Israel prepares for crisis elections

                      By Bill Vann
                      13 January, 1999

                      The move by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to dissolve the right-wing
                      Likud bloc coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
                      and set elections for May 17, nearly a year and a half before the end of its
                      term, has exposed the growing crisis within the Zionist political
                      establishment and Israeli society as a whole.

                      The immediate source of the downfall of Netanyahu's government lies in his
                      attempts to maneuver with Washington and the Palestinian Authority over
                      the so-called peace process, while simultaneously trying to hold together
                      the fractious collection of right-wing Zionist and religious parties that have
                      made up his administration.

                      Elected in 1996 on a platform of intransigent opposition to the "land for
                      peace" Oslo accord negotiated by the Israeli Labor Party government and
                      the Palestine Liberation Organization, Netanyahu was able to pose for
                      several years as the unwilling custodian of a deal made by his predecessor.

                      In October, however, he found himself compelled by US pressure to
                      accept the so-called Wye River accord. Brokered by the Clinton
                      administration at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, the deal committed the
                      Netanyahu government to withdrawing Israeli occupation forces from 13
                      percent of the West Bank in return for guarantees of Israeli security from
                      Yassir Arafat's Palestinian National Authority. This included an agreement
                      to place Palestinian security forces under the direction of the US Central
                      Intelligence Agency for the purpose of conducting "anti-terrorist"
                      operations inside the Palestinian-run territories.

                      The Israeli government negotiated the deal with the intention of canceling it
                      the moment Arafat's mini-state failed to prevent the next, inevitable terrorist
                      attack in Israel. Nevertheless the agreement provoked angry
                      demonstrations by Zionist settlers. The very political forces that prepared
                      the 1995 assassination of Labor Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by
                      denouncing him as a traitor began condemning Netanyahu in the same

                      Attempting to placate these forces--the elements that brought him to
                      power and have served as the bedrock of the Likud coalition--Netanyahu
                      announced a freeze on all territorial changes, thereby antagonizing
                      Washington and provoking a split with forces in his own inner circle who
                      are reluctant to subordinate Israel's strategic relationship with US
                      imperialism to the political exigencies of keeping Netanyahu in power.

                      The result has been the shattering of the right-wing coalition under
                      conditions in which the Labor Party has no credible alternative program.
                      Underlying the political disarray in the two traditional camps of Zionist
                      politics is the fragmentation taking place within Israeli society itself.

                      The Israeli state entered the new year with no budget, after the
                      ultra-Orthodox religious parties announced they would block any vote
                      unless the Knesset intervened to overturn an Israeli court decision
                      accepting the legality of conversions carried out by Reform and
                      Conservative rabbis. The ruling challenged the Orthodox leadership's
                      monopoly on religious affairs that had been established under Likhud

                      For Netanyahu to bow to the ultra-Orthodox parties would mean to
                      further alienate those secular supporters of his government who are
                      outraged by the increasing domination of the most backward religious
                      elements over key areas of Israeli life. At the same time, Netanyahu was
                      able to form his coalition government only with the support of these very

                      If no vote is taken, the current budget remains in effect for the next three
                      months. Netanyahu wants a new budget, both for domestic political
                      reasons and to meet demands of international finance capital for further
                      deficit cutting measures.

                      Israel's economy remains stagnant, with last year's growth rate falling to
                      1.9 percent, compared to 2.4 percent in 1997. The official unemployment
                      rate stands at nearly 10 percent and there are growing indications of the
                      class polarization that underlies the political crisis.

                      A report released at the end of last year entitled "Children in Israel--1998"
                      found that 21.8 percent of the country's children are living below the
                      poverty line. The number of children living in families subsisting on
                      government welfare assistance has more than doubled over the past

                      Increasing poverty and social inequality have given rise to growing unrest
                      within the Israeli working class. More than 100,000 municipal workers
                      staged a warning strike on January 10, shutting down government offices
                      and halting garbage collection and other essential services. Many of Israel's
                      public employees have not been paid for as long as three months because
                      of the country's budget crisis.

                      Netanyahu's erstwhile colleagues in Likud, meanwhile, are bolting in all
                      directions, preparing to challenge him in the upcoming election.

                      Benny Begin, the son of former Likud leader Menachem Begin,
                      representing the "whole land of Israel front" has declared his candidacy on
                      a platform calling for the abolition of the Oslo accords and a return to
                      Zionist over "Eretz Israel," i.e., the restoration of Israeli control over all of
                      the occupied territories.

                      Another of the prime minister's renegade ex-allies is Avigdor Lieberman,
                      the government's former director-general and a key political operative in
                      Likud. He has formed his own party, calling it "Israel Is Our Home," and is
                      attempting to turn the same kind of right-wing populism employed by
                      Likud against Netanyahu. Lieberman has denounced the current
                      government as a "police state," while declaring that the country is being run
                      by a "social oligarchy."

                      Dan Meridor, the ex-Likud finance minister, has quit for a possible run for
                      prime minister as the leader of a "centrist" bloc. He is vying for the support
                      of the same party that retiring Israeli Army Chief of Staff Amnon-Lipkin
                      Shahak is seeking to lead.

                      Shahak has led early polls, benefiting from the fact that he has no political
                      record at a time when a growing number of Israelis are disgusted with the
                      politicians of both major political blocs. As head of the Israeli military, he
                      was responsible for leading "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in 1996, a
                      savage attack on Lebanon in which Israel's bombing of civilians in the
                      village of Qufur Qana led to international condemnation. As a younger
                      officer in the 1970s, he participated in military hit squads that carried out
                      assassinations of PLO leaders in Lebanon.

                      On Monday, Moshe Arens, a former Likhud Defense and Foreign
                      Minister, announced his intention to challenge Netanyahu for the leadership
                      of the Likhud Party in primaries to be held on January 25. Arens's bid to
                      replace Netanyahu as leader of Likhud and become the party's candidate
                      in the May 17 election is particularly striking, since Arens gave the much
                      younger Netanyahu his start in Israeli politics and served as the present
                      prime minister's political mentor.

                      Significantly, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak is General Shahak's
                      predecessor as Chief of Staff, an indication of the weight of militarism in
                      the Zionist political establishment. The Laborites have not been able to
                      generate any outpouring of popular support, despite the increasing
                      dissatisfaction with Netanyahu. The party appears to be waging a
                      defensive campaign, as Likud accuses it of sacrificing Israeli security and
                      preparing to surrender unilateral control over Jerusalem.

                      The issue of security will gain increased prominence as the election
                      approaches. The Likud regime can be expected to provoke violent
                      confrontations with the Palestinians as it seeks to win back its right-wing
                      base with demonstrations of intransigence. Even as the first candidates
                      announced their intentions, the West Bank town of Hebron remained
                      sealed off by the Israeli military. Palestinian protests broke out after
                      occupation troops shot and killed a youth they had seen playing with a toy

                      The government, led by its Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, is acting to
                      expand Zionist settlements in the West Bank and tighten its security grip
                      over the territory, even though it has formally pledged to turn back land to
                      the Palestinian Authority.

                      Security roads crisscrossing the territory and linking settlements with each
                      other and Israel proper, combined with security zones running the length of
                      the West Bank's western border already, render any Palestinian state that
                      Arafat might proclaim a divided group of impoverished and powerless
                      cantons. Disillusionment among the Palestinians with the empty promise of
                      nationhood can only lead to increasing unrest and growing confrontations
                      between the people and the Palestinian Authority.

                      The impasse in the so-called peace process combined with the political
                      fragmentation within the Israeli political establishment are generating
                      increasing unease among many of Israel's more thoughtful political analysts.
                      The Jerusalem Post, for example, published a New Year's Day column
                      entitled "The Man on Horseback," warning of the dangers posed by the
                      present situation.

                      "Public disillusionment with democracy will pave the way for the appeal of
                      the non-politician, the "man on horseback," who promises to sweep away
                      the dirty deals and make things work, even at the cost of suspending
                      democracy itself," the column stated. It concluded with the warning, "We
                      may continue to go to the polls, but sooner or later (and probably sooner),
                      our only choice will be between anarchy and dictatorship."