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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Terrorism and the Polls

When Nahum Barnea first heard reports of a terrorist attack near the central bus station in Jerusalem, he rushed to the scene. For one of Israel's most prominent political commentators and journalists, it was a natural reaction. But to his horror, he learned that among the victims was Yonatan, his 20-year-old son and a sergeant in the Israeli army who was riding bus No. 18 last week.


Later, shocked and trembling over the loss of his son, Nahum Barnea's biting irony did not abandon him. "Yonatan would have voted for you," he casually remarked to Dr. Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party Cabinet minister who participated in the memorial service for his son and 24 other victims of two Palestinian suicide bombers. "You lost a potential voter and not only him -- probably a lot of voters," he said, referring to national elections scheduled for May 29.


The Barneas belong to the wealthy class of Israelis who support peace with the Palestinians, promote liberal causes, cherish human rights and democratic values, and naturally identify with and support the left-of-center Labor-led government.


But what brought the Labor government to power in June 1992 was not the views held by the Barnea family and the social and economic class to which they belong. Rather, the voters who tipped the balance and carried the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres into office had a different desire. Many were traditional supporters of the right-wing Likud Party. But after 15 years of extremist Likud policies, they wanted out of the vicious circle of terrorism and state retaliation. They wanted a "normal" life -- to have a good and secure job, to own a car and property in a suburban environment, to provide a good education for their children and health coverage for the family. The Likud, obsessed with "Greater Israel," religious messianism and Jewish settlements, could not fulfill these needs.


Labor, on the other hand, promised to deliver -- and it did. The peace accords with the Palestinians and the subsequent treaties with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and the Gulf Emirates ushered in an unprecedented economic boom. Multinational conglomerates, high-tech companies, international food companies, Wall Street bankers and Madison Avenue advertisers rushed to invest in Israel. In the last two years, foreign investment has tripled, to more than $1 billion. With 7 percent annual growth, the Israeli economy is one of the world's fastest growing.


But the recent terrorist attacks -- including a deadly suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv shopping mall Monday -- has reawakened many Israelis to the harsh reality they live in. More than 100 Israelis have been killed since the historic handshake of Rabin and Yasser Arafat in September 1993. And in retaliation, Israeli secret service agents have assassinated some of the leaders and perpetrators of the crimes carried out by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, two groups devoted to the destruction of Israel.


In this changing atmosphere, more and more Israelis who originally supported peace are joining those who doubt the wisdom of dealing with Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.


Historian Shlomo Ben Ami offers another explanation for the current confusion, agony and frustration. Many Israelis, especially of the lower classes, are socially and economically "neglected, forgotten and left behind" by the Labor Party. Most of the victims of the recent bus bombings in Jerusalem came from their ranks.


In becoming a quintessential leisure-time nation, Israel has largely abandoned its social democratic principles and the traditional Zionism values of social justice and equality. The gap between haves and have-nots has dramatically risen. Poor Israelis now number nearly 700,000, or 12 percent of the population.


"Those who enjoy the peace, who reap the peace dividends, are the business people," says Ben Ami, "the senior executive, the commercial agent, the entrepreneur, the trade representative. The peace dividends do not reach the lower-class Israeli, who, four years ago, had switched from Likud to Labor but now has lost interest in peace, which has become irrelevant to his everyday life."


The dream of a "normal life" is still cherished by the majority of the population. But Prime Minister Peres and his advisers fear that the combination of economic frustration and anger over the rising number of terrorist incidents will lead Israeli voters to distrust peace and prefer Likud at the ballot box.


According to the most recent public opinion polls, Peres and his Labor Party still lead by 5 percentage points. But the gap between the two parties has narrowed, especially after the recent terrorism. The political landscape is further complicated by the historic nature of the elections. For the first time, Israeli voters will directly elect the prime minister. Besides Peres, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and David Levy, a former foreign minister who broke away from Likud, are running.


It is not inconceivable that such a system may produce Peres as a prime minister held hostage by a Likud and right-of-center parliamentary majority. For Israelis, such a political outcome would not only be novel; it most likely would foment political instability and chaos.


True, three months is an eternity in politics. Cabinet minister Sneh still hopes that "the people will appreciate our achievements in the last four years in the fields of peace and security, education and health."


The problem for Labor, however, is that its chance and hope lie on Arafat's shoulders. If the Palestinian leader manages to restrain his extremists and block them from hitting at the heart of civilian Israel, Peres will most probably remain in power. If Arafat fails, as it now appears, that will carry Netanyahu to the prime ministership and Likud to form the next government.





Yossi Melman is an Israeli writer and journalist for the daily Ha'aretz. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.