Israel vs. Florida

Trying to figure out the results of the Israeli election? Here’s something that might help: compare and contrast what happened this week in Israel with what happened last November in Florida.

In Florida, when the election was over, people knew less than they thought they did. As for Israel, we know a lot about these results, but not as much as we think we do. We know that Israelis were looking for a veteran, a member of the old guard, who would give them a sense of security, personal as well as national. Thus, this was not an election against the peace process because the polls showed that Shimon Peres, Mr. Peace, would have been neck in neck with Sharon, Mr. Confrontation.

We know that Israelis were incensed that their prime minister had made the most accommodating offer in Israeli history only to be rebuffed by the Palestinians with a violent response. We know that the Israeli Arabs turned against Barak because they thought he had mishandled the killing of 13 of their number at the beginning of the intifada. Despite their overwhelming support for the Prime Minister in 1999, this week 50 percent did not even vote. We know that the religious sector, which was not favorably inclined toward Barak in any case, was turned off by his talk of a "civic revolution" at what the perceived was their expense. We know that the Sephardim and some of the traditional sector who had turned to Barak in 1999 went back to Likud in this election. We know that the secular liberal community was so disillusioned by the Palestinian intifada that they failed to vote in record numbers. We know that the Russians, who always vote against the government, did so again.

So if we know all this, what don’t we know? As in Florida, the identity of the real victor is still a mystery. Did the Israeli people elect Gen. Sharon of the 1982 Lebanon war and other controversial military actions? Or did they elect "Grandpa Arik" of the campaign who is concerned about peace with security, who convinced Menachem Begin to accept the first Camp David and then dismantled settlements in the Sinai, who showed signs of flexibility with the Jordanians and at Wye during the Netanyahu government?

In Florida, a second election began as soon as the first one ended. In Israel, the second election is all about coalition building. If Sharon moves toward the right, he will barely have a majority with representatives from seven parties competing for influence, and conducting a viable foreign policy will almost be hopeless. If he moves toward the center with a National Unity movement with Labor, or he picks up a crucial handful of key Knesset figures from the opposition led by Peres, he may form a government, he may have a more moderate foreign policy, but in disappointment and disillusionment the right could abandon him, hoping for a return of Netanyahu in the next election.

In Florida, the post-election battles had deadlines. In Israel, Sharon has 42 days to form a government, or a new election is automatically called. If the Knesset does not pass a budget by March 31, the same result. And given the fractiousness of this Knesset, many people think that even if Sharon gets past these hurdles, he won’t be able to stay in power very long anyway, giving way to yet another election.

In Florida, everyone made mistakes, big time. Sharon hasn’t yet had to pay a price for his big error, going up to the Temple Mount and setting off the intifada; instead, he has benefited from it. But others have paid or will pay dearly. Barak thought he could raise the most difficult issues left in the Arab-Israeli conflict and force a solution. Arafat thought a little violence would gain him greater concessions. The Arab governments thought that they could get away without rewarding Barak for his concessions after he replaced Netanyahu. None succeeded.

Florida showed that the ballot system needs a rehaul. In the Israeli version, the whole election system needs reforming. Some consider the current hybrid between a presidential and a parliamentary approach one of the worst democratic systems in the world. The reforms of the 1990s have been a total failure, destroying the Netanyahu and Barak governments in their wake and making serious governing almost impossible for any prime minister given the fractious divisions in the Knesset the new system has created. Without this system, Barak, and Netanyahu before him, never would have fallen as quickly and ignominiously as their governments did. Imagine Nixon or Reagan or Clinton falling after only 19 months. They wouldn’t have had much of a presidency.

Little wonder that one explanation why this election was Israel’s lowest turnout in history was not only that only the Prime Minister’s office was up for election for the first time, but because so many people believed that it was a waste of time, that Sharon would not be able to form a government or it wouldn’t last long, and that Netanyahu would take over in Likud and the new generation of Labor leaders like Avraham Burg or Haim Ramon would rise to confront him. Why waste time voting if it was only for a few short weeks or months?.

After Florida, the new president acted as if he’d won by a landslide. In Israel, the new prime minister knows that a landslide is quickly forgotten. He will act as if his margin were razor thin, and he will want to be wanted by his opponents at home and abroad. Enter American Jews, who could have more influence on Sharon than on any previous Israeli prime minister if they act for or against the peace process. What will American Jews do? That’s one of the big questions of the Sharon era.

In Florida, the worst that could happen is that we got the wrong president. In Israel, a bad system gets you chaos, an inability to progress at home or abroad, and the danger of war.