So, these most miserable elections ended as expected. What would have seemed an implausible nightmare but a few months ago is now sober reality: Ariel Sharon has been elected Prime Minister of Israel.
Still, this result is not so much the victory of a notorious hard-liner as it is the defeat of the failing incumbent. Barak, the man who spoke peace but went to war, was not so much defeated by the opposition as by himself. As no leader of the right could have possibly have done, it was Barak who fatally broke up and demoralized the peace constituency, driving a large part of his former voters into boycotting the elections or casting blank ballots. The Arab citizens of Israel – a community which gave Barak 95% of its vote in 1999, more than any other segment of Israeli society – already hurt by Barak’s patronizing attitude and his pointed refusal to include them in his cabinet, were traumatized by his police shooting down 13 demonstrators in the Arab villages and towns of northern Israel. And also among Jewish voters of the peace camp, the Blank Ballot option – hitherto promoted only by marginal groups – became widely attractive. Barak’s camp was a depressed, a split camp – with the “in spite of everything” voters and the ones who decided to boycott an election where the choice was between bad and worse.
For Sharon to have such a smashing victory over Barak it was enough to have his own constituency turn up. He could count on his own party as well as on the ultra-right and the religious. Where most election campaigns are directed towards the “middle of the road” Ariel Sharon this time didn’t have to make much of an effort to convince this sector.
In the one and a half year of his term, Barak did raise some positive ideas, some of them actually taboo-breaking – but until his last day in office seriousness about actually carrying them out remained uncertain. He failed to build trust with the Palestinians (or for that matter, with many sections of the Israeli society), nor did he implement a single one of the many far reaching concessions which he verbally espoused. Meanwhile, he did continue with the policy of settlement extension and confiscation of Palestinian lands, destruction of Palestinian houses. And when after the September provocation, Palestinians on Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif burst out in anger Barak reacted with what the UN Security Council rightfully condemned as an excessive use of force, though Barak himself termed it “a policy of restraint.”
A restraint which led to seven deaths on the very first day, reaching a total of nearly 400 in the following months, many of them children – not to mention thousands of wounded, a large part of them crippled for life; hundreds of destroyed houses; tens of thousands of felled trees; closure, siege and curfew reducing millions to poverty and hardship… Barak’s conduct – making concessions, but just too little to get an agreement, and then accusing his Arab interlocutors of intransigence – has discredited peace among the Israeli population, thereby paving the way for Sharon.
The peace movement was simply too divided.
Many of his most enthusiastic supporters in 1999 felt unable to vote back into office a prime minister who launched the worst wave of repression since Israel occupied these territories in 1967. And the others weren’t really enthusiastic, even if they did vote for “the lesser evil.” Indeed, Ariel Sharon’s CV stretches from the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Quibya in 1953 to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982; and once the Kahan Commission of Inquiry excluded him from involvement in military matters he found other ways to deserve the nickname “the bulldozer.”
It should have been easy enough to frighten the Israeli electorate by no more than factually recounting Sharon’s career. In fact, the considerable efforts made in this direction by Barak’s best propagandists failed against one simple consideration: Sharon’s war had taken place nearly twenty years ago, and much of the electorate are too young to remember or had lived in Russia at the time. The war with the Palestinians, a war of Barak’s own making, is taking place right here and now.
The debate over these elections, which absorbed peace activists in an often acrimonious debate, has this evening become moot. After these results, the Israeli peace movement has immediately to rebuild its inner coherence – to be able to confront the bleak new reality. In fact, opposition to the new regime has started already a few days before the elections, when the polls already left little doubt about the results. Last Saturday thousands marched across Jerusalem, under driving rain, to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the murder of Emil Grunszweig – the peace activist killed by a Sharon follower during a 1983 demonstration demanding Sharon’s resignation from the Defence Ministry. A day later, seventeen among hundreds of protesting activists were arrested when blocking the road in front of the Defence Ministry to protest the cruel siege of the Palestinian population. And the Yesh Gvul movement reports a great increase in the number of soldiers refusing service in the occupied territories ever since Sharon started to show a lead in the polls.
One more thing: also this new prime minister will soon struggle with the impossibility in this polarized country to create a stable government. There is an inevitable contradiction between the interests of the ultra-orthodox and the Russian immigrants who are adamant against religious coercion – and Sharon will need them both. More important, Sharon will need to face the insurgent Palestinians and unveil the practical solutions which he has to offer – as he carefully avoided doing throughout the elections campaign.
Sharon’s career over the past four decades leaves little doubt about what his natural tendency would lead him to do: to increase the brutal oppression of the Palestinians even beyond the levels to which Barak already resorted. That is certainly what the settlers and other Sharon allies on the extreme right expect of him – but that road could lead to an all-out regional war, to Israel’s international isolation and a deep rift in Israeli society. Avigdor Liebermann of the quasi–Fascist “National Unity Party”, who may get a senior portfolio in the Sharon cabinet, already set it out in vivid colours, in a newspaper interview which was highly embarrassing to the Sharon campaign: reconquest of the Palestinian enclaves, all-out regional war, Israeli planes bombing from Cairo to Teheran… Alternately, Sharon may strive to create a moderate image, and make some superficial conciliatory gestures at the outset of his term; but there is no way he can reopen serious negotiations with the Palestinians – even were he so inclined – without unraveling his own constituency.
A Sharon cabinet would be weak and unsteady, torn by internal contradictions and commanding only a slender parliamentary majority, and with his rival, former PM Binyamin Netanyahu, constantly breathing down Sharon’s neck. Should the Labour Party resist the temptation of joining Sharon in a “National Unity” cabinet, so as to change it “from within” – an option which was almost openly discussed even during the elections campaign itself – and should it succeed in replacing Barak by a leader not tainted with colossal failure, it stands a good chance of recovering from the fiasco and contesting a new set of elections in the not-too- distant future. After all, the same opinion polls which predicted today’s results have also clearly indicated that repudiation of Barak does not necessarily imply rejection of the peace process.
On the contrary: even while Sharon was climbing higher and higher in the polls, a steady 65% to 70% majority in the same polls expressed themselves in favour of continuing the peace process. And Shimon Peres, a Labourite with a much more dovish image than Barak, had done much better than him in the polls and could have faced Sharon on much more equal terms – though Barak obstinately rejected all pleas and entreaties to let this possibility be put to the electoral test.
Today’s results – while a grave set-back which could cost the lives of many – did not alter the basic ingredients of the situation – neither the Palestinians’ determination to obtain sovereign statehood on their own soil, nor the disinclination of most Israelis to sacrifice their soldier sons in the cause of denying the Palestinians that statehood. And that disinclination certainly includes also many of those who today voted Sharon.