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The 2006 elections are, to date, as uninformative as they are eventful. The heady pace of occurrences since the surprising victory of Amir Peretz in the Labor Party elections - including the formation of Kadima, the dispersal of the Knesset, the hospitalization of Ariel Sharon, the ascendance of Ehud Olmert, the return of Binyamin Netanyahu to the leadership of the Likud, the collapse of Shinui, the conviction of Omri Sharon, the unification of the religious nationalist parties, and the success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections - has left participants and observers literally gasping for breath.
These changes, however, have not been accompanied by the presentation of clearer choices to a confused and increasingly apathetic electorate.
Each party, to be sure, has taken pains to produce a seemingly respectable platform and to set forth its agenda on key socioeconomic and political issues. Their representatives disperse promises on everything from educational reform to the war on corruption. They revel in casting aspersions - both personal and ideological - on their rivals. And they are adamant about their red lines on anything to do with Israel's relations with the Palestinians.
What very few parties have been honest enough to reveal is their positions on the most important issue in this campaign: the future form and shape of the State of Israel. The citizens who have the right to vote on March 28 need answers to at least three questions if they are to make a reasoned choice.
THE FIRST question relates to the formulation of lucid objectives on peace and security, to the detailed vision of the permanent boundaries of the state. If, indeed, these elections are all about setting Israel's future borders (as the main contestants repeatedly declare), then each list should at least draw a map of the country as it would like to see it, and present it to the public.
Certain parties on the Right advocate the maintenance of Israeli control over the entire West Bank. It behooves them to depict such a country and its demographic composition 20 years from now. Some parties on the Left advocate a complete withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. They must indicate exactly what will happen to the settlement blocs and Jerusalem under such an arrangement.
The major parties all ostensibly favor the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and portions of the West Bank. What segments, precisely? What adjustments do they envisage? What will be the contours of an independent Palestine in their eyes? Do they favor a land swap? Where? And what is the reasoning behind their plans?
The responses to these queries are the foundation for any substantive choice in these elections. Citizens cannot be expected to support leaders if they have no idea where they intend to go.
THE SECOND essential question centers on the strategy for achieving these goals, on how the boundaries between Israel and its neighbors will be demarcated.
One group of parties - Meretz, Hadash, and possibly Israel Beiteinu - has indicated a clear preference for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. These parties call for talks (either directly or under international tutelage) with Palestinian counterparts committed to a two-state solution. The lists on the far Right, steadfast in their claim that there is nothing to talk about, have absolved themselves of the need to specify any non-military strategy.
The burden on the major parties, once again, is the most onerous. They rest their reluctance to open comprehensive discussions on the absence of an authoritative and trustworthy partner. They tout unilateralism as the key means of reaching a modicum of stability and security. But they must, at this juncture, at least address its drawbacks in light of the Gaza experience, and explain the difference between one-sided efforts at conflict management and negotiated agreements leading to a resolution of the conflict.
They have yet to do so systematically.
THE THIRD question requiring concrete attention focuses on the immediate steps to be taken following the Hamas victory. Criticism of Ehud Olmert's interim measures is hardly a substitute for an alternative policy. Nor are assertions of strength in the face of Hamas's threats the harbinger of any specific practical moves.
Israeli voters deserve to know where the parties stand on the transfer of Palestinian taxes, and how they will deal with the further impoverishment of millions of Palestinians formally under Israeli control. Do they have a way of distinguishing between the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian population? How do they hope to coordinate security arrangements? Will they continue contacts with Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO? And under what circumstances, if at all, will they consider talking to Hamas?
Some reference to the connection between these steps and longer-term goals and strategies would, needless to say, be tremendously helpful.
Most contestants in the 2006 elections have avoided giving direct answers to these obvious and salient questions. They may have convinced themselves that ambiguity is an electoral virtue. If Israeli voters don't insist that the contestants confront these questions now, they will wake up on March 29 with no answers at all.
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