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Anyone but Netanyahu in Israeli elecion


Israel’s May 17 elections are in sight, and it is not hyperbole to say that the country’s fate -- and in many ways the region’s as well -- is in the voters’ hands.

The person elected will have the power to pursue peace with the Arab neighbors, or conversely, to preserve the existing stalemate. He can either terminate the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip or he can choose to continue oppressing over 2 million Palestinians.

In addition, Israel’s next prime minister will be able to promote religious pluralism by undercutting the monopoly held today by ultra-orthodox Jews, or he can continue supporting them, alienating secular, reform and conservative Jews both in Israel and all over the world.

Three men are competing for the No. 1 spot: incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Labor Party’s Ehud Barak and former defense minister Yitschak Mordechai who left the governing Likud Party to head a new center alliance. It is fairly evident that there will be two rounds in this race, since in order to be elected one must procure over 50 percent of the vote and none of the contenders will be able to do so outright. The two who gain the most votes in the first round will compete in the second.

Voting for Netanyahu is out of the question for four major reasons. First, Netanyahu is hostile to peace. He has done everything in his power to annihilate the peace accords signed with the Palestinians, and his policies have led Syria to freeze all bilateral negotiations. Other Arab neighbors that were previously warming up to Israel no longer want diplomatic relations with the country, and even Egypt’s President Mubarak has publicly stated that he does not believe a word that comes out of the Israeli premier’s mouth. Within three years, the promise Rabin brought to this conflict-ridden region has all but evaporated, and talk of war is once again in the air.

Second, the prime minister has adopted Thatcher’s ruthless economic strategy. He has encouraged rapid privatization of publicly owned industry and services at the expense of benefits provided to the underprivileged classes. Indeed, he has abandoned Israel’s poor. Third, he constantly bows to the ultra-orthodox Jews, forsaking all other branches of Judaism.

Finally, Netanyahu has seriously damaged the country’s political culture. His divisive political appointments have threatened the essential separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and, in this manner, he has endangered Israel’s democracy. Moreover, he has made lying his modus operandi so that even his confidants cannot rely on him.

Mordechai, like Moshe Dayan, Yitzak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and many others, is a former army general and gained entry into the political establishment by virtue of his membership in Israel’s military oligarchy. However, unlike past Israeli prime ministers, who were European either by birth or ancestry, Mordechai is a Sephardic Jew -- a Kurd. This is the first time in Israel’s 50-year history that a non-European Jew has a chance to become prime minister. In this sense, he is a refreshing phenomenon on the Israeli political landscape, not unlike Kennedy’s appearance in the late 1950s.

Unfortunately, Mordechai is neither charismatic nor an inspiring figure. As one former aide put it: “Mordechai makes decisions according to the polls.”

Mordechai, I think, supports the Oslo Accords and favors a peaceful solution with Israel’s Arab neighbors, but he has yet to present a program regarding the peace process. He has no clear economic policy and surely no plans to separate synagogue from state.

Since he decided to join the fray, he has been pandering to the ultra-orthodox, even as they attack the Supreme Court and reject all forms of religious pluralism. Mordechai, it seems, is willing to accept their dominion over Judaism. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, he just might receive my vote, primarily because Labor’s leader, Barak, has little to recommend him.

Barak’s blandness reminds me of Michael Dukakis on a bad day. Like Mordechai, he is not a man of principle, so when the religious right raises its voice, he cringes. Lately, he sounds more hawkish than Netanyahu. Despite the fact that he sees himself as Rabin’s heir, I have yet to hear him say the two words Palestinian and state together.

Barak criticizes Netanyahu for abandoning the poor but is nettled when called a lefty. He is afraid to antagonize big business, since the Labor Party receives most of its support from the affluent classes -- not from low-wage employees. People who have worked with him say that he is authoritarian and does not heed others.

Perhaps most important, Barak has no vision for which he is willing to stand up. Neither he nor Mordechai joined the 50,000 demonstrators who supported the Supreme Court against an unprecedented attack launched by the ultra-orthodox zealots. Their fear of alienating the fanatic Jewish voters overrides their concern for democracy.

That’s the bleak situation, and I must admit that it hurts to write about it. As an Israeli, I am anxious about the country’s future, the quality of its democracy and the peace process. The Bible recounts periods where the people of Israel were lead by myopic leaders and underscores the dire ramifications of unjust rule.

In the current political constellation, where Israel lacks a worthy leader, it is crucial to support one of the smaller parties like Meretz or Hadash, which are fighting for a better and more just Israel. While I have yet to decide whether to vote for Barak or Mordechai, one thing is clear: Anyone will be better than Netanyahu.

Neve Gordon writes from Jerusalem.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999