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Israel elections Tuesday, 18 May, 1999, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Shift reflects distaste for media glitz
Netanyahu waves
A sad goodbye - in front of the cameras
By Gerald Butt

It was fitting that Benjamin Netanyahu's dramatic and emotional farewell to political life should have been performed in front of live television cameras.

During most of his three years in office, the Likud leader was more skilled than any other Israeli politician in using the media to his advantage. In the end, though, the Israeli public appears to have decided that they wanted more from their prime minister than slick media skills.

In short, the majority of Israelis showed that they were heartily sick of what they regarded as Mr Netanyahu's hollow style of leadership.

Many were disgusted when he accused the media, on which he had depended for so much of his success, of trying to engineer his downfall. Blaming the messenger fooled no one.

Rocky from the start

The beginnings of Mr Netanhayu's downfall can be traced right back to his first days in office when he was voted in with the narrowest majority.

Scarcely a week went by without a major headache. He dealt with private scandals and a string political crises. Much of the prime minister's time and energy was spent on patching together tortuous coalition deals, forging alliances which even his friends sometimes regarded as unscrupulous.

Mr Netanyahu's increasingly desperate attempts to shore up his administration were only partly successful. Several senior members of his right-wing Likud bloc deserted him in disgust. One cabinet minister - the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement, Aryeh Deri - was sentenced to four years' in prison for corruption.

Many supporters of Likud were appalled by the extent that Mr Netanyahu was prepared to strike deals with the ultra-Orthodox community in order to stay in power. Concessions made to the religious community angered secular Israelis from all political groups.

By the time that Mr Netanyahu called the elections, he and his government were tainted by accusations of sleaze . The Israeli electorate decided that they wanted - and deserved - something better.

Question of trust

The former prime minister always assumed that his trump card was the issue of national security and his reluctance to hand back land to the Arabs. But in the end, the Israeli public decided that security alone was not enough.

Mr Netanyahu's hawkish attitude towards the Middle East peace process made him enemies in the Middle East and beyond.

Arab leaders who had signed peace deals with Israel were embarrassed by his actions and statements. European governments openly criticised his policies. Even more seriously, he managed to anger the United States - Israel's major supporter and ally in the international community.

As Israelis went to the polls, they were aware that their country was as isolated as at any time in its half-century existence. Furthermore, society was seriously split - notably with divisions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis more obvious than ever before. Significantly, the Shas party will have 17 seats in the next parliament, seven more than before.

Tthe electoral gains by Shas are a symptom of the growing polarisation between religious and secular, and indicate the growing strength of religious groups in Israeli politics.

The task for Ehud Barak is to bring some normality back to Israeli political life after the pandemonium of the past three years. Above all, the Israeli public will be looking for solid leadership based on sound and trustworthy policies - in contrast to the sound-bite politics of Mr Netanyahu.

The experiment of having an American presidential style of leadership, of the kind that the Likud leader tried to pursue, has failed. Israelis rejected the idea that the wife of the prime minister should have the status and trappings of the First Lady of the United States.

They have said clearly that they prefer in their prime minister a politician of the old school - a solid and trusted former military man who has come into politics late in life.

Much will be said and written about the earthquake in Israeli politics that Mr Barak's victory has caused. Most Israelis will be happier when the effects of the quake have worn off and the difficult job of healing the divisions of the past three years can begin.

See also:

18 May 99 | Middle East
18 May 99 | Middle East
18 May 99 | Middle East
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