Simply 'Showing Strength' Might Not Do

TEL AVIV—Israel's Feb. 6 election set two records: the biggest margin of defeat for any government in the nation's history, and the lowest voter turnout in Israel's history. So what exactly were voters trying to say? Israeli analysts agreed on one thing: The results were a colossal repudiation of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Only about 20 months ago, a solid majority, 56 percent to 44 percent, elected Barak over then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Feb. 6, Israelis rejected Barak, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Last year at Camp David, Barak made unthinkable concessions to the Palestinians, beyond the Left's wildest dreams. And look what happened. "Here was a prime minister who broke every taboo," Hirsch Goodman of Tel Aviv University said. "Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the settlements—as far as any left-wing person would imagine he could go. And he was kicked in the teeth by [Yasser] Arafat."

Why did the Palestinian leader reject Barak's generous concessions? Many Israelis say it was a matter of pride. Palestinians are unwilling to accept anything offered by Israel. They have to win concessions from Israel—by bargaining for them or, even better, by fighting for them. As the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban once said, "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Remember the Arafat who shook hands with Israel's leaders on the White House lawn? Dore Gold, Israel's former U.N. ambassador and a Sharon supporter, observed: "Many people thought that Yasser Arafat was like Nelson Mandela, some kind of figure who was once involved in armed struggle on behalf of his cause, but who had now changed in a fundamental way and was ready to make peace."

No more. Not after the latest Palestinian intifada—four months of terrible violence. As writer David Makovsky put it: "Yasser Arafat decided this election. By supporting the intifada, he demobilized Israeli moderates who would have been the main cheerleaders for a deal. He threw the election to Sharon."

Still, voter turnout was down a phenomenal 20 percentage points. Hundreds of thousands of voters boycotted the election. Most of them were former Barak supporters who felt betrayed by the prime minister, but who could not bring themselves to vote for Ariel Sharon.

Especially Israeli Arabs, who normally make up 12 percent of Israel's voters. In 1999, 70 percent of them turned out to vote, and 95 percent of those voters went for Barak. The Arab turnout figure on Feb. 6? A mere 25 percent.

The low turnout of both Jewish and Arab voters was not just a repudiation of Barak. It was also a vote of no confidence in Sharon, a vehement opponent of the peace process. Sharon was the architect of Israel's disastrous war in Lebanon. The man who was forced to resign as defense minister after an Israeli tribunal held him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians. The man who provoked Palestinian rage by visiting the Temple Mount in September.

According to the polls, Israelis did not vote to reject peace. Or even the peace process. They voted to reject a peace process that had failed. Does Sharon have an alternative approach to peace? That's what voters—and especially nonvoters—were unsure of. Eyal Arad, Sharon's campaign strategist, explained his candidate's peace plan this way: "Barak's approach was peace through concessions. It failed. The Palestinians rejected it and responded with a wave of violence. Sharon has a different approach—peace through strength. It's the same approach Ronald Reagan used to win the Cold War. You show strength to convince your opponents they can never win."

The problem is that Palestinians live in the same neighborhood as Israelis. They can do something to Israelis the Soviets could never do to the Americans, namely, make life intolerable for them. That's what the intifada is all about. The post-election outbreak of Palestinian violence is a test of Sharon's model. He will have to demonstrate that life in Israel is no longer intolerable.

Sharon claims he will make peace, but not a final peace settlement. "I am for a nonbelligerency accord," he told an Israeli newspaper last week. To demonstrate his commitment, Sharon is trying to entice Barak's Labor Party to join his government. If it does not, Sharon's government may fall, and the Labor Party is not ready for new elections.

By voting for Sharon, Israelis believe, they were voting for stability. After all, Israel has had four prime ministers in a little more than five years—Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, and Barak. Rabin was tragically assassinated. Each of the last three was defeated at the polls. Is that a sign of instability? Maybe. But it's also a sign of democracy. How many other Middle Eastern countries have turned out their leaders at the polls? Ironically, in their quest for stability, Israelis have voted to change leaders yet again.

There's something else striking about Israeli politics: Defeated politicians such as Peres keep coming back, this time possibly as foreign minister in Sharon's "unity government." Even Barak, who announced his retirement from politics on election night, has been asked to become defense minister in the Sharon Cabinet. You know, maybe Al Gore should move to Israel.