COMMENTARY: A new reality sets in for Israel

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

(RNS)-An Israeli friend once compared the Middle East peace process to an accelerating train speeding past one station after another without stopping to pick up passengers.

Warming to the metaphor, he described the train's crew members as so enamored with the great speed they had attained that they gave too little thought to the final destination.

When I asked him where the train was headed, my friend replied:"Over a cliff after the track runs out ..." The image of a runaway train is useful in understanding the outcome of recent elections in Israel, where less than 51 percent of the nation's 3.1 million voters recently chose Benjamin Netanyahu as their new prime minister.

For many Israelis, the fast-moving peace process was increasingly perceived as an end in itself and not as a carefully thought-out means to achieve a desired goal.

We can only speculate how the recent election would have turned out had Yigal Amir not murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last November.

But the new reality is that Israelis-especially the Jewish voters-clearly rejected the policies of Rabin's successor, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his allies.

To them, the rapidly advancing peace process had delivered too much too soon, with too little support and too few satisfactory results. And in the end, the majority of voters were reluctant to buy a ticket on a fast-moving train that seemed to be carrying them into an uncertain and insecure future.

The election outcome also exposed tensions within Israeli society about the role traditional religion plays in an increasingly secularized world.

Each time Peres glowingly spoke of total Israeli integration into a"New Middle East,"the more the voters perceived it as a new form of Jewish assimilation, an abandonment of a 3,500-year-old tradition. Even Peres' promises of increased Israeli economic and political strength were unable to still their doubts.

By rejecting Peres, who was perceived as a secularist, and by giving increased power in the Knesset to ultra-Orthodox religious parties, voters seemed to be saying that Judaism, with all its deep divisions and rifts, must be the dominant cultural, social, and spiritual force within Israel.

David Hartman, a progressive Orthodox Rabbi in Jerusalem, assessed the situation this way:"They (the voters) don't want to be the Paris of the Middle East. They don't want secularization." Even so, there is little evidence the vote will resolve the ongoing national debate on the appropriate role of the Jewish religion in Israelis' public and private life. And it remains to be seen how this electorate, deeply divided between those who oppose the rapidly advancing peace process and those who yearn for its completion, will resolve their differences.

Now that the election is over, the citizens of Israel-supporters of Netanyahu and those who shared Rabin's and Peres' vision of the future-must together continue to confront the grim realities of daily life.

Israelis fear that if the government makes a major policy error, missiles of mass destruction may once again fall on their country as they did during the Persian Gulf war. Israelis worry whether Palestinian self-determination ultimately means a Hamas-controlled terrorist entity on their borders. And they worry every day whether they and their children will arrive home safely on the local bus.

Even in the land of the prophets, no one can say if these issues will be resolved under the nation's new leadership.

But regardless of whether or not they agree with the outcome, Israelis can take pride in the fact that their nation is the only functional democracy in the Middle East. Theirs was a model electoral process: No outside observers had to be called in to guarantee a fair vote.

Political power has been peacefully transferred, and now Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu will have to do what every democratically elected leader must do: Shift from running for office to governing a country.

And if he fails? Well, there are always plenty of public critics in a democracy. And there will be another free election in four years. That's something conspicuously lacking in places like Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.