To the Editor:
In his otherwise insightful autopsy of Likud’s demise at the polls in June [“Why Likud Lost—And Who Won,” August], David Bar-Illan underestimates the importance voters attached to Yitzhak Shamir’s timid and indecisive economic policies. He admits those policies were not “all that they might have been”—specifically, that they did not move more rapidly to a free-market economy—but he argues that “the Israeli economy had made remarkable progress” under Shamir’s premiership. Such an assertion misses the point.
Whatever progress Israel’s economy made under Shamir was due to the fact that the country was moving incrementally (“inch-by-inch,” the embassy in Washington likes to say) toward a system of lower taxes, fewer regulations, greater exposure to imports, and increased privatization. But “inch-by-inch” progress was not nearly good enough when a landslide of Soviet Jews poured into the country, overwhelming a behemoth bureaucracy ill-equipped for such cataclysmic change.
The key to successful absorption, then as now, is massive foreign investment. But while foreign aid and charity to Israel topped $6 billion in 1991, direct foreign investment was a meager $300 million. As a result, big businesses eager to expand, and small businesses ready to launch, were starved for capital. True to form, however, Shamir resisted sweeping structural reforms that would attract more investment and instead groped for still more aid and charity.
Yitzhak Rabin apparently understood the growing frustration among Israelis over the economy and the failure of the Shamir government to move more decisively on reform. What else explains the historically socialist-oriented Labor party blasting Likud in newspaper campaign ads with such messages as “Labor holds that growth and investment can only be achieved by reducing government involvement in the economy and by shaking off the Likud’s rigid bureaucratic control of the economy”?
Rabin’s approach to the economy—which I call “Rabinomics”—actually echoes Reaganomics, at least rhetorically. It calls for lower taxes, lower tariffs, more rapid privatization, deregulation, an emphasis on small-business creation, and a “war on unemployment.” Ten years ago such an approach would have been unthinkable for a Labor leader. Now it is part and parcel of a winning ticket.
The question is: is Rabin really serious? And if so, can he fend off all the socialists he has welcomed into his government and who still dominate his party? “A free world demands a free economy,” Rabin said in his inaugural address. Truer words have never been spoken. Washington will now be watching with anticipation for action.
Joel C. Rosenberg
To the Editor:
I believe David Bar-Illan is basically correct that the 1992 Israeli election results had very little to do with any dramatic ideological shift in Israel, Western media serendipity notwithstanding. . . . The strength of most of the ideological blocs remained almost completely unchanged, with a five-seat shift (out of the Knesset’s 120) from Likud to Labor . . . accounting for the change in the governing coalition, hardly a cultural revolution. . . . In my opinion, the shift was no more and no less than a vote on governing competence and leadership. Likud was widely viewed as bumbling, and lacking “the vision thing,” to borrow from the Americans. . . .
I think Mr. Bar-Illan is far too generous in dispensing absolution to Likud for its economic performance; any real progress that existed behind all the statistics was attributable less to Likud than to the genius of the Israeli entrepreneur in surviving in the face of anti-productive government policies. This said, however, it must be said, too, that there are many economic grounds for fearing the return of the Laborites. . . .
But the economic epitaph for the Likud era must still be: Far too little, far too late.
Steven E. Plaut
University of Haifa
To the Editor:
David Bar-Illan has correctly identified many of the reasons Likud lost. However, I think he has underestimated the degree to which even strong Likud supporters believed that the party was in serious disarray after fifteen years in office. . . . At the same time, Labor cleverly disguised its overwhelmingly dovish position by choosing Rabin—who is probably the farthest to the Right of any of Labor’s leaders—to run for Prime Minister. . . .
Given the disarray of Likud and the cleverness of Labor, what is surprising is how few seats moved from the Right to the Left. . . . One of the most important aspects of the election is buried in a footnote in which Mr. Bar-Illan states that “a majority of the [Jewish] electorate voted for the Right-of-Center parties.” . . . This gives the lie to those who claim that the Israeli public has shifted positions decisively on the question of the territories. It is more accurate to say that the shift was extremely small, considering the other factors involved in the election. And it is clear that a majority of Jewish voters still oppose territorial compromise, at least until the Arabs demonstrate that they really want peace.
Bruce J. Terris
To the Editor:
David Bar-Illan notes that if Likud had won just two more seats, the right-wing-religious bloc would have had “a majority of 61 [seats in the Knesset], and Shamir would now be heading the government.” The irony is that Likud and its allies actually did win enough votes for 61 or 62 seats—but because of a quirk in Israel’s election laws, more than 65,000 votes that were cast for right-wing parties were discarded. . . .
Israeli law arbitrarily decrees that a party must receive 1.5 percent of the total vote in order to qualify for the Knesset; if a party fails to cross that 1.5-percent threshold, all of its votes are thrown out. Four right-wing parties failed to pass the threshold, and all their votes . . . were disqualified. In terms of pure democracy, Likud and its allies really did win. Only the peculiarities of the Israeli electoral system rescued the Israeli Left from its fifth straight defeat at the polls.
Chairman, Americans for a Safe Israel
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . There are many plausible explanations for what happened in the Israeli elections, including . . . , among other things, the fact that Likud and Shamir had alienated the United States, Israel’s prime ally. Israel could ill afford to continue having at the head of its government a man so utterly disliked by the American President and his Secretary of State. Nor could it risk losing support among American Jews, badly shaken by the American-Israeli rift. . . .
By contrast, Labor managed quite cleverly. For one thing, it changed its image so that socialism became a dirty word never to be heard during the campaign. The dovish Shimon Peres was replaced as party leader by the hawkish Rabin, and voters were reminded of the quality of the latter’s leadership during the 1967 war and his strong performance during the early stages of the intifada. . . .
At this juncture, it remains to be seen whether Rabin will rise to the demands of change without endangering the vital interests of the country, and whether he will be able to distance himself from the extremists within the Labor party and among the allies in the coalition. . . .
Samuel L. Tennenbaum
West Orange, New Jersey
To the Editor:
One observation in David Bar-Illan’s excellent analysis of Likud’s electoral defeat . . . struck a particular chord with me. I refer to Mr. Bar-Illan’s remarks about Israel’s tactic of using undercover army units to deal with the latest stage of the intifada—armed gunmen who torture and kill fellow Arabs accused of collaborating with the Israelis. The figures he cites—that the work of the undercover units led to 1,500 arrests and 20 killings of violent suspects—put this new tactic into some sort of perspective.
By contrast, the New York Times and Washington Post made use of anecdotal accounts to imply that these military undercover squads were killing most of their targets. Neither of these prestigious newspapers devoted more than a paragraph to Israeli claims that the undercover teams were arresting—not killing—the suspects they pursued. . . .
Additionally, neither newspaper report even mentioned the likely benefactors of the Israeli actions: other Arabs who might have been victims of the gunmen. The message of both the Post and the Times was that Israel now sends soldiers to kill innocent Arabs.
Thank you, Mr. Bar-Illan, for telling us the whole truth.
To the Editor:
. . . David Bar-Illan . . . tells us that one key reason Yitzhak Shamir was unable to win reelection was his “egregious domestic compromises,” such as “[giving in] to the ultra-religious parties (the haredim) [who made] outrageous demands for subsidies” and
coddling non-Zionist parties whose followers did not serve in the army and whose Knesset members—some of whom are under police investigation—were unabashedly extorting taxpayers’ money for their projects and institutions.
And Mr. Bar-Illan suggests approvingly that the Tsomet party quadrupled its Knesset representation mainly because it was “the only Right-of-Center party to attack haredim.”
If we replace the terms “ultra-religious” and “haredim” with the more neutral phrase “people who practice the traditional Jewish way of life,” we must wonder why a significant number of Israeli voters—and apparently also Mr. Bar-Illan—feel no embarrassment at the use of typically anti-Semitic distortions and negative characterizations of political behavior that is in fact accepted as perfectly normal when practiced by other people.
Why, for example, is it considered extortionate to use the normal Israeli political process to seek modest allocations of money for “projects and institutions” that meet the particular educational and social needs of religious Jews, many with extremely low incomes, but unremarkable when far more extravagant demands are made by other parties?
Why is an inconclusive and unduly extended police investigation of a particular individual used to insinuate that an entire group is guilty?
Why is it implied that because Israeli law grants draft deferments to full-time yeshiva students (like divinity students in America even during wartime), it follows that no haredim serve in the army?
Is it possible that the true crime that puts the haredim beyond the pale of Mr. Bar-Illan’s universe of reasonable civil discourse is not their actual behavior but rather their refusal to accept the idea that Zionism has superseded Judaism? If that is the case, he has demonstrated that the protean force of anti-Semitism, which so often appears today in the guise of anti-Zionism, can also garb itself as Zionism.
To the Editor:
In his account of the Israeli election, David Bar-Illan is a model sore loser. His article is bad-tempered (Labor/Meretz succeeded because of the lies they told); patronizing (Israeli voters didn’t understand how good they had it under Likud); self-serving (it was Likud that made Rabin a credible candidate, and anyway his victory was just a matter of inches). Well, perhaps. But at least contradictions, one might think, can be nonideological. For example, the “land-for-peace” formula, Mr. Bar-Illan contends, is viewed as suicidal by most Israelis, although half of them (or a bit less than half, he quickly amends) favor “territorial compromise.” Is he suggesting then that “territorial compromise” does not mean land for peace? What else could it mean? And how many halves make up this whole? Mr. Bar-Illan’s notion that the principle of “land for peace” entails a commitment to pre-1967 boundaries is a pure fiction—linguistically, conceptually, politically. . . .
West Hartford, Connecticut
David Bar-Illan writes:
I have no argument with Joel C. Rosenberg’s critique of Yitzhak Shamir’s economic policies. That he “resisted sweeping structural reforms” is undeniable. Nor can I dispute Steven E. Plaut’s contention that “progress . . . was attributable less to Likud than to the genius of the Israeli entrepreneur.” And it is true, too, that Rabin’s free-market approach to the economy during the campaign—which contradicted all traditional Labor positions—reassured voters almost as much as his reputation for security consciousness. Yet voters do not usually change leadership when their own economic condition is better than ever. Why the Israeli voters did so is what I tried to examine.
I obviously could not touch on all the causes of Israel’s political “upheaval,” and I am grateful to Bruce J. Terris, Herbert Zweibon, and Samuel L. Tennenbaum, as well as to Messrs. Rosenberg and Plaut, for pointing to additional possibilities. I also appreciate David Gerstman’s point on the media’s misrepresentation of the Israeli army’s undercover units.
Jeffrey Marsh is not alone in describing haredi parties as representatives of just another constituency whose conduct is no worse than others’. Nor is his suggestion unusual that they are singled out for calumny—which he deems anti-Semitic—only because they refuse to accept that “Zionism has superseded Judaism.” Both Likud (in the past) and Labor (now) have, officially if not privately, justified concessions to haredi parties with similar rationalizations.
But having enthusiastically and publicly welcomed haredi participation in government in the hope that power would beget responsibility, I must vehemently disagree. The haredi parties’ years in power have been distinguished not by conciliation but by polarization. Not because their religious orthodoxy is objectionable or their avid pursuit of parochial interests exceptional, but simply because haredim do not serve in the army in a country whose survival depends on the military.
To state that those who do not serve are full-time yeshiva students, who, like divinity students in the United States, should be exempt, is to mock the truth. Surely Mr. Marsh must know that not all military-age haredim are “full-time” yeshiva students. And he must also know that there are equally observant followers of the National Religious party who are yeshiva students and who serve valiantly. There is nothing in Judaism, with or without Zionism, which makes piety and patriotism incompatible. What makes haredi demands extortionate is that they include a stipulation which in effect exempts tens of thousands of able-bodied Israeli Jews from all national service.
I do not quite understand why my effort to explain how a mostly successful government lost the election struck Berel Lang as the lament of a sore loser. But the one example he cites to prove his point betrays a misunderstanding of Middle East codes. “Territorial compromise” may logically and linguistically mean “land for peace.” But in the prevailing diplomatic parlance the former means Israeli withdrawal from some territory and the latter a complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines. This is why the Bush administration and the Arabs talk of “land for peace” and the Labor government insists it is ready only for “territorial compromise.” How successfully Rabin will be able to maintain the distinction only time will tell.