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After 23 years of domination by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s largest political party has selected a new leader. Ehud Barak, 55, protege and heir apparent to the late Rabin, won 57 percent of the primary votes cast by 167,000 Labor Party members on June 3, easily defeating the more dovish Yossi Beilin, a chief aide to Peres and a prime mover in the Oslo peace process. With Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier in history, Labor is again banking on a renowned military figure to return it to power.
Barak’s similarities to Rabin are striking: Both concluded distinguished army careers as armed forces chief of staff. Both were immediately recruited into the Labor Party leadership and groomed for the prime ministership. Both have been generally associated with the more hawkish element of the Labor Party. Barak even proclaims himself the bearer of Rabin’s “legacy” and has been warmly endorsed by his widow, Leah.
It remains unclear, however, whether Barak will, like Rabin, become more receptive to Palestinian political aspirations.
While he has quietly endorsed the Labor Party platform plank acquiescing to a demilitarized Palestinian state, he hasn’t forgotten the devastating effect of last year’s campaign by Likud charging that Peres would “divide Jerusalem.” Thus, he has trod lightly on the Har Homa/Jamal Abu Ghneim issue, voicing only the tactical criticism that building a Jewish housing project on the disputed eastern edge of Jerusalem reflects “bad timing.”
Barak will draw on his reputation as a highly competent, security-minded leader. Unlike Peres, who held the Labor Party opposition in check in the hope of being invited into a national unity coalition, the new leader will seek every opportunity to force a new election or build toward the next scheduled date in the year 2000.
Barak will have to work hard to rebuild his party’s popular support. Recent opinion polls show him with a slim lead of 39 percent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 36 percent, with another 16 percent undecided. Working-class Sephardim (Jews of Afro-Asian origin) and Orthodox voters have been drawn to the right over the past 20 years as they’ve come to regard Labor and the left as culturally elitist, morally suspect, unpatriotic and even anti-Jewish.
These voting blocs appear not to be upset by the charges of cronyism and influence peddling that have plagued the Netanyahu government recently. Nor will it help Barak that Labor, despite its social-democratic origins, is predominantly a party of the secular Ashkenazi professional and business classes, and is increasingly neoliberal in outlook.
Yet some important constituencies are likely to swing back to Labor in the next election. These include the recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union (about 10 percent of Israeli Jews), who were mobilized by one of their own, Natan Sharansky, to support Netanyahu last year. Largely secular and pragmatic, former Soviet Jews voted decisively in 1992 for Rabin and Meretz, the liberal/social democratic and militantly secularist party that served as Labor’s main coalition partner from 1992 to 1996. Barak should also win back many moderates who crossed over to Netanyahu as a result of the devastating suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv last year.
Still, an additional complication may emerge, this time from the left. Yossi Sarid, the head of Meretz, also intends to run for prime minister, as may the head of one of Israel’s two Arab parties. Either or both of these would draw votes from Barak. So, despite Barak’s strength and Netanyahu’s weakness, Israel’s next election looms as a toss-up.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the magazine’s July 14, 1997 issue (Vol. 21, No. 17).
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