The Rise of the 15th Knesset

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The 15th Israeli Knesset serves as a good case study for how Israeli Parliamentary politics work, because during its term, 1999-2002, two different Israeli governments, under prime ministers from competing political parties, were dissolved. It is a tale of three retired generals at the summit of Israeli public life, where egos, ideology, power-struggles, and the fast pace of current events all played important roles in determining the fate of governments and policies. 

Barak's Election

The elections for the 15th Knesset and the prime minister of Israel were conducted on May 17, 1999, resulting in one of the most politically fractioned parliaments in Israel's history. But the main attention that night was cast on the convincing victory of challenger Ehud Barak of the Labor Party over the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, who immediately announced his resignation from public life.

ehud barakAs word of the results spread in the wee hours of May 18, an immense gathering of Barak supporters formed in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the symbolism-laden site where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. The crowd, impatiently demanding an appearance by Barak himself, as if he were a pop star, spilled over into the surrounding streets, imperceptibly mingling with revelers in the trendy pubs on Ibn Gvirol Street. This was a young, hip, and relatively affluent metropolis celebrating what it considered a victory for forward-looking rational progress. They exhibited no doubt that Barak would very shortly extricate the Israeli army from Lebanon, where it had been bogged down in a demoralizing and seemingly endless fight against Hezbollah; sign peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, finally putting an end to decades of conflict; and then turn his analytical skills towards dealing with a host of domestic policies that had been put on the back-burner for too long due to the amount of attention required to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict.

In sharp contrast to the optimism of the pro-Barak gathering, a gloomier atmosphere prevailed across town at Likud election headquarters. If suffering the worst electoral defeat in its history weren't enough, the Likud was reduced to 19 seats. Likud was perilously close to being the third largest party in the Knesset, as Shas swelled to 17 seats. Netanyahu's abrupt resignation from politics appeared to leave it leaderless at a most difficult moment.

Into the breach stepped Ariel Sharon. As Netanyahu stepped away from the microphone after announcing his abrupt resignation on the night of the elections for the 15th Knesset, Sharon immediately positioned himself to step up to the microphone as the undisputed new leader of the Likud party. The party may have been at one of its lowest points, but Sharon, as head of the opposition, was now in position to challenge Barak for the office of prime minister, should Barak's government fall. As it turned out, he did not have very long to wait.

Barak's Coalition

Although Barak won a sweeping victory and could claim to have received a mandate from the people for his administration, the fragmented Knesset that was elected concurrently was anything but comfortable for a prime minister. Barak's Labor Party, the anchor of the coalition with the largest single representation in the Knesset, had only 26 seats, leaving a vast gap to be overcome in reaching the minimum 61-member support for a government.

The coalition Barak fashioned included a total of 73 Knesset members, a seemingly comfortable Knesset majority. But to attain this number, Barak cobbled together left-leaning parties such as Labor and Meretz alongside right-leaning elements such as Shas and the National Religious Party. The task of keeping that fault-line from shaking fell on the shoulders of the prime minister.

This last point is one important example of how differences between the Israeli electoral system and the American one can affect the daily routine of the chief executives in these countries. An American president may need to endure frequent frictions with Congressional leaders, but his or her Cabinet is composed of professionals hired for the job, rather then elected officials. In contrast, the Israeli prime minister is generally assured of Knesset support for government policies because the coalition represents a majority of Knesset members, but this comes at the cost of heading a government composed of the leading Knesset members themselves, out of each coalition party.

This means that government meetings are gatherings of men and women who are each charged with representing and defending the interests of different constituencies. At the same time, they must keep an eye on their own personal ambitions of climbing the political ladder--a prescription for almost constant squabbling.

An Israeli Prime Minister must be adept at calming the rows that inevitably arise. Failure to do so puts the future of his or her government at risk.

The Barak Years

Trying hard to attain a major breakthrough with the Palestinians, Barak--along with U.S. President Bill Clinton--pushed for the convening of an intense Israeli-Palestinian negotiating summit at Camp David in Maryland in July 2000. The negotiating positions prepared for the summit by Barak's staff were so controversial that three parties in Barak's coalition--Shas, Yisrael Ba'aliya, and the National Religious Party--quit just prior to the summit. Barak was left with less than a working majority in his coalition on the eve of the summit, but persisted in following his original plans.

At the summit, Barak offered the Palestinians an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian negotiators rejected the offer as inadequate, while many Israelis considered it overly generous. Barak returned home with neither a major public achievement nor a stable coalition. By the end of the summer, he was barely winning no-confidence motions, relying for his political survival on the support of Arab parties in the Knesset who were not formal coalition members.

As autumn 2000 progressed, Barak's position moved from precarious to impossible. A violent Palestinian intifada (uprising) broke out, accompanied by deadly suicide bombings, causing Israelis to feel that their personal safety was at risk. The Israeli economy, already reeling from drops in exports as the world economy moved into recession, suffered a grievous blow from the intifada as tourists and foreign investors became disinclined to visit the county.

When violent demonstrations in Israel's Arab sector in October were quelled by police firing directly into crowds and killing 13, Barak lost the support of the Arab parties in the Knesset, the last prop holding up his government. Realizing that successful no-confidence motions were about to bring him down, Barak announced in December 2000 that he was resigning from the office of prime minister, an action that resulted in the calling of new direct elections for prime minister on Feb. 6, 2001--the moment Sharon had been waiting for.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.