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Saturday, May 15, 1999 Published at 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK


Shaping Israel's destiny

Ehud Barak appears on one of the many election posters

By Paul Adams, the BBC's Middle East correspondent

A shade under seven years ago, on a muggy summer's evening, I walked out of Likud party headquarters and onto the streets of Tel Aviv. It was late and I was tired, after a day of polling stations, politicians and pundits.

Israel Elections Special Report
Inside, the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, had just received a rousing welcome from the party faithful. Likud was on the run and Mr Shamir - diminutive but implacable - would not lead Israel much longer.

Defeat lay heavy in the air. I asked a deputy minister, one Binyamin Netanyahu, how it felt to be losing. He said it was a little early to concede defeat, but I wonder if his mind was already racing ahead - to an aggressive campaign for party leadership and, who knows, greater things in the future.

Out on the humid streets of Tel Aviv, I took a deep breath and shook off the noise, the cigarette smoke and the sweat generated by the tumult inside.

Youthful optimism


[ image: Yitzhak Shamir lost in 1992]
Yitzhak Shamir lost in 1992
Around a corner came a group of hysterical teenagers, supporters of the Labour Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, in white t-shirts, waving Israeli flags. They stopped in front of Likud and cheered.

The mood was infectious.

These bright-eyed young Israelis seemed carried away by hope. They believed their lives were about to take a turn for the better. A year later, it resulted in a handshake on the White House lawn.

At last, Israel and the Palestinians were talking about compromise. The dreadful, grinding procrastination of the Shamir years seemed, finally, to be a thing of the past.

Frozen in fear


[ image: Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish fanatic]
Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jewish fanatic
In 1996, I was back in Tel Aviv, having missed most of the ups and downs of the intervening years. The country was frozen in fear - Mr Rabin had been killed a few months earlier by a Jewish fanatic.

In February and March, suicide bombs planted by Islamic militants had torn apart buses and street corners, killing dozens of Israelis. Israel seemed mired in all the old problems. The optimism of 1992 was gone.

I thought of the hopeful teenagers and wondered how many of them were now in the army, fighting Israel's never-ending battles.

Most Israelis believed in the peace process - the polls showed it - but they also suspected they were paying too high a price for it. Perhaps no-one had really warned them that making peace is sometimes as dangerous as waging war.

As the toll from suicide bombs mounted, they began to recoil, to ask if this was really worth it. The result, on 29 May, was victory for Binyamin Netanyahu, by a margin of just 30,000 votes.

Safe but unhappy


[ image: Netanyahu won in 1996]
Netanyahu won in 1996
Three years later, and another election. The mood this time is hard to categorise. These are not hopeful times, but nor are they fearful ones. Israelis feel safer than they did three years ago, but that doesn't make them any happier. The peace process is suffering from a touch of Yitzhak Shamir's disease.

Ironically, that's probably why Israelis feel safer - Islamic militants, who want nothing to do with Israel, have often exploded bombs precisely when they felt the peace process was in danger of moving forward. And since, under Binyamin Netanyahu, it has barely moved at all, they've had little reason to bomb.

Less fearful for their lives, Israelis have had more time to look in on themselves. And they don't like what they see. Religious and secular, European and North African, right and left, Israelis are terribly divided.

Deeply divided


[ image: Bombers have attempted to disrupt the peace process]
Bombers have attempted to disrupt the peace process
Buffeted by social and ethnic tensions, they simply don't know what kind of society they're living in. Is this a Jewish state, governed by traditional Jewish values, or is it a modern secular democracy?

Either way, someone loses. A state of the Jews can never truly accommodate its one million Arabs, 20% of the population who still feel like strangers in their own land.

Nor can it satisfy the desire of the country's secular Jewish majority to live with modern, western values. Nor, with its messianic streak, can a Jewish state ever really reach a workable accommodation with the Palestinians.


[ image: Paul Adams has reported on the last three elections]
Paul Adams has reported on the last three elections
But a secular democracy leaves ultra-religious Jews feeling marginalised and threatened.

Recent months have seen a tidal wave of hostility towards a bastion of secular values, the Supreme Court, for its perceived anti-religious bias. Ultra-orthodox Jews are well organised and wield disproportionate power. They're feared and sometimes loathed by the secular majority.

I love elections here - they're such existential affairs. Peace in 1992, security in 1996, identity in 1999.

Perhaps, if Israel ever did become the sort of modern, first world democracy so many of its people crave, it wouldn't be quite so interesting to watch.



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