When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called a general election last March, few observers gave him much chance of forming another administration. Israel’s annual inflation rate stood at 400 per cent, and the economic policies of Shamir’s right-wing Likud coalition were so unpopular that Opposition Leader Shimon Peres’ Labor Alignment party enjoyed a wide 16-point lead in the opinion polls. But after Israelis went to the polls in the nation’s 11th general election last week, Labor had fallen short of its expectations and won only three more seats than Likud. With 61 seats required to form a majority government, the two major parties furiously courted 13 smaller parties that won a combined 35 seats in search of a new coalition. Sentiment in an anxious nation built for a bipartisan unity government. But late returns from the army swung a key seat from Labor to the Tehiya Party, a likely Likud ally, increasing Shamir’s chances of continuing in power.
At the same time, Shamir’s rightwing caretaker government took emergency measures to halt a run on the shekel. Interim Finance Minister Yigal Cohen-Orgad ordered a 15-per-cent tax on transactions converting the shekel
into foreign currency and imposed a ban on most foreign currency transfers abroad. Said Cohen-Orgad: “There is not time to wait for a new government.” Even from the early results it was clear that Likud had blunted Labor’s election offensive, and Shamir quickly hailed a “historical achievement.”
The near deadlock between Labor and Likud only compounded Israel’s economic and political problems
Peres, more modestly, said he hoped to form as widely based a coalition as possible. But the electorate showed a lack of confidence in the platforms of both major parties. Labor and Likud each lost five seats, Labor finishing with a total of 44 and Likud with 41. The smaller parties, in contrast, increased their 22 preelection total by 13.
The new clout of other parties, coupled with the near-deadlock between Labor and Likud, compounded Israel’s problems, including the slumping shek-
el, the human and fiscal costs of the continuing occupation of southern Lebanon and the controversial settlement policy in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Said Hebrew University political scientist Daniel Horowitz: “The picture painted by these results is of an Israel rigidly divided into two camps. Whichever party will form the next government will be very weak.”
In fact, even before the election was over Shamir called on Labor to serve with him in a government of national unity. Peres dismissed the idea. Said political analyst Avi Bettelheim: “Both Shamir and Peres have reached the conclusion that they must work together. The vital question is which of them will be prime minister.” Former prime minister Menachem Begin, onetime head of Likud, joined appeals for a unity government but endorsed Shamir as its head.
For his part, Yosef Burg, leader of the National Religious Party which won four seats, a loss of one, said he assumed a national unity government was “everyone’s wish.” The idea also received support from former finance minister Yigal Horvitz’ Ometz Party, which won one seat, and from former defence minister Ezer Weizman’s Yahad (Together) party, formed only four months ago,
which elected three members.
The unity movement arose in part from fears that attempts by the top two finishers to “buy” support from smaller parties might produce a volatile coalition of widely differing ideologies. It also reflected distaste for some of the personalities and policies now represented in the Knesset. One seat went to the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who favors the forced expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories. The rabbi, who also wants jail terms for Arabs who have sexual relations with Jews, has several times been imprisoned for anti-Arab incitement, and Begin told an interviewer that he rejected “everything Kahane says and represents.”
Outside Israel, reaction to the election result was almost uniformly pessimistic. Western governments, which had calculated that a Labor victory offered the best hope of solving Israel’s economic problems and furthering the Middle East peace process, were deeply disappointed by Peres’ poor showing. In Washington a state department official said that the hung parliament “creates a certain amount of paralysis that could go on for weeks.” For his part, Robert Neumann, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the country’s inability to break the electoral stalemate made it “very nearly ungovernable.” In the Arab world, too, many commentators saw little difference between the policies of Likud and Labor. For example, the Cairo daily al-Gomhouriya claimed that “the real winner will be extremism.”
In lengthy analyses of the causes of
the deadlock Israeli commentators focused on Labor’s poor performance. Commented Daniel Elazar, head of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs: “Labor’s ability to throw away victory after everything that has happened under Likud—the failure of the Lebanon war, inflation, the disappearance of its historical founder Menachem Begin— really says something.” The underlying conclusion, Elazar theorized, is that voters saw Likud, which has ruled Israel for only seven years since 1948, as the party of the new generation and Labor as “the establishment that people do not want back.” Other commentators noted that Labor had fought a very low-key campaign and that on many important issues its policies were difficult to distinguish from those of Likud. For example, both oppose creation of a Palestinian state as well as negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel’s elaborate proportional representation system, which spawns so many small parties, also made a clearcut result unlikely. In fact, no party has ever won a Knesset majority. Israelis do not vote for individual candidates. Instead, they cast their ballots for one of the parties, each of which can nominate a maximum of 120 candidates, one for each seat in the Knesset. In order to gain representation in the Knesset, each party must receive one per cent of the total votes cast, which entitles it to one seat that goes to the first candidate on a party’s list. The rest of the seats are allotted by dividing the total vote by 120
to determine how many more votes a party must win to gain additional seats. The total number of votes cast last week was about 2.4 million, and each party had to secure 24,000 in order to obtain its first seat. And out of 26 parties that contested the election, no fewer than 15 did so.
Still, none of the minor parties succeeded in winning more than five seats, which in turn made the task of coalitionbuilding more complicated. With 61 seats needed to form a majority, Labor had to attract the support of 17 more Knesset members from other parties. Likud needed 20 additional supporters. But political analysts expected Shamir to have the easier task because Likud could claim more natural allies among the minor parties than Labor.
Failing agreement on a government of national unity, political analysts expected that Likud could easily attract such hard-line nationalist groupings as the Tehiya Party (five seats) and the right-wing Morasha religious party (two). It could probably count on the ultra-orthodox Agudat Israel and Shas parties, which together won six seats, and the National Religious Party, an ally in the outgoing government, which won four seats. That would give Likud—a coalition of three parties in its own right—58 seats, three short of a majority. Labor, on the other hand, might be able to muster only 50 seats immediately: its 44, plus the support of the dovish Shinui Party (three) and its other close ally, the Citizens’ Rights Movement (three).
The arithmetic of stalemate put genuinely uncommitted parties like the Tami religious party (one) and the 60-year-old Weizman’s new Yahad grouping in a powerful negotiating position. The charismatic Weizman in particular was the object of intense pressure from both sides. During the campaign he carefully avoided disclosing a preference, but his platform—dovish on the peace issue but conservative on the economy —seemed to place him marginally closer to Labor. Most analysts agreed, however, that the deciding factor would be the cabinet post that most attracted Weizman. He said that he wanted to be finance minister.
Still, as the nation awaited President Chaim Herzog’s effort to form a new government, cabinet-building was a distant problem. A more urgent priority was the renewal of the battle to solve Israel’s economic woes, which Shamir had largely ignored during the fourmonth election campaign. At week’s end Israelis, even as they watched the passing parade of hopeful politicians on their television screens, were bracing themselves for the impact of new austerity proposals. -DAVID NORTH, with David Bernstein in Jerusalem.
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