Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing nationalist Likud party, defeated Shimon Peres by 30,000 votes - less than one percent of the voters. Both main parties, the Likud and Labor, lost ground to smaller lists, and the most prominent shift in the Knesset was a steep increase in the strength of two religious parties, the National Religious Party (NRP) and the ultra-Orthodox Oriental (Sephardi) list (Shas). Given a national election decided by such a slight majority, it is only natural that post-election commentary and analyses focused on the effectiveness of various campaign strategies and tactics.
However, the major question is why Labor's candidate, despite the political achievements to his credit and the relative prosperity in the country, did so poorly among entire sections of the population - to the point that he was almost a political pariah among the urban poor, in the development towns and in the religious quarters all over the country (with the exception of Israel's Palestinian citizens - but that is another story which demands separate treatment). Though Peres and his party enjoyed the support of the Israeli establishment and its various elites, business, financial, economic, etc., in addition to massive support from abroad, it was to no avail.
While it may be true that each and every vote has the same weight in the ballot box, even the most naive advocates of liberal democracy understand that electoral politics are determined in large by the mobilization of institutional support and financing.

Dismantling the Institutional Edifices of Socialist-Zionism

The social institutions created by the Socialist-Zionist historical project have been in a state of accelerating decay, disarray and disintegration over the past decade. We are talking about a large-scale complex of various institutions which had enjoyed almost universal prestige for decades: the Histadrut (the General Federation of Labor) which comprised at a certain stage 80 percent of the salaried workers in a totally unionized labor force; factories and utilities which were components of a major industrial holding company owned, operated and controlled by the leading bodies of the Histadrut; the renowned Kibbutz movement; the moshavim, small-holder collective settlements; the financial, banking and marketing arms of the industrial and agricultural sectors of the movement; the sick fund which provided health insurance for the great majority of the population and various insurance funds. As a matter of record, the achievements of the Socialist-Zionist movement in Israel, while fulfilling a central function as the power base for the main party of the labor movement, Mapai, were also a central showpiece and a source of pride for social-democratic parties and theoreticians, a "third way" between capitalism and "totalitarian communism." The well-based critique from the left to the effect that these institutions, with their Zionist ideological outlook, played a central role in the Zionist colonization of the country is not particularly relevant in the present context.
The Socialist-Zionist edifice was undermined, of course, by its very own leadership, which saw the integration of the Israeli economy into the world capitalist market as the crowning glory of all its previous achievements. This neo-liberal middle-class orientation was supposed to create a reliable new coalition of forces (socially and electorally) that would ensure Labor's survival and role in the new order of affairs - in the neo-capitalist Israel of privatization. Certainly, there were serious problems in many of the labor institutions, including the evolution of an entrenched, top-heavy bureaucracy and the prevalence of routine inefficiency. In the prevailing heady atmosphere of "triumphalism" - which held that social solidarity had died with the socialist experiments and that the market was the one sure road to redemption - these serious weaknesses were all diagnosed as terminal illnesses and mercy killings were the order of the day. The last and perhaps saddest symptom of this affair is the rapid decline of the Kibbutz movement.

Other Institutions, Other Places

But while the labor movement was busy self-destructing by energetically sacrificing the assets and the institutions by which it had built political and economic hegemony over more than half a century, others in different sections of Israeli society were building new sets of institutions ┬Čnurseries and schools, yeshivot (rabbinical seminars), armed militias, local government, political patronage and civil service appointments and jobs, jobs and more jobs. This new institutional network began to emerge in the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, based on some 150,000 people in more than 150 settlements and medium-sized urban communities.
The whole operation was led and directed by a section of the National Religious Party which organized itself as Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful). The Bloc's identity is often submerged in other functional institutions - like the settlement associations - but it invariably set the tone. And the tone is rather simple: One God, One Torah, One Land, are categorical imperatives - they know no legitimate restraints. Least of all are they subservient to the will of any democratically elected government. This was certainly true of the Rabin and Peres government, and if necessary, this will be demonstrated for the benefit of their present ally, Netanyahu.
There are many illusions regarding Gush Emunim, especially as they are the "legitimate" sons of the Israeli establishment and its political mainstream. What Rabin failed to understand and this cost him his life, and what Peres failed to understand and this caused him to lose control of the government, was that there is a conspiracy at the heart of the settler movement. One of the manifestations of this conspiracy was Rabin's execution by Yigal Amir for "collaborating with the enemy" and "handing over integral parts of the homeland to alien hands." Since the Oslo accords in September 1993, the Bloc brought its supporters out into the streets, supplying the shock troops for the right's assault on the government and the peace process, portraying the government as traitors and even showing Rabin as a Gestapo officer. Had the military authorities enforced the existing law against the settler right - even without employing anything from the arsenal of repressive measures and the brutal and unrestrained violence perpetrated against the Palestinians, things might have turned out differently - the resulting cleavage between the conspirators and many on the right, who would have refused to go the distance with them, might have prevented the assassination by isolating the most dangerous circles on the radical right.
Peres thought that the remorse and shame over the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the National Religious Party - still the mentors of the Bloc - gave him an opportunity for reC0nciliation on the basis of national unity. Thus, instead of drying up the cesspools of chauvinist fanaticism, such as the Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron, he allowed the right to reunite without purging itself of the hard-core conspirators. Subsequently, the Bloc returned to electoral politics to become an essential element in the Netanyahu success. The Bloc, having built up a power base of institutions and other resources over the years, had no hesitation about using every means at its disposal to topple Peres. It should be' added that the settlers have, in addition to a strong and expanding institutional base, all the trappings of an independent mini-empire, including weaponry and armed forces delivered into their hands by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as part of the overall "security" effort in the territories.
Yet another force emerged from the same National Religious Party a decade ago. For years, Oriental Jewish activists in the NRP had occupied the role of vote-getters and minor officials - the proverbial hewers of wood and drawers of water. It was particularly painful for them to see their beloved Rabbinical authorities relegated to an inferior status. The Oriental split from the NRP was and is a fantastic story in every sense. Shas quickly established a mass base in the community and eagerly translated its parliamentary assets into independent control and generous financing for a new system of religious and educational institutions. One of the many colossal (but typical) achievements by the Shas people is the creation - in less than nine short years - of an educational network that comprises 20,000 pupils in its nursery and grade school levels. Once again, the Shas sphere of influence also includes religious services, welfare institutions for young and old, and jobs, jobs, jobs.
We cannot dwell here on the causes that channeled the bitterness of the Oriental Jewish masses over their widespread discrimination in Israeli society to the clericalist Shas formation. It may be true that the anti-clericalism of the liberal left was often articulated in an arrogant manner which insulted the sensitivities of the Sephardi voters. The poorer Oriental Jewish masses could certainly sense that Labor, dominated by neo-liberal technocrats, was basically indifferent to their social needs. In addition to all this, the ideological pressure from the radical messianists in the Bloc was made all the more effective by the total incapacity of the neo-liberals and the former generals who led the Labor Party to transmit any sense of ethical solidarity or social vision. Thus, in a 120-strong Knesset, along with 32 Likud mandates, a quarter of a million voters gave 23 mandates to the religious bloc - enough, along with smaller centrist groups, to form a stable rightist-religious coalition.
Thus, structural developments in Israeli society (the demise of Labor and the rise of new settler and clerical forces) and the "national unity strategy" of the Labor leadership since Rabin's assassination shaped the social processes and the political discourse which were reflected in the May 1996 national elections. It is too early to speculate on "Where do we go from here." However, the first thought that comes to mind is that it is usually much easier to slip into the quagmire than to get out of it. <