The Rise of the 15th Knesset

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The 15th Israeli Knesset serves as a good case study for how Israeli Parliamentary politics work, because during its term, 1999-2002, two different Israeli governments, under prime ministers from competing political parties, were dissolved. It is a tale of three retired generals at the summit of Israeli public life, where egos, ideology, power-struggles, and the fast pace of current events all played important roles in determining the fate of governments and policies. 

Barak's Election

The elections for the 15th Knesset and the prime minister of Israel were conducted on May 17, 1999, resulting in one of the most politically fractioned parliaments in Israel's history. But the main attention that night was cast on the convincing victory of challenger Ehud Barak of the Labor Party over the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, who immediately announced his resignation from public life.

ehud barakAs word of the results spread in the wee hours of May 18, an immense gathering of Barak supporters formed in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the symbolism-laden site where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. The crowd, impatiently demanding an appearance by Barak himself, as if he were a pop star, spilled over into the surrounding streets, imperceptibly mingling with revelers in the trendy pubs on Ibn Gvirol Street. This was a young, hip, and relatively affluent metropolis celebrating what it considered a victory for forward-looking rational progress. They exhibited no doubt that Barak would very shortly extricate the Israeli army from Lebanon, where it had been bogged down in a demoralizing and seemingly endless fight against Hezbollah; sign peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, finally putting an end to decades of conflict; and then turn his analytical skills towards dealing with a host of domestic policies that had been put on the back-burner for too long due to the amount of attention required to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict.

In sharp contrast to the optimism of the pro-Barak gathering, a gloomier atmosphere prevailed across town at Likud election headquarters. If suffering the worst electoral defeat in its history weren't enough, the Likud was reduced to 19 seats. Likud was perilously close to being the third largest party in the Knesset, as Shas swelled to 17 seats. Netanyahu's abrupt resignation from politics appeared to leave it leaderless at a most difficult moment.

Into the breach stepped Ariel Sharon. As Netanyahu stepped away from the microphone after announcing his abrupt resignation on the night of the elections for the 15th Knesset, Sharon immediately positioned himself to step up to the microphone as the undisputed new leader of the Likud party. The party may have been at one of its lowest points, but Sharon, as head of the opposition, was now in position to challenge Barak for the office of prime minister, should Barak's government fall. As it turned out, he did not have very long to wait.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.