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The most spectacular voter turnout in recent American presidential elections was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon competed for the top job. No election since has stirred the American public the way that one did.
Nevertheless, it was not a particularly significant election. No major issues divided the two candidates, who ran not to change the country but simply to achieve the office. The lack of serious differences between the two was so pronounced that Arthur Schlesinger produced a book during the campaign called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? He concluded that it did, but had a difficult time making the case.
Despite the similarities between the candidates, the voters turned out as they have not in any presidential election since, although the final result was essentially a toss-up (Kennedy won by 100,000 votes). But 46 years later, the 1960 election is recalled as one of the most exciting and important ever.
It is worth noting that the percentage of voters participating in America's 1960 election (highest turnout in decades) is identical to the percentage of Israeli voters who came out in this week's Israeli election (lowest turnout ever). In both cases: 63%.
The bottom line is that you can't judge the significance of an election by voter turnout.
By now everyone knows that the results of the election add up to a mandate to end the occupation. Not completely. But mostly. The surprisingly peaceful withdrawal from Gaza demonstrated that the majority of Israelis support territorial withdrawal and the dismantling of settlements in pursuit of disengagement from the Palestinians. Of that number, a sizable percentage wants not just disengagement but negotiations leading to a peace agreement and the "two-state solution."
BUT, UNTIL this week, Israelis had never actually voted on whether to maintain the occupation. Ariel Sharon had a personal mandate to do whatever he saw fit to secure Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy. Ehud Olmert lacks the personal mandate as of now, but has a specific policy mandate:
getting out of most of the West Bank. He says that parts of Arab Jerusalem could be handed to the Palestinians either in the context of his unilateral plan, or in negotiations.
The people knew all that when they voted for him and the other pro-withdrawal parties.
Who would have imagined that Israeli politics would have shifted in this direction less than six years after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations and following the onset of the Aksa Intifada, which, unlike the far less violent first intifada (1987-1992), utilized suicide bombing and caused the deaths of thousands of innocent Israelis and Palestinians?
More likely, it would seem, might have been for Israelis to buy into the old "not one inch" policy.
That didn't happen. Instead they are in the process of building a security barrier to effectively seal Israel from terror and, with Arafat gone, have essentially entered into a cease-fire with some of the main Palestinian factions.
Amazingly, even the coming to power of Hamas did not significantly erode the Israeli consensus in favor of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, either unilaterally or through negotiations.
Israelis have simply had it with the occupation.
Olmert himself said that Israelis want Israel to be a "fun place to live again," something it will not be so long as it is bogged down in the West Bank. Ma'ariv reporter Ben Caspit wrote this week that Israel has "everything. Variegated, fascinating and spectacular human material, good infrastructure. Proximity to Europe, passage to Asia, perfect weather, and beautiful beachesâ€¦This truly could be a paradise. Or, at least, not a hell."
THAT IS why Israelis voted the way they did. They want, at least, the dream of paradise. And they understand, as poll after poll shows, that they can't have the dream of paradise if the Palestinians have the reality of hell. They may not want to live with the Palestinians, but they understand that their lives will always be intertwined with theirs, for better and worse.
That explains why there is less interest among Israelis in punishing the Palestinians for voting for Hamas than in sustaining the relative calm. Punishment as policy is more of a US Congressional phenomenon. Lobbyists in Washington are desperate to enact legislation designed to hit the Palestinians where it hurts, even if Israelis get hurt in the process.
It is, of course, easy to be a militant on Israeli-Palestinian issues when you legislate from 6,000 miles away. Similarly, anti-peace process types here are always free to cancel their next trip to Israel if terrorism resumes or, in the case of 60% of American Jews, never set foot in the place at all!
Last week, tens of thousands of American Jewish students at 100 different college campuses in the United States voted in a mock Israeli election. Guess what? Ehud Olmert did not win. Binyamin Netanyahu did, by a landslide. In fact, Netanyahu and parties considerably to his right won 64 Knesset seats in the American student vote. This is in contrast to the number of seats won by the Right in the actual elections.
True, the campus pro-Israel scene tends to be dominated by organizations which support the status quo, leaving the majority of Jewish and pro-Israel students who favor the peace process to keep their distance. Nevertheless, the results are startling.
Needless to say, the American student activists who voted to sustain the occupation will not be joining their Israeli counterparts in patrolling the West Bank and staffing checkpoints.
Olmert's election does not guarantee that Israeli kids can avoid being deployed to defend settlers who, most Israelis believe, should move back to Israel. Olmert may be eager to end the occupation, but Hamas can very easily make that almost impossible.
THE BALL is in Hamas's court. Its response to last week's killing of four Israelis in the West Bank (although not perpetrated by Hamas or its affiliates) could indicate whether, just possibly, Israel and the new Palestinian Authority can reach some form of accommodation, or if Israelis and Palestinians are both going to be subjected to the resumption of deadly violence that will, once again, not only take innocent lives but kill off economic growth, tourism and hopes for a better future for both peoples.
We are at a moment of equilibrium. We have a new Palestinian government, democratically elected, and a new Israeli government, democratically elected.
Those anxious to disturb that equilibrium had better understand precisely what they are doing and how their actions will affect those they profess to care about.
The writer is the director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum.