Israeli general election, 1996

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Election for Prime Minister

← 1992 29 May 1996 1999 →
  Benjamin Netanyahu.jpg 150x150px
Candidate Benjamin Netanyahu Shimon Peres
Party Likud Labor Party
Popular vote 1,501,023 1,471,566
Percentage 50.5% 49.5%

Prime Minister before election

Shimon Peres
Labor Party

Elected Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

General elections were held in Israel on 29 May 1996. For the first time the Prime Minister was elected on a separate ballot from the remaining members of the Knesset.

The 1996 elections resulted in a surprise victory for Netanyahu by a margin of 29,457 votes, less than 1% of the total number of votes cast, and much smaller than the number of spoiled votes. This came after the initial exit polls had predicted a Peres win,[1] spawning the phrase "went to sleep with Peres, woke up with Netanyahu."[2] This election was Peres's fourth and last election defeat.


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Peace process

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Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993

On 13 September 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords (a Declaration of Principles)[3] on the South Lawn of the White House. The principles established objectives relating to a transfer of authority from Israel to an interim Palestinian authority, as a prelude to a final treaty establishing a Palestinian state.

On 25 July 1994, Jordan and Israel signed the Washington Declaration, which formally ended the state of war that had existed between them since 1948 and on 26 October the Israel–Jordan Treaty of Peace, witnessed by U.S. President Bill Clinton.[4][5]

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the Israeli–Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on 28 September 1995, in Washington. The agreement allowed the PLO leadership to relocate to the occupied territories and granted autonomy to the Palestinians with talks to follow regarding final status. In return the Palestinians promised to abstain from use of terror and changed the Palestinian National Covenant, which had called for the expulsion of all Jews who migrated after 1917 and the elimination of Israel.[6]

Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

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Tensions in Israel arising from the continuation of terrorism led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a right-wing Jewish radical on 4 November 1995 during at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo agreements held in the center of Tel Aviv. The murderer, Yigal Amir, was a law student at the Bar-Ilan University, believed that the Oslo Accords were an existential threat to Israel and hoped that by murdering Rabin he would prevent the implementation of the Oslo Accords. The assassination of Rabin was a shock to the Israeli public. approximately 80 heads of state attend Rabin's funeral in Jerusalem.

Palestinian terror campaign between February–March 1996

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The ongoing South Lebanon conflict

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After taking over from Yitzhak Rabin following his assassination, Peres decided to call early elections in order to give the government a mandate to advance the peace process.[7]

Netanyahu's campaign was helped by Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick, who donated over $1 million to Likud.

Nevertheless, Labour and Peres were comfortably ahead in the polls early in 1996, holding a lead of 20%. However, the country was hit by a spate of suicide attacks by Hamas including the Jerusalem bus 18 massacres and other attacks in Ashkelon and the Dizengoff Center, which killed 59 people, severely damaged Peres' election chances.[8] Polls taken in mid-May showed Peres ahead by just 4-6%,[9] whilst two days before the election his lead was down to 2%.[10]

Several leading ultra-orthodox Rabbis, including Elazar Shach, called on their followers to vote for Netanyahu,[11] whilst Leah Rabin, Yitzhak's widow, called on Israelis to vote for Peres so that her husband's death "would not be in vain."[12] Netanyahu also warned that a Peres victory would lead to the division of Jerusalem in a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

Despite the national trauma which the assassination of Rabin caused, and although many blamed at the time the leaders of Israeli political right for the incitement that preceded the assassination, due to the series of suicide bombings carried out in Israel, and due to the failed military operation "Grapes of Wrath" conducted in Lebanon that caused many casualties among Lebanese civilians, a significant change occurred in the position of the Israeli voters which resulted eventually in 50.5% percent of voters supporting Netanyahu on election day. A significant number of Israeli Arabs boycotted the elections amidst rising Lebanese casualties, which became an advantage for Netanyahu as the vast majority of Arabs would have supported Peres but declined to vote. In addition, the intensive campaign conducted by Netanyahu versus the failed campaign of Shimon Peres, as well as the support Netanyahu got at the last moment from the Chabad movement, were all in Netanyahu's favor.


Prime Minister

Candidate Party Votes %
Binyamin Netanyahu Likud 1,501,023 50.50%
Shimon Peres Labor 1,471,566 49.50%
Invalid/blank votes 148,681 -
Total 3,121,270 100%

Netanyahu's win was bolstered by large support from the ultra-orthodox community, 91.2% of whom voted for him. Peres on the other hand, gained overwhelming support from the country's Arab community, 97.5% of which backed him.[13]


Party Votes % Seats +/-
Labor Party 1 2 818,741 26.8 34 −10
Likud-Gesher-Tzomet 2 3 767,401 25.1 32 −8
Shas 259,796 8.5 10 +4
National Religious Party 4 240,271 7.8 9 +3
Meretz 5 226,275 7.4 9 −3
Yisrael BaAliyah 6 174,994 5.7 7 New
Hadash-Balad 7 129,455 4.2 5 +2
United Torah Judaism 8 98,657 3.2 4 0
The Third Way 9 96,474 3.1 4 New
United Arab List 89,514 2.9 4 New
Moledet 10 72,002 2.4 2 −1
Unity for the Defence of New Immigrants 22,741 0.7 0 New
Gil 14,935 0.5 0 New
Progressive Confederation 13,983 0.5 0 New
Telem Emuna 12,737 0.4 0 New
Settlement Party 5,533 0.2 0 New
Yamin Yisrael 2,845 0.1 0 New
Man's Rights in the Family Party 2,388 0.1 0 New
Ta'al 2,087 0.1 0 New
Organization for Democratic Action 1,351 0.0 0 New
Invalid/blank votes 67,702 - - -
Total 3,119,832 100 120 0
Registered voters/turnout 3,933,250 79.3
Source: Nohlen et al.[14]

1 Three MKs left the Labor Party to establish One Nation.

2 Two MKs from the Labor Party and four from Likud left to form the Centre Party. Eliezer Sandberg later broke away from the Centre Party and formed HaTzeirim before joining Shinui.

3 Three MKs left Likud to establish Herut – The National Movement. Three members of Gesher and two members of Tzomet also left alliance.

4 Two MKs left the National Religious Party to establish Tkuma.

5 Avraham Poraz left Meretz to establish Shinui, whilst David Zucker also left the party.

6 Two MKs left Yisrael BaAliyah to establish Aliyah.

7 Balad left its alliance with Hadash.

8 United Torah Judaism split into Agudat Yisrael (three seats) and Degel HaTorah (one seat).

9 Emanuel Zisman left The Third Way.

10 Moshe Peled broke away from Tzomet and formed Mekhora before joining Moledet.


  • James A. Baker III, Secretary of State for U.S. President George H. W. Bush, worried that Netanyahu's hardliner coalition partners will be able to boss him around and prevent him from advancing the peace process even though the Israeli people want the peace process to continue.[15]
  • Warren Christopher, Secretary of State for U.S. President Bill Clinton, said that "President Clinton and [he] look forward to having a good working relationship with [Netanyahu]" and that it appeared "that Mr. Netanyahu was committed to pursuing the peace process."[16]
  • Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton called Netanyahu and congratulated him on his election victory. Clinton also told Arab countries not to "pre-judge" the new Netanyahu government. Clinton invited Netanyahu to visit the White House, and "[Clinton] affirmed the continued support of the United States for the people of Israel in their quest for peace with security" in a White House statement. The White House decided to consider Netanyahu's election win as a positive, despite the fact that Clinton supported Netanyahu's opponent Shimon Peres in this election.[16]
  • Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican Presidential nominee, "said [that] he could "work with [Netanyahu]" and that he was confident "that Netanyahu was "committed to peace""[16]
  • David Grossman, Israeli author, said that "Netanyahu's election shows that at least half of the people are not really mature enough for the peace process", since while "[t]hey want peace", "they're not willing to make the concessions it takes."[15]
  • Yossi Klein Halevi, senior writer for the Jerusalem Report, warned Netanyahu against implementing a right-wing agenda and attempting to stop the peace process since Israel is very divided and polarized right now and most Israeli voters still support the peace process.[15]
  • Michael Lerner, editor and publisher of Tikkun, speculated that "[Netanyahu's election victory is] going to undermine the peace process severely", and that while Netanyahu will claim that he supports the peace process, he will "subtly underm[e it]" whenever he will be able to.[15]
  • Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, said that he doesn't think that Netanyahu will be able to stop the peace process completely, but that he expects the Palestinian Authority to have a civil war with Hamas after the establishment of a Palestinian state, which would then be used by Syria and other hostile Arab states to intervene in Palestine and start a new war with Israel in order "to make one last effort to wipe the Jewish state off the map."[15]
  • Leah Rabin, widow of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said that it is "very difficult to say what will be in the future", but that she "think[s] Netanyahu will try [to continue the peace process]" despite objections from hardliners in his party.[15]
  • Nadav Safran, professor emeritus at Harvard University, said that Netanyahu will take a much harder line with Syria and the Palestinians in negotiations, and that he will also attempt to slow down the peace process. He said that Netanyahu's hardline positions could start another armed conflict with the Palestinians if Netanyahu does not show more flexibility in his positions later on.[15]
  • Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, said that it was better that Netanyahu won since Netanyahu does not hide his true intentions, while Peres talks of peace but actually makes war. He also said that the peace process brought a lot of damage to the Palestinians so far and that he hopes that more Israelis in the future would realize that they need to end their occupation of the Palestinian territories and to create a Palestinian state, since the continuing occupation is not beneficial for Israeli security and is actually very harmful to Israel's long-term interests.[15]
  • Elie Wiesel, famous author and Holocaust survivor, said that he "[doesn't] think that [the impact of the elections on the peace process] will change much", since "[Netanyahu] has already said he will respect the achievements in negotiations" and since the peace process is irreversible. He also pointed out that while Netanyahu talked tough, so did Menachem Begin 20 years before that, and Begin ended up singing a peace treaty with Egypt a couple years after he was elected.[15]

Political aftermath

Despite winning the election for Prime Minister, Netanyahu's Likud (in an alliance with Gesher and Tzomet) lost the Knesset elections to Labour, winning only 32 seats compared to Labour's 34.

The objective of strengthening the position of Prime Minister by having separate elections was also a failure, as the election saw both major parties lose around ten seats compared to the 1992 election (Likud held only 24 of the 32 seats it won in its alliance) as many gave their Knesset votes to smaller parties; Labour received 818,570 votes to Peres' 1.47 million, (56%), whilst the Likud–Gesher–Tzomet alliance managed even less—767,178 compared to 1.50 million for Netanyahu (51%).

With only 32 seats, the Likud–Gesher–Tzomet alliance was, at the time, the smallest governing party in Israeli political history (the previous lowest had been Mapai's 40 seats in the 1955 election; since then, the 2006 elections saw Kadima emerge as the largest party with just 29 seats, and the 2009 election was won by Kadima with 28 seats, but Likud with 27 formed the government). This meant Netanyahu had to form a coalition with several smaller parties, including the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism whose financial policies (generous child benefits and state funding for religious activities) were in direct opposition to his capitalistic outlook.

After several defections from his party, Netanyahu was forced to call early elections in 1999.

The 14th Knesset

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Labour retained its position as the largest party, but Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu won the election for Prime Minister, meaning he had the power to form the 27th government, which he did on 18 June 1996.

Alongside his Likud–Gesher–Tzomet alliance, Netanyahu formed a coalition with Shas, the National Religious Party, Yisrael BaAliyah, United Torah Judaism and The Third Way, with 18 ministers.

Gesher broke away from the alliance with Likud and left the government coalition in January 1998.

Netanyahu faced several issues; the left argued the peace process was advancing too slowly, but signing the Hebron Agreement and the Wye River Memorandum also caused him problems with the right-wing.

Eventually problems passing the state budget for 1999 led to early elections for both the Knesset and Prime Minister being called, which were held in May 1999.


  1. At the Crossroads PBS, 30 May 1996
  2. Prime Minister Netanyahu. Remember? Ma'ariv, 30 August 2005 (Hebrew)
  3. Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements Jewish Virtual Library
  4. Main Points of Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty October 26, 1994 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  5. Treaty of Peace between The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and The State of Israel King Hussein website
  6. accessed January 2010
  7. Israeli elections will test support for peace CNN, 11 February 1996
  8. Suicide bombings scar Peres' political ambitions CNN, May 28, 1996
  9. Pivotal Elections: Candidates CNN, 1996
  10. Israeli election is a dead heat CNN, 28 May 1996
  11. Israeli race for prime minister narrows CNN, 27 May 1996
  12. Rabin's widow tells Israelis: Vote for Peres CNN, 30 May 1996
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  14. Nohlen, D, Grotz, F & Hartmann, C (2001) Elections in Asia: A data handbook, Volume I ISBN 0-19-924958-X
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External links