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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Public disillusionment with democracy will pave the way for the appeal
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."