/ report No.
The Israeli General Election of 1996
'Decisions of the voters, whether Jew or Arab, will determine not only
who holds power for the next four years, but the very size and nature of
the Jewish state, its relationship with its Middle East neighbours, the
Diaspora and the world at large.'
On 29 May Israelis go to the polls to elect both a prime minister and
a new Knesset. The direct election of the prime minister is a radical new
departure for the Israeli polity: Israel will have the unique combination
of a presidential and parliamentary system of government. This change alone
makes it difficult to predict the outcome of these elections, since voters
may choose one candidate for the premiership, while denying his party sufficient
seats in the Knesset for him to form the new government without making radical
The elections take place during one of the most controversial and traumatic
periods in the history of the Jewish state. Since 1991 a peace process has
been underway, marked by two historic agreements with the Palestinians and
a peace treaty with Jordan. However, major compromises have been necessary
on all sides and these have been sufficient to give rise to virulent opposition
among Israelis and Arabs alike. Opposition to the peace process on the Arab
side has come mainly from Islamic groups backed by Iran. Many Israeli civilians
have been killed and injured in suicide bomb attacks in Israel since the
peace process began.
The peace process itself is the key issue in this election - or rather the
terms under which peace is to be achieved. Understandably after so many
years of conflict, Israelis need to be reassured that any concessions made
to reach agreement do not jeopardise their national and personal security.
Furthermore, the prospect of peace highlights the divide between those who
believe Israel has a legitimate claim over all the territory between the
Mediterranean and the River Jordan and those who argue that there can be
no peace that does not recognize the national aspirations of the Palestinians,
even if this means compromising on the Israeli claim and agreeing to the
establishment of a separate Palestinian entity. The deep divisions over
these issues were tragically highlighted by the assassination of the late
prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The issue of peace cuts across traditional party lines and in these elections
more voters are likely to be swayed by the issues and personalities involved,
rather than party labels. The opinion polls show that the two major parties
remain deadlocked with roughly equal support. Because of this, the outcome
might well be determined by key marginal groups in the electorate-Israeli
Arabs, ultra-orthodox Jews, recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union
and young first-time voters. In addition, the polls indicate a large number
of people who have still to decide which way to vote.
The 1996 elections have been described as a referendum on the peace process.
Whatever their outcome, they mark a significant watershed in the history
of the state of Israel and in the affairs of the Middle East as a whole.
David Capitanchik is Strategic Development Executive
at Aberdeen College and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Politics at Aberdeen
University. His publications include The Eisenhower Presidency and American
Foreign Policy (1969), 'Public Opinion and Popular Attitudes Towards Defence' in John Baylis (ed.), British Defence Policy in a Changing World
(1977), The Changing Attitude to Defence in Britain (1982), Defence
and Public Opinion (joint author: Richard C. Eichenberg) (1983), 'Terrorism
and Islam' in Noel O'Sullivan (ed.), Terrorism, Ideology and Revolution
(1986) and 'Non-Parliamentary Opposition in Great Britain' in Eva Kolinsky
(ed.), Opposition in Western Europe (1987). He has written papers
on every Israeli election since 1977 for the Institute of Jewish Affairs
(now the Institute for Jewish Policy Research). He is a frequent radio and
TV commentator on terrorism and Middle East affairs.