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Barak the Healer

TEL AVIV: The landslide victory of the leader of the Labour Party, General Ehud Barak, in the May 17th elections in Israel means not only a new government and a new foreign policy. It also signifies the beginning of a new era in Israeli political culture.

The three years (1996-9) of Benjamin Netanyahu's government were characterized by the politics of confrontation and animosity in all spheres of political life. Former Prime Minister Netanyahu focused not only on a politics of confrontation with the Palestinian leadership under Yassir Arafat, but also cultivated a politics of internal confrontation - between religious and secular Jews, between "old timers" and newcomers from the former Soviet Union, between European and Middle Eastern Jews (Ashkenazi versus Sephardi).

This divide-to-rule policy was a way of life which characterized Mr. Netanyahu even before he became Prime Minister. As leader of the nationalist Likud opposition to the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his tactics in opposing the Oslo agreements between the Labour led government of Israel and the PLO was to characterize both Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres as traitors, the functional equivalents of such infamous collaborators as Petain and Quisling. It was in this atmosphere of confrontation and hatred, nurtured by Mr. Netanyahu, that a right-wing nationalist religious Jewish student assassinated Prime Minister Rabin because he saw him as a traitor who, at Oslo, gave up parts of the historical homeland of the Jewish people to the "terrorist" Palestine Liberation Organization.

When he became Prime Minister in elections six months after the assassination of General Rabin, Mr. Netanyahu continued in this strategy of exclusion and confrontation. The consequences have been a deep crisis in relations with the Palestinians, a cooling of relations between Israel and its great strategic partner, the United States, and an internal climate of deep divisions, ethnic tension and a vulgar coarsening of almost all political discourse.