exist in and outside the coalition to sustain measures that any one or two of these parties might oppose, the extremists would no longer be able to exercise political blackmail. Thus, each party would have to bargain in good faith to reach compromise positions that would serve the good of the nation.

While Israeli political parties rarely miss an opportunity to be the instruments of their undoing (witness the vote that brought down the Netanyahu government and left many who voted to do so out of the government), one might dare to think that Israel's next governing coalition could be one of the broadest ever. Only such a government can make the critically difficult decisions that the people of Israel must confront.

For centuries, the Jewish people have sung and prayed with great hope and passion "Am Yisrael Chai" ("The Nation of Israel Lives"). Ehud Barak and the 15th Knesset have a unique opportunity to give life to such prayers. It is an opportunity that they cannot afford to waste.

Aron U. Raskas is a Baltimore attorney, a member of several prominent Jewish organizations and a frequent commentator on Middle East affairs on WJHU-FM.

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