Next Tuesday’s election in Israel is wide open, according to the pollsters. The latest polls predict 59 seats for a Labour-led coalition, as opposed to 61 for Shamir’s alliance of the right and the religious. But while Labour will probably emerge as the largest party, there are uneasy mutterings in Labour circles about the “British factor”, and an almost fatalistic expectation that Likud will somehow close the gap in the final stages of the campaign.
Even so, Labour has undergone a remarkable facelift. The introduction of one-member-one-vote for candidate selections produced a high turnout and a rejuvenated parliamentary list, in stark contrast to Likud’s byzantine factional bartering and leaks to the press of corruption in high places. In 1988, there was only a handful of Labour Knesset members under the age of 50. This year’s list has produced six in their thirties and 18 in their forties, and a number of outspoken doves secured senior positions and assured seats in the next Knesset.
Despite this, the party’s spin-doctors have placed the doves in quarantine and, as in Britain, there has been no mention of socialism. Kesher-Barel, the party’s PR firm, has reversed perceptions of the main parties to mould an aggressive, macho Labour image. The military background of Labour’s new leader, Yitzhak Rabin, victor of the Six Day war and advocate of bone-breaking at the outset of the Intifada, has been emphasised to attract floating voters who have doubts about Likud this time around. His lack of sophistication, his broken Hebrew, his nervous reluctance to press the flesh are seen as assets in comparison with his defeated rival for the labour leadership, Shimon Peres. Indeed, Labour have ensured that every ballot paper carries a sub-heading—”Labour under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin”.
In 1988, Labour and its dovish allies on the left secured 49 seats. In 1992, the target is a minimum of 55, which, together with six from the Arab parties, would constitute a blocking majority. This, in turn, should initiate some concerted re-thinking among religious parties such as Shas and Agudat Yisrael, whose essential aim is to remain in government to obtain funding for their rabbinical seminaries and educational institutions. A peace coalition of the secular left, the ultra-orthodox and Rabin’s Labour, tacitly supported by the Arab parties, could then move forward, it is argued, to conclude an autonomy agreement—”peace in stages”—with the Palestinians.
If Labour emerges as the largest party, Rabin could propose yet another national unity government with Likud. While this would defuse the possible violent reaction of the far right to any proposed settlement in the occupied territories, the continued presence of Likud in government would inevitably neutralise real progress on the dialogue with the Palestinians. As in Britain, the “undecided”—estimated at over 20 per cent by one poll—may yet go with the devil they know. Even so, many people—Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs—will be holding their breath during the next few days, hoping that a solution to 25 inglorious years of death and destruction in the West Bank and Gaza may soon be at hand.
New Statesman editorial 19 June 1992