Israel's uncertain revolution

Tuesday's general election was one of the most momentous in Israel's 58-year history. So why didn't the voters care?


Aluf Benn
March 31, 2006 5:06PM (UTC)

Tuesday's general election was one of the most dramatic in Israel's 58-year history, marking important turning points in its political map, leadership and policies. A new party, Kadima, barely three months old, won the popular vote by a slim plurality after committing itself to withdrawing Israel's forces and settlements from most of the West Bank. The Labor Party, which finished second to become Kadima's most likely coalition partner, has vowed to reconstruct Israel's welfare state, rejecting its recent capitalist, market-economy orientation. Both Kadima, led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the revived Labor defeated the Likud, the former leading party.

Yet "the big bang," as Israelis have termed their political rearrangement, has left the public indifferent. Despite a string of surprising events -- the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon, the popular prime minister, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian election -- the campaign never caught fire with the public, and voter turnout was the lowest in any parliamentary election in Israel's history. The big surprise of Election Day was the success of the new Pensioners Party, which attracted many young voters disillusioned with a "corrupt system" where "all politicians are the same." The Pensioners, led by a former spymaster with a colorful history, flew below the radar of pollsters and journalists to win seven seats in the 120-member Knesset.

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More than anything, Tuesday's election was a national referendum over two issues: an unexpected leadership change, and the execution of Sharon's political will. Almost without noticing it, Israel's ruling team went through a series of monumental personal, generational and character changes. Sharon, the erstwhile war hero, hard-line "bulldozer" and settlement builder who changed his heart while at the national helm, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage on Jan. 4, which has left him comatose ever since in a Jerusalem hospital. His powers were immediately transferred to his loyal deputy, Ehud Olmert, who, unlike Sharon, was not one of the nation's founders. (Sharon was born in 1928 and fought in Israel's war of independence in 1948; Olmert was born in 1945.) And unlike Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, all former generals who made it to the prime minister's bureau, Olmert has never had much of a military career at all, spending his life in the political corridors and as a lawyer, rather than at the battlefield. Olmert's second-in-command, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, comes from a similar civilian background, working as a real estate lawyer before joining politics a decade ago (although her father had been a famed operations officer in the pre-state Jewish underground, and she served several years as a junior officer in the Mossad intelligence agency.)

During his test run in the three months preceding the election, Olmert proved himself to be an able CEO for the country. As acting prime minister, his decision-making was reactive rather than proactive. Nevertheless, he responded relatively calmly to the Hamas victory, mindful of the international community's concerns. He did not hesitate to use force against Palestinian militants, and ordered the army to seize six "most wanted" Palestinians who were held at a Jericho prison. The six were under British supervision, and when their British wardens left, fearing the Hamas takeover, Israel arrested the prisoners -- including the assassins of a former Israeli minister -- in an almost bloodless operation earlier this month.

Olmert admires coolness as a key leadership trait, and throughout the campaign he was trying to run the country as smoothly as possible, without ballyhoo. The problem was that he failed to excite the voters. The same problems that made Olmert a political underdog in the past -- his image as a non-charismatic professional pol, clouded by a string of petty corruption allegations (he always came out clean) -- hurt his election bid as well. Kadima finished the contest with 29 Knesset seats, enough to win, but not to become a dominant ruling party.

When Sharon split the Likud last November, following his unilateral pullout of Israel's settlers from the Gaza strip, he had two goals: to keep the momentum of his Gaza withdrawal and fix Israel's borders, and to redraw the political map around a pivotal centrist block. Sharon was badly hurt by Likud infighting, which almost derailed his Gaza plan. In reaction, he wanted to weaken the strangling power of political parties, in order to create a stabler, more effective government. Initial polls gave Kadima around 40 votes, but in recent weeks, as the public digested the departure of its beloved leader, the party's edge eroded. Even the less optimistic Olmert, however, said after the election that he had expected to win 30 seats and was less than happy with the results.

If he were conscious, Sharon might have been happier with the crushing defeat of his former party. The Likud, which ran the country just months ago, ended up with only 12 seats, and its leader, Sharon's longtime rival and former Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, is now under pressure to resign. Bibi, a staunch opponent of West Bank withdrawal, hoped to use the rise of Hamas as his comeback card, as he tried to portray Olmert as a left-wing patsy of Islamic terrorists. The public, however, turned a deaf ear to the scary Likud propaganda. Most Israelis have grasped the fruitlessness of holding onto hilltop settlements stuck in the midst of Palestinian-populated areas. Moreover, the voters' main concern regarding the Palestinians is personal security. They want to be able to board a bus and get off in one piece, not be blown up by a suicide bomber. Therefore, they pay little attention to the composition of the Palestinian Parliament or cabinet. The lack of serious security incidents threw Bibi's campaign into irrelevance.

The other candidate, Labor leader Amir Peretz, is a former trade union boss and a rising political star. Hamstrung by his lack of experience in peace and war matters, he failed to position himself as a serious contender for the country's leadership. Nevertheless, he brought his party back from the verge of disappearance, and successfully put social and economic issues -- traditionally seen as secondary to security and border matters -- on top of the national agenda. Ideologically, Peretz won the election, appealing to the strong popular support for the welfare state. Israel was built as a quasi-socialist state, and many of its citizens came from the former Soviet Union. Israelis turn to their government for social services (education and healthcare are publicly funded) and expect it, rather than the free market, to solve their social problems.

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Thatcherist economic policies and deep cuts in welfare, which Netanyahu aggressively implemented as Sharon's finance minister, stimulated economic growth and reduced unemployment. But they also widened the gap between rich and poor. (Israel is now the second most unequal nation in the Western world, trailing only the United States.) Instead of being hailed as an economic hero, Bibi was branded as "the creator of poverty." Peretz successfully rode the anti-poverty wave, calling to raise minimum wages and strengthen workers' and retirees' rights. Other "social" parties, the Pensioners and Shas, did well on Tuesday as well. Together with Labor they form a "social bloc" of 40 seats, aiming to expand government benefits for the poor, disabled and elderly.

With weak rivals like Netanyahu, who never really took off, and the inexperienced Peretz, Olmert's real contest was not against the other candidates but against the shadow of his predecessor. The early days after Sharon's hospitalization were critical, as Olmert had to show his ability to carry on as the nation's leader while uniting Kadima behind him. When the new party appeared, its critics dismissed it as merely a fad built around its founder's immense popularity, a collection of opportunistic politicians who had left Likud and Labor to climb aboard Sharon's more appealing bandwagon. It took Olmert about 48 hours to rally them all behind him, even the reluctant Shimon Peres, who was ousted by Peretz from the Labor leadership and found refuge with Sharon. Kadima survived and kept its edge in the polls. From then on, it was a race against time, with the key issue being how many mistakes Olmert could avoid making before Election Day.

At first, Olmert portrayed himself as a temporary successor to Sharon "until his return." Gradually, he showed more independence until breaking away completely earlier this month, revealing his foreign policy platform in several long newspaper interviews. Unlike Sharon, who kept his final plans ambiguous during his two landslide campaigns in 2001 and 2003, Olmert chose to present a detailed political blueprint. Not surprisingly, his positions are close to what many observers believe Sharon would have pushed for.

Olmert's main goal is to preserve Israel's Jewish majority, and hence its identity, by accepting a smaller territory. Olmert wants to draw a "final border" that would keep 10 to 15 percent of West Bank territory, including Jerusalem's Old City, under Israel's permanent control. The security barrier, now under final construction, will thus become a political boundary as well. This goal mandates the evacuation and resettlement of about 70,000 settlers in scores of settlements built on the wrong side of the fence. Under any circumstances, it would be a Herculean task, involving a confrontation with ideological settlers who view themselves as fulfilling God's command, and enormous expenses for evacuee compensation. Olmert believes he can pull it through, leaning upon a slim Knesset majority and exploiting the weakness of the opposition.

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Olmert, like Sharon, pays lip service to a negotiated deal with the Palestinians, but has embraced unilateralism. He says repeatedly, "We must take our destiny in our own hands." The victory of Hamas, an Islamic party that refuses to recognize Israel (despite its recent soft rhetoric), eased the external pressure on Olmert to negotiate. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, wants to negotiate but is seen as a figurehead. Olmert knows that his proposed border, which would annex about 10 percent of Palestinian land, falls far below the minimum that will be accepted by Palestinians. Therefore he has announced that he plans to "wait" several months for a "partner" to appear on the other side before going it alone.

The key to Olmert's plan is winning American recognition of his "final border," or, in other words, legitimizing Israel's annexation of the large settlement blocs near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where most settlers live. Olmert views the remaining term of George W. Bush, Israel's great friend in Washington, as his "window of opportunity" to implement the West Bank "consolidation plan." Their planned summit, probably in May, will determine Israel's policy in the coming period. (On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. would not rule out in advance any unilateral steps Israel might take, although she said the U.S. would not commit itself to supporting any moves until it knew more about them.)

Olmert has a vision and a plan for action, and his party appears loyal to him, but he lacks a clear mandate. Given the narrow victory of Kadima, its lack of institutions and clear constituency, and its strong dependence upon coalition partners, Israel is bound to keep suffering from its chronic malady of political instability. Without a dominant ruling party, the next government, like most of its predecessors, will have to walk a tightrope. Olmert must use his considerable political savvy to negotiate a working coalition, most probably with Labor, Shas, the Pensioners and United Torah Judaism, and push forward quickly. Otherwise, his ambitious plans will disappear in the muddy political waters of the Knesset.

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Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.

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