Analysis: In search of a decision

Ask the Jews what they want, and you won't get a clear answer. It depends.

elections graphic 298 (photo credit: )
elections graphic 298
(photo credit: )
The good news about Tuesday's elections is that the people of Israel will go to the polls with some clear policy choices - negotiations with the Palestinians on the Left, hunkering down on the Right, and unilateralism in the middle. The bad news is that not one choice will conclusively win out, and Israel - as has been the case since 1967 - will once again be left trying to figure out what exactly it wants. Ask the Palestinians what they want, and they will tell you: at a minimum, the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital. Ask the Jews what they want, and you won't get a clear answer. It depends. It depended in the aftermath of 1967 if a call would come in from King Hussein; it depended after the Camp David accords in 1978 on how the Palestinians would take to autonomy; it depended over the last few years on what the US would let us keep. But depends is not policy. You can't attain what you can't define, and Israel has never defined its territorial goals. As that brilliant Middle East theorist Yogi Berra once said, "You've got to be careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there." Well, we haven't gotten there. Elections are supposed to help define policy, but in our case - as will likely be the case again on Tuesday - elections often just shuffle the deck, they don't deal a clear and decisive hand with which to play. There was a fleeting moment back in November when it seemed that Israel was close to its defining moment. That was just after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bolted Likud and set up his new party - a party that at first glance looked set to win 40-plus seats, which would place it firmly in the driver's seat and enable it to conclusively set an agenda and define the country's goals. And more. Sharon, during his press conference announcing the establishment of Kadima, alluded to setting into motion structural changes in the way the country governed itself, knowing full well that a country like ours, facing the real threats we face (Iran, Palestinian terrorism) cannot really afford to go to the polls every two years, as has been the case since 1996. Only a very strong party could push forward governmental reform that would come at the expense of the smaller parties. A huge mandate would have given Sharon the chance not only to finally define the borders (with Sharon at Kadima's helm, these elections would have been an after-the-fact referendum on the Gaza disengagement), but also to reshape the way we govern ourselves. But then reality intervened. Sharon suffered his calamitous stroke, and Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. These two events have catapulted us back to square one, where we have been for so long. Sharon's incapacitation thrust Ehud Olmert to the forefront. But Olmert is not Sharon - his history is different, his style, his temperament, the amount of credit he has (or has not) accrued over the years with the public. Olmert's policies are also different. Whereas Sharon said after disengagement that he would wait to see how the Palestinians dealt with their new-found independence in Gaza before deciding on what to do next, Olmert is saying that if Hamas does not essentially cease being Hamas, accept our existence and forsake terror, then the unilateral show must go on. But Hamas's victory has thrown a huge wrench into the works. Giving up much of the West Bank to Hamas is not the same as giving up Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas. The West Bank is more strategic than Gaza, and Abbas, as opposed to Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh, has at least forsworn terrorism, even if he hasn't exactly fought it. Five years of suicide bombings have given birth to a deep-seated Israeli yearning for separation: them over there, us over here, and a state-of-the-art fence running between us. Not peace, but peace of mind. But this yearning is now complicated by a new reality - the "them" is now led by Hamas. Hamas's victory has raised a new question: Is a fence enough, or do we still need control over territory for our own security? Thirty-nine years after acquiring the territories, we still have not decided among ourselves what to do with them. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like this election is going to provide us with much clarity. The election campaign that ended with the country going to the polls Tuesday morning brought with it the campaign broadcasts that aired no small dosage of nonsense - much fear-mongering, many empty promises, a lot of false (and even dangerous) hopes. But Shimon Peres, in one Kadima segment, hit a fundamental truth on the head. When Menachem Begin pulled out of Sinai and made peace with Egypt, Peres said, he commanded 45 Knesset seats. When Yitzhak Rabin set Oslo in motion and made peace with Jordan he had 44 seats. When Sharon set out on disengagement, he had a party with 40 seats. Olmert has charted a wide-ranging diplomatic course of action that would fundamentally change the contours of the country. To do so, he needs legitimacy, and for legitimacy he will need a much stronger showing than the 34-36 Knesset seats the polls gave him on the eve of Election Day. A coalition of smaller parties with different agendas, painstakingly cobbled together will not enable Olmert to carry out the type of drastic and dramatic moves he has planned: uprooting 70,000-80,000 Jews from heavily ideological settlements deep in the West Bank, and setting the country's borders for the first time since 1967. Instead, when the dust settles Wednesday morning Israel will probably be right back where it has been for so long: represented by a Knesset that is divided, factionalized and a mirror of a people that seems almost tragically unable to decide by itself, and for itself, what it truly wants.