Back in 1996 the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem wondered why someone no longer a youngster would come all the way from America to vote in the elections. I said jokingly that I woke up in the middle of the night covered in a cold sweat after dreaming that Benjamin Netanyahu had defeated Shimon Peres by one vote. The next morning I bought a plane ticket to Israel.
The correspondent took me seriously. The next day, May 29, 1996, when Israelis went to the polls to elect the 14th Knesset, choosing their prime minister in a separate vote for the first time, the world's most important newspaper reported that Netanyahu in power was my nightmare.
Less than a day later it turned out that the premonition - which had seemed hallucinatory - that Netanyahu would beat Peres and return Likud to power, was on target. We had gone to sleep with a vote count that indicated a Peres victory and woke up with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He won by 29,457 votes, slightly less than 1 percent of the valid votes cast. Among the Jewish public Netanyahu won the support of 61 percent of the voters.
Israel's 27th government, headed by Netanyahu and with the coalition support of Shas, the National Religious Party, Natan Sharansky's Yisrael b'Aliyah, the Third Way and United Torah Judaism, was in power for three years. Looking back on that period from the winter of 2009, from the heat of war and the humiliation of peace, it is clear that those years were a turning point in the country's history.
The 1996 elections changed the face of Israel more than any other elections before or since, and we haven't yet seen it all. A direct line connects them to the left's deep crisis and the current right-wing charge led by Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman (who started out as Netanyahu's campaign manager and went on to become the director general of the Prime Minister's Office under him).
Netanyahu's victory came six months after Yigal Amir executed Yitzhak Rabin for trying to end the bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu defeated Peres even though the wounds of that first political assassination had not yet healed. It wasn't only a political victory by the deputy foreign minister and former furniture salesman over a statesman who sat at the feet of David Ben-Gurion and invented the Dimona reactor. In May 1996 fear of terrorism vanquished the hope for peace.
Netanyahu was and remains an articulate salesman of fears in simple Hebrew and fluent English, focusing on images of scorched buses in Tel Aviv, Katyusha rockets in Kiryat Shmona and Grad missiles in Ashkelon.
The Oslo accord signed in September 1993 was for many Israelis and Palestinians like the glare of the sun for a blind person who prayed all his life to see. Netanyahu, who headed the funeral procession for Oslo, deprived them of the light that flickered briefly at the end of the tunnel. His provocative opening of the Western Wall Tunnel and the establishment of the Har Homa neighborhood as a buffer between Jerusalem and Bethlehem brought down the curtain on the first act of the Oslo tragedy.
Netanyahu likes to boast that terrorism was kept at bay in those years thanks to his sharp message that "if they give, they'll get. If they don't give, they won't get." Indeed, the number of terrorist attacks in the Netanyahu period can be counted on one hand. But apart from the Hebron Agreement, which was achieved under American pressure, Yasser Arafat got nothing. The message came through in the territories and internationally that what the Palestinians give makes no difference - the settlers will go on getting more land.
Netanyahu did not lose power because of the Israelis' longing for the light they were deprived of. They punished him for transgressions in other areas entirely. The bad name Netanyahu gave peace and the malevolent spirit that emanated from him hovered over the governments that followed under Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. All of them were way stations between the Netanyahu-Lieberman 1996 model and the Netanyahu-Lieberman 2009 model.
This time, with predictions of a Likud failure sounding hallucinatory, Netanyahu is set to reach the top more mature, more experienced, more sophisticated and more dangerous. This time he will also try to pad his government with people who were once part of the peace camp.
On the day after the 1996 elections, a young ultra-Orthodox Jew sat next to me on the plane back to Washington. He told me proudly that he had driven sick and elderly people to polling stations and had distributed leaflets against Shimon Peres.
"The rebbe issued a ruling that we have to remove the government of evil that worked hand in hand with the transgressor Shulamit Aloni," the man said. He also boasted of his activity in the "headquarters of the Old Yishuv." That was a code name for an operation in which ID cards of ultra-Orthodox voters who had been Israeli citizens and had died in the United States were brought to Israel. One of his friends, he said, laughing loudly, had voted for Netanyahu 11 times.
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