Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

August 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 5)


The 1999 Israeli Elections:A Watershed!
By Farah Naaz *


In the anxiously awaited Israeli elections for the office of prime minister, the Labour Party leader Ehud Barak won over Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party. His victory was hailed amongst those who have been longing for a lasting peace in the region. Modelling himself on former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, Barak promised to secure peace with the Palestinians.

Labels of left, right and centre in Israeli politics are attached to the political parties on the basis of their attitudes towards conciliation with the Arabs. Since Barak is centrist in his attitude, the elections have produced a very strong centre with a leftward tilt. As 15 parties made it to the Parliament and a coalition became inevitable, Barak could form a pure centre-left coalition which would still command a strong majority.

In 1996, a new law which was approved by the Knesset in 1992, 1   came into force for the direct election of the prime minister. Under the new arrangements, the Israeli electorates would cast two ballots, one for the prime minister and the other for the Knesset party list.

In Israel’s 13 previous elections, voters selected a list of party candidates, and the leader of the party receiving the largest number of Knesset seats became the prime minister. The shift to a prime minister regime was a structural change. 2   Since no party ever received a majority of votes or Knesset seats, each prime minister had to form a coalition government and was bound to make several concessions.

Under the old system, Israel’s president assigned the task of forming a new Cabinet to the Knesset member considered to have the best chance of forming a viable coalition government based on the election results (usually the head of the party receiving the most votes). The new arrangement eliminated the role of the president in selecting the prime minister.

By May 18, 1999, with 99.5 per cent of the votes counted, Barak led with 56.1 per cent to 43.7 per cent for Netanyahu. With 96 per cent of the votes counted in all but one of the regular polling stations, the estimated number of Knesset seats for each party was as follows: 3

Parties Seats
One Israel 27
Likud 19
Shas (Torah Observing Sephardim) 17
Merets 9
Centre Party 6
Yisra'el Ba'aliya 7
Shinuy 6
United Arab List 5
National Religious Party 5
United Torah Judaism 5
National Union 3
Yisra'el Beytenu 4
Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) 3
Balad (National Democratic Alliance) 2
One Nation 2

This was before counting of the special votes, which referred to 4 per cent of the eligible voters i.e. soldiers, hospital patients, prisoners and those who voted in Israeli missions abroad.

The left wing, including the Arab parties, appeared to have lost one of the 52 seats they had in the last Knesset. Barak’s Labour Party which had merged with two relatively minor parties to fight the elections as the “One Israel” Party appeared to have lost one of the 34 seats it had. But as its natural ally, Meretz, added a seat, the lost seat has been from the Arab parties’ share. The Likud has been pushed to second place and the other right wing parties, representing religious Jews, have also lost seats. The right wing as a whole was likely to end up with less than 50 seats instead of the 50 plus it had. 4   This proved to be a watershed as for the past 22 years, the left and the right were virtually on par in the 120-seat Parliament.

To an extent, Russian immigrants held the key to Barak’s victory. Over the past eight years, Israel’s Russian immigrant population has swelled from 200,000 to one million. In 1998 alone 48,000 immigrated, accounting for 90 per cent of the year’s total immigration. They now make up 20 per cent of the electorate. 5   They had backed Netanyahu massively in 1996 but apparently turned just as massively against him, angered by his failure to tackle problems of unemployment and housing and by the power he gave to Shas and another ultra-orthodox party in his coalition. 6

One surprising element of the Israeli elections this time was that the ultra-orthodox parties were trying to seek electoral support from sections of the Israeli Arabs. According to Isam Masarava, mayor of the Arab town of Taibe, “This is the first time that Arabs here are not going to vote for Arab candidates in the Knesset but for Jewish religious parties.” 7   According to Masarava, Shas understood the needs of the million-strong Arab minority because the Sephardi community had also suffered discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazim, the European Jewish elite which dominated the Israeli establishment. 8

In his speech after the elections, Barak promised to withdraw troops from Lebanon within a year. “I undertake to do everything to remove the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) from Lebanon through an agreement within a year and to strengthen the security of the north.” 9   He also stressed, “We will move quickly towards separation from the Palestinians within four security red lines: a united Jerusalem under our sovereignty as the capital of Israel forever; under no circumstances will we return to the 1967 borders; no foreign army west of the Jordan River; and most of the settlers in Judaea and Samaria (West Bank and Gaza) will be in settlement blocs under our sovereignty.....any permanent arrangement will be put to a national referendum.” 10

Barak has got many options to widen the Cabinet, with many factors in his favour. While most of the 15 parties which would have representation in the next Knesset are vying to be included in the Cabinet, Barak will have the final say. Parties which had campaigned vehemently against him and his associates are looking into the prospects of their inclusion in the Cabinet. Among the parties entertaining such hopes are the Likud (from which Netanyahu had stepped down), the National Religious Party and Shas. However, Barak did not need their numerical support. The leftist bloc parties, together with their more natural allies of the centre would provide him with a sufficient majority. 11   Barak might consider those parties because they represent important constituencies, whose opinion cannot be ignored while formulating policies, especially on the question of negotiations with the Arabs and also because before the elections Barak had promised that he would form a broad based government.


Pre-Election Scenario

These elections were held before they were actually due. Netanyahu was threatened from within his coalition, especially by the National Religious Party, that the government would be brought down if he handed over more territories to the Palestinians. 12   As a result, the peace process was frozen on the pretext of Palestinian violations.

Netanyahu declared that he would call early general elections unless he got full parliamentary backing for his handling of the Middle East peace process. He was seeking support on five points, of which the main were: Israel was prepared to pursue the peace process subject to reciprocity (i.e. the Palestinians must control all violence) and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) must renounce the unilateral intention to set up a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital. 13   As it was difficult to hold the coalition together, the Knesset was dissolved and elections became inevitable. After Netanyahu’s government fell, his supporters defected to the right, left and centre. For example, his Finance Minister David Levy and his Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai defected from his party. They were disgusted with his stand on the peace process and his failure to keep his word.

Netanyahu was known to have increased divisions in Israeli society. During his time, Ashkenazim were pitted against Sephardim, the secular against the religious, and so on. These elections became a campaign of hate between the left and the right. He was attacked from all sides and was regarded as “an angel of destruction” by Yitzhak Shamir, the former prime minister; “a person who was leading Israel to disaster” by Ehud Barak; and was accused of “capitulation to the Palestinians” by the ex- minister, Ze'ev Benjamin Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. 14

Netanyahu fought the elections on the basis of defending the state of Israel with Jerusalem as its indivisible capital. During his campaign, he claimed that he was best suited to negotiate the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and argued that the Wye Accord proved that he could make peace and that “it is better to have a right winger bargain over the final pact than a leftist who will make a sucker deal.” 15

Netanyahu was also against withdrawing from Lebanon, in order to guard the northern border. He was also against returning the Golan Heights to Syria, as it was regarded as a strategically important area and essential to Israel’s security. Regarding the Palestinians, he was against the unilateral declaration of the Palestinian state and was also not ready to carry forward the negotiations on the pretext of Palestinian violence.

During the campaign, Barak guaranteed the security of Israel and the struggle against terrorism. He stood for the formation of the Palestinian state and said that there would be a physical separation between Israel and the Palestinians in order to forge neighbourly relations and mutual respect. He considered Iranians and the Iraqi nuclear bomb as more dangerous than the Palestinians. 16

Yitzhak Mordechai and his colleagues launched their new centre party with Mordechai as the prime ministerial candidate. Fellow party founder members included Amnon Shahak, Dan Meridor and Roni Milo. According to Mordechai, since the Labour Party was being steered to the left and the Likud to the right, it was the centre party that would be able to serve as the catalyst and lead to a desirable conclusion. The centrist movement’s goal was to unite the people as it was capable of drawing support from the right, left and centre. 17

Even before the elections, Israel’s neighbours had supported the Labour Party. According to Abdullah Hasanat, the executive editor of the Jordon Times, there was great contrast between the 1996 elections when there was positive sentiment in Amman towards Netanyahu, and the 1999 elections when there was widespread resentment towards him. 18   Jordan’s main interest concerned the impact on the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations which would lead to an easing of border crossings among Jordan, the Palestinian areas and Israel, and improved travel and trade among the three.

Egypt did not show preference for any party. The Egyptians were wary about doing so for Labour as it could put Cairo in an awkward position if Likud won. 19   There were reports that a Labour member of the Knesset, Yosi Beilin, met Egypt’s Foreign Minister Amr Musa in Cairo and discussed the stalled peace process. The Egyptian government denied interfering in the Israeli polls and talking only to the Labour Party and not to Likud. 20

The Palestinians fervently hoped that Netanyahu would not be re-elected. There were reports that Arafat had demanded that the Arab candidate, Azmi Bisharah, withdraw his candidacy from the premiership race so as not to harm Barak’s chances. 21   Hamas, however, did not see any difference between Labour and Likud.

The opinion polls predicted an easy win for Barak. The last moment pullouts of centre party leader Yitzhak Mordechai, ultra-nationalist Benny Begin and Azmi Bisharah, the Arab candidate, left the field open for Netanyahu and Barak. This also left aside the possibility for a June 1 runoff if no one passed the 50 per cent mark in round one of the prime ministerial race. Israeli Arabs were also expected to support Barak following the withdrawal of Azmi Bisharah. It became quite clear from all quarters that no one wanted Netanyahu to win. Even those who pulled out from the premiership race wanted Barak to win.


Reactions to the Israeli Elections

Local Reactions

Mordechai, the Centre Party leader, said that Barak’s victory was expected and that he was convinced that the new government would steer the state of Israel on the basis of credible leadership, unity of the people, closing the gaps and promoting the peace process. 22

Meretz leader Yosi Sarid disclosed that Meretz and One Israel worked in a coordinated effort to topple Benjamin Netanyahu and further stressed that on moral grounds, Meretz would not be a partner in a government in which Shas was a member. Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisráel Beytenu, said that it was hard for him to accept the loss of the nationalist camp. When asked whether he would join the Barak government, he replied that he would not be a partner in the govenment with Tibi and Bisharah. 23

Tzomet Chairman Refael Eytan said that Netanyahu’s only crime was that he succeeded in defeating Shimon Peres, for which the elite in Israel did not forgive him. 24

Palestinian Reactions

Arafat was optimistic about Barak’s coming to power and hoped that he would advance the peace process. His adviser, Abu Rudaynah, repeated Arafat’s stand and hoped that the peace process would be given an impetus and the stalemate that froze it would come to an end. 25

Senior Palestinian official Faysal al Husayni indicated that Barak’s attitude to the peace process could only be judged if he was flexible on Jerusalem. He regarded Jerusalem as the crucial point that would decide whether Barak was a copy of Netanyahu or was different. He further said, “The difference has to do with establishment of settlements, continuation of land confiscation, withdrawal of identity cards, continuation of the siege on Jerusalem and allowing settlement activities as is the case in Jabal Abu Ghunaym or in Ra's al-Amud.....We expect a firm stand by Barak on these issues if we do not want to undermine the atmosphere of the final status negotiations before they even start.” 26   Another senior PNA official, Dr Sa'ib Urayqat, said that the Palestinians saw Barak’s victory as a message that the majority of the Israelis wanted peace. He, however, regarded Barak’s stand on Jerusalem as very unfortunate and added that the Palestinians wanted negotiations and the Israelis must make a choice between settlements or peace, occupation or peace, and terror or peace. 27

On the whole, the Palestinian leadership welcomed the important political impact of the victory of the Labour leader. Taking the change in the Israeli political scene into consideration, the leadership repeated its commitment to the peace process and the option of negotiation as a means of reaching a comprehensive peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on the implementation of the signed agreements, according to the international legitimacy resolutions.

The common population of the Palestinians, however, presented a different picture. Most Palestinians did not hide their desire to see Netanyahu ousted but there was no rejoicing at the prospect of his replacement by Barak. The residents of the West Bank remembered that while his Labour Party had initiated the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, his own military career included assassinations and bloody repression of Arab militants. Jamil Murar, a businessman from Ramallah, pointed out that Barak’s hands were stained with the blood of Palestinian martyrs and said.“ I am not expecting to get anything with Mr. Netanyahu or Gen. Barak, they are all the same.” 28

It was also reported that, as commander of the elite special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, Barak disguised himself as a woman and with a small unit of men had secretly entered Lebanon to assassinate three senior Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials in 1973. He was also linked to the 1988 assassination in Tunis of the PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s right hand man, Khalil Al Wazir. 29   In the West Bank, most Palestinians remembered Barak as the chief of staff at the height of the Intifada uprising, when troops broke the arms and legs of young stone throwers under another general turned politician, Yitzhak Rabin. 30   However, there were others who believed that Barak’s victory would push the negotiations forward.

Hamas Reaction

The Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, did not call for any exaggerated optimism following the victory of Barak. Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, founder of Hamas, said, “This victory will not bring anything new in the Israeli policy because Israelis of all affiliations do not want genuine peace that restores territory to the Palestinian people and brings back the exiled Palestinians to their land and homes.” 31   According to them, the stands of both Labour and Likud were the same on the issues of Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water and border.

Regional Reactions

Jordan: The Jordanian government welcomed Ehud Barak’s victory in the Israeli elections. King Abdullah showed his eagerness to work with Barak in order to put the peace process back on track. In his statement, he said, “It is abundantly obvious that the vast majority of Israelis, like the vast majority of Jordanians and of the people of the region, are keen in their desire to achieve real peace that brings to the region, security and stability...” 32

Information Minister Nasir al-Lawzi, official spokesman of the Jordanian government, expressed the hope that the results of the Israeli elections would constitute a positive chance to renew the Israeli commitment to the peace process in accordance with the international legitimacy resolutions and the Madrid Conference. He hoped that the new Israeli government would give priority to the resumption of the peace process on all tracks. 33

Egypt: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Amr Musa too regarded it as a good chance to revive all the tracks of the peace process, improve the general atmosphere and move towards more active relations. He said that “the outcome of the elections has proved that the Israeli public has given authorisation to the new prime minister to activate the peace process, which has been almost dead because of the policies of the previous government.” 34   He further added, “I believe that the first step will be the implementation of the Wye River Accord and the restart of the negotiations on the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks.” 35   Musa also stressed that being afraid to take decisions because of the Opposition would return matters to square one.

Lebanon: Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Lebanon, Dr. Salim al-Huss did not seem to be concerned with the outcome of the elections as, according to him, there was no difference between one Israeli candidate and another, and the hope that the Labour Party would pursue a different policy, was doubtful. He said, “Experience has shown us that Israel’s policy does not change much with the change of rule there....most of the Arab-Israeli wars took place when the Labour Party was in power. Also, the Qana massacre took place when the Labour Party, led by Shimon Peres, was in power.” 36   He, however, stressed that Lebanon was committed to the peace process as part of the unity of the Lebanese and Syrian tracks.

Dr. Huss gave several reasons for not being optimistic about the resumption of the peace process. For example, Israel was yet to announce that it was prepared to resume the peace process from the point it was initiated in the past. It all depended on the position of the major states in general and the US in particular. He also expressed doubts about the US putting pressure on Israel to curb its continued aggressions against Lebanon and withdraw unconditionally from south Lebanon. 37

Syria: Syria reacted by criticising Netanyahu and urging Barak to negotiate a lasting peace. They regarded Netanyahu as one who gave a free rein to the settlement building plans focussing on swallowing up the Golan, destroying southern Lebanon and turning the entire Palestinian people into refugees; and as one who chose war instead of peace, aggression instead of what is right and just.

Syria urged Barak for a lasting peace, based on what is right and just and leading to the removal of occupation, injustice, coercion and all the abnormal manifestations brought about by the previous Israeli governments. It further stressed that peace with Syria and Lebanon hinged upon Israel’s full withdrawal from the Golan and southern Lebanon. 38

Iran: Iranian radio rejected excessive optimism regarding the advancement of the peace process following Barak’s victory. According to it, many analysts believed that the fact that the negotiations had moved forward rapidly in the early stages of the compromise process, leading to the signing of agreements, was because there had not been any negotiation about the main issues yet. The compromise process has now reached a stage when decisions have to be made about vital issues such as Jerusalem, the establishment of an independent Palestinian government and the return of the Palestinian refugees. Agreement on these issues will be extremely difficult, especially because there was not much difference between the views of the Israeli Labour Party and those of other groups. According to the Iranians, Netanyahu’s defeat did not mean defeat for the obstacles impeding the compromise process. 39

International Reactions

The US hailed Barak’s victory. President Bill Clinton promised to work closely with Barak in order to reach the goal with their Palestinian and Arab partners. French President Jacques Chirac too expressed his optimism and said that it has brought much hope for peace. 40



With the sidelining of the Netanyahu government, the prospects of peace in the Middle East have become much brighter. Resolution of issues related to the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria can now be hoped for. If Barak can manage a stable coalition, it will go a long way in carrying forward the negotiations.

Barak has portrayed himself as being security oriented but willing to reactivate the peace process with the Palestinians. His new appointments reflected his determination to follow the path of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. For example, he appointed two former generals and the son of a former president to key posts in the administration. Major General Danny Yatom (retd), formerly director of the Mossad Intelligence Agency, will serve as his chief of staff. He had also served as military advisor under Rabin. Brigadier General Zvi Stauber (retd) whose military career was spent largely in intelligence, would be his spokesman and political advisor. Yitzhak Herzog, son of Chaim Herzog, will serve as the Cabinet secretary. 41   He was also closely associated with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Barak has plans to withdraw almost all the troops from the occupied Golan Heights in return for a peace pact with Syria. Israel had captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 West Asian war and Syria had demanded their return as a pre-requisite for peace with Israel. According to a plan drawn up by Barak’s security advisor, Israel would insist on setting up a 25-km-wide demilitarised zones on either side of the new border. In return for a pull-out, Barak wanted a full peace treaty with Syria, where the arrangements could be monitored by the Israeli and Syrian officers and American and European troops could man the key points on the Golan.

He has also reaffirmed the campaign pledge to end Israel’s long military presence in Lebanon and bring its soldiers back within a year. With Barak’s determination to pull out from Lebanon and Syria, peace may be achieved with the neighbours.

Regarding the Palestinians, Barak promised a Palestinian state. According to the recent reports, he has plans to omit the implementation of the Wye Plantation land-for-security agreement and instead move directly to negotiations over a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. 42   He was also considering consulting the US and the Palestinians regarding this. As he is doing it in order to woo the right wing parties opposed to the accord, it is too early to predict anything.

Lately, Arafat has sought more territorial concessions from Israel in exchange for peace. His demand that Israel implement UN Resolution 181, requiring Tel Aviv to cede not only areas conquered in the 1967 War, but also the traditionally Jewish areas of Galilee, Negev and west Jerusalem, has raised doubts about the progress of the peace process. Till now, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the US negotiated on the basis of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 which call for a broad return to the 1967 borders. This included return of east Jerusalem to the Arabs. 43   Considering the red lines that Barak has drawn, the Israelis are unlikely to agree to these fresh demands. It is possible that Arafat has raised these demands in order to keep up the pressure.

Barak has inspired a lot of hope. His coming to power was expected to have a positive impact on the stalled peace process. Withdrawal of troops from Lebanon is on the cards and the hopes that he would implement this have not faded. Barak’s victory is seen as a triumph for national unity. According to Razi Barkai, a political commentator, “There is no doubt that Barak is going to become the great conciliator and Netanyahu will be thought of as a great divider.” 44

Netanyahu and his associates wanted to elude the negotiations and were under the impression that they could achieve peace and security without giving justice to the Palestinians. Barak, on the other hand, has shows greater determination and realism without any deception in Israel’s dealings with the Arabs.

These elections have proved that the majority of the Israeli public believes that a Palestinian state may not neccessarily jeopardise Israeli security and that compatibility between the Israeli state and the Palestinian state is possible. Barak is fortunate to have the international commmunity, including the United States, on his side. With all hopes pinned on him, the day may not be far when the peace that has evaded the region for years, will prevail between the Israelis and the Palestinians.



*: Associate Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).  Back.

Note 1: Don Peretz and Gideon Doron, “Israel’s 1996 Elections: A Second Political Earthquake?” Middle East Journal, vol. 50, no. 4, Autumn 1996, p. 530. Back.

Note 2: Ibid. Back.

Note 3: SWB (Summary of World Broadcasts) ME 3538, May 19, 1999, p. 1. Back.

Note 4: The Hindu, May 19, 1999. Back.

Note 5: Matt Rees, “Hail the King Makers”, Newsweek, vol. 133, no.3, January 18, 1999, p. 41. Back.

Note 6: Khaleej Times, May 18, 1999. Back.

Note 7: The Indian Express, May 6, 1999. Back.

Note 8: Ibid. Back.

Note 9: n. 3, p.2. Back.

Note 10: Ibid. p.3. Back.

Note 11: The Hindu, May 20, 1999. Back.

Note 12: SWB ME 3404, December 8, 1998, p.11. Back.

Note 13: SWB ME 3413, December 18, 1998, p. 13. Back.

Note 14: Lisa Beyer, “Men Who Would Be”, Time, vol. 153, n. 1, January 11, 1999, p. 32. Back.

Note 1: .Ibid. pp. 32-33. Back.

Note 16: SWB ME 3433, January 15, 1999, p.10. Back.

Note 17: SWB ME 3443, January 27, 1999, p. 5. Back.

Note 18: “Israeli Elections Haunt Neighbours” Asian Recorder, vol. 45, n. 9, February 26- March 4, 1999, p. 27949. Back.

Note 19: Ibid. Back.

Note 20: SWB ME 3482, March 13, 1999, p. 9. Back.

Note 21: SWB ME 3504, April 9, 1999, p.8. Back.

Note 22: n. 3, P.4. Back.

Note 23: Ibid., p.5. Back.

Note 24: Ibid. Back.

Note 25: Ibid. pp.5-6. Back.

Note 26: SWB ME, 3539, May 20, 1999. p.4. Back.

Note 27: Ibid., p.5. Back.

Note 28: Khaleej Times, May 18, 1999. Back.

Note 29: Ibid. Back.

Note 30: Ibid. Back.

Note 31: n. 26, p. 6. Back.

Note 32: Ibid., p. 8. Back.

Note 33: n. 3, p.7. Back.

Note 34: Ibid. Back.

Note 35: Ibid. Back.

Note 36: n.26, p.7. Back.

Note 37: Ibid., pp. 7-8. Back.

Note 38: Ibid., p. 7 Back.

Note 39: n. 3, p. 8. Back.

Note 40: Times of India, May 19, 1999. Back.

Note 41: The Statesman, May 31, 1999. Back.

Note 42: The Hindu, June 2, 1999. Back.

Note 43: The Hindu, June 6, 1999. Back.

Note 44: Times of India, May 19. 1999. Back.