The truism of Israeli politics that "elections are lost rather than
won", has never been more evident than in this current electoral contest
between Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon (which is, incidentally, the first ever
election for the position of Prime Minister, totally independent of elections
for the Knesset).
Whether Ehud Barak deserves the degree of dissatisfaction among the Israeli
public or not, is a matter of dispute. However, polls consistently demonstrate
that the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not want him to continue as Prime
Minister. Moreover, polls and surveys indicate that the degree of support for
Ariel Sharon is apparently more than adequate enough to win the election, but
also that this election may see the lowest electoral turnout in Israel's history
(both as a result of protest as well as disinterest), but also that the largest
number ever of blank (protest) votes is likely to be cast into the ballot boxes.
What has led to such a degree of alienation from Ehud Barak? The answer is to
be found both in substance and style.
The reality is that life in Israel today is physically less secure than when
Barak came into power. The impact of the latest Intifada has Israeli society
feeling confused and vulnerable. As a result there is a desire to
"restore" a sense of greater security.
It matters little whether one argues that Barak is not the source of the
violence: or that every possible alternative for dealing with terror has been
tried in the past and that there are no "quick fixes"; or that more
aggressive tactics will only prove to be counter-productive; the general public
is not interested in such reasoning. What matters to Israelis above all, is
their own personal perceptions of security, whether life feels more secure or
less so, and today the feeling of insecurity is unquestionably greater.
According to the findings of a survey released this week by the newly appointed
Chief Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishky – 65% of Israelis fear for their
The second reason for alienation from Barak has more to do with style. The
word one hears most in this regard in the media and public discourse, is
"zigzag"! Barak is perceived as inconsistent, both in his dealings
with the Palestinians and perhaps above all in his handling of Israeli internal
politics. While it is not suprising that his "rainbow coalition" that
comprised such conflicting components did not hold together for long, Barak has
succeeded in alienating many of those who were his most natural allies even
within his own party - not least of all by giving apparently contradictory
messages on Religion and State as well as on War and Peace. The result is that
the public perceives him as inconsistent and unreliable. It is surely nothing
less than a tragedy that Israel's most decorated hero in its history, should now
be viewed as a source of insecurity both physical and psychological.
Accordingly, Ariel Sharon has needed nothing more than to let matters run
their course and allow the ripe fruit to fall into his lap. However, Sharon has
no shortage of skeletons in his closet, as well as a rich record of blunt
commentary that could frighten off the mainstream of Israeli society, currently
looking for a strong but stable and disciplined leadership. His able campaign
managers have relied upon the short memory of the public and the lack of memory
of the significant segment of the electorate from the former Soviet Union.
Sharon's advisers have cautioned him to say as little as possible; avoid
debates, especially with Barak; in fact, avoid media interviews generally and
keep off the subject of Lebanon for all he's worth. They have also kept the
media away from all his meetings with haredi rabbis, so as not to alienate the
secular voters and especially the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But
in the last week this able strategy has unraveled somewhat. In appearances at
different high schools, Sharon has been mercilessly challenged on his Lebanon
record and his comments carried in the recent issue of the New Yorker as well as
other past interviews in Israeli periodicals, have been dredged up by his
opponents to the evident discomfort of both Sharon and his party.
Nevertheless, the consequent decline of public support for Sharon in the
polls has not been to Barak's advantage, but only appears to have increased the
number of undecided or abstaining voters.
While Barak is not expected to bring about a last-minute agreement with the
Palestinians, leading Israeli commentators such as Aryeh Caspi, have pointed to
a lasting legacy that Barak will leave behind and which the latest negotiations
highlight. Namely, that the issues that have to be confronted for there to be
any lasting solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are now clearly on the
table, no longer obscured by traditional slogans and platitudes. At the end of
the day, only if an acceptable compromise can be found to the questions of
Jerusalem, final borders and compensation for Palestinian refugees, will Barak's
stillborn attempt to reach "an end to the conflict" be crowned with
success. However, it looks that if and when that happens, it will not be Prime
Minister Barak’s crown to wear.