Window on Israel: Election mysteries

Putting together a coalition to realize Olmert's promise of defining Israel's boundaries will not be easy.

March 29, 2006 14:31
4 minute read.
Window on Israel: Election mysteries

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The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem Who won the Israeli election? The Pensioners' Party, an organization that in previous elections was one of the chronic also-rans. It had competed with parties concerned with improving the lives of taxi drivers, protesters against bank charges, protestors against the poor deal given fathers in divorces, and smokers of marijuana. A pensioners' party had never made it into the Knesset. Yesterday's results give the party seven seats. It will take a while for a larger pension to show up in my bank account. So the more immediate question is, What happened? Commentators are scratching their heads to explain the party's success, and to predict how its unknown new old MKs will vote on issues not associated with benefits for pensioners. Among the explanations was that the election was boring, or did not attract much enthusiasm from voters alienated from "politicians" who offer only empty promises. The contest generated a smaller turnout than any previous Israeli election. Polls showed a higher incidence of undecided voters than in previous elections. Numerous voters of all ages may have chosen the Pensioners as a protest vote after it became clear that it might win enough votes to gain a Knesset representation. Established parties did not do well. Likud was the big loser, dropping to the fifth largest party in the new Knesset. It and its predecessors had been the leading right wing party since the 1950s. Now it finds itself with fewer seats than a right wing secular party supported by Russian immigrants, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, as well as Kadima and Labor. The most popular explanation for Likud's loss is Netanyahu's policy as finance minister to cut welfare payments. That caused his party to lose big in poor towns and urban neighborhoods where low-income, but highly nationalistic Jews from Arab countries had been one of the party's key constituencies. Netanyahu's shrill insistence on holding a great deal of territory in the West Bank may have alienated some voters who saw it as anachronistic, and frustrating any solution for the problem with the Palestinians. There was also the problem of Netanyahu's personality. He is widely viewed as too slick, inclined to exaggerate his accomplishments and unreliable beyond what is usual for egoistic and slippery politicians. Kadima will be the largest party, and Ehud Olmert will be invited by the president to become prime minister and form a government. However, Kadima gradually slipped from a prospect of 44 seats soon after its founder Ariel Sharon suffered his stroke, to the 28 seats that it actually won. Olmert made several mistakes in his campaign. One was not his fault. He is not the baby-kissing type, and never got out to the crowds in order to arouse personal support from the masses. He also proclaimed that it was clear he would win the election, and may thereby have reduced the incentive of supporters to work hard at getting likely voters to the polls. And perhaps most important, he did not work hard enough to build an organization for his new party. He set a goal of enlisting 100,000 formal members, but only managed to get 10,000. Without local branches capable of hanging signs and getting voters to the polls, he had to rely too much on the image of Ariel Sharon. Sharon has been in a coma since January. He will not be capable of working his political magic for the sake of Kadima or anyone else. Now what? Putting together a coalition to realize Olmert's promise of defining Israel's boundaries will not be easy. Kadima is not large enough to dictate the distribution of ministries or the nature of government policy to its potential partners. There is also a small mystery and a big mystery waiting to be resolved. The small mystery is the nature of the Pensioners' Party. Its size makes it a likely partner in the coalition, but aside from benefits for the aged no one has any idea what policies its Knesset members are likely to support. The big mystery is the new Palestinian government of Hamas. Despite a few pleasant words suggesting peaceful coexistence, it usually sounds like a party still committed to Israel's destruction. Kadima is not big enough for Olmert to insist on his view of Israel's borders among coalition partners and to implement the messy task of removing perhaps 60,000 Jews living on the other side of those borders. Having Labor in the government may facilitate disengagement, but it will make it difficult to take strong military actions against a Hamas-led Palestine that turns more violent. Just last night a katusha rocket landed near Ashkelon from Gaza. That is a significant escalation from the more primitive home made rockets sent against Israel until now. Also this morning, we are reading that avian flu has spread from the south to a kibbutz near Jerusalem. The immediate result will be tough on the birds that must be culled. The larger meaning is to remind us of numerous problems on the agenda, and what may continue to be the chronic Israeli problem of a government with numerous parties whose disagreements get in the way of decisive action.

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