Editor's Notes: Olmert's fractured Israel

We are increasingly split, geographically, along lines of religious observance.

In this newspaper a week ago, Dore Gold and Uri Savir, two experienced diplomats from two very different parts of the political spectrum, offered two conflicting analyses of the election results. For Savir, the 2006 elections most strikingly reflected an unprecedented readiness by much of the Israeli public for even greater concessions to the Palestinians than those anticipated in the Oslo Accords. Citizens gave "a vast majority" to those parties "ready to relinquish, by agreement or unilaterally, most of the West Bank." For Gold, this was absolutely not the case. Socioeconomic and other domestic issues, he insisted, "completely trumped the past political preoccupation with peacemaking and national security." This assertion, Gold went on, was confirmed by the robust performance of those parties that had highlighted a social agenda - "Labor, Shas, the Gil Pensioners Party and even Avigdor Lieberman" of Israel Beiteinu. The official election results, published on Wednesday, indicate that there is value in both interpretations, but that the full story lies somewhere in between. What those results underline, more than anything else, is how divided a nation we have become, and thus the gravity of the task facing our incoming prime minister. We are increasingly split, geographically, along lines of religious observance: The capital of Orthodox Israel, Jerusalem, gave 18.6 percent of its votes to United Torah Judaism, 15.1% to Shas and 12.4% to the National Union-National Religious Party alliance as its top three parties. In the capital of secular Israel, Tel Aviv, those same three parties mustered just 12% of the vote between them. Tel Aviv's top three, sharing well over half that city's allegiance, were Kadima (27.9%), Labor (19.7%) and the Pensioners (9.1%) - parties which between them managed barely a quarter of the votes cast in Jerusalem. Tellingly, the Likud failed to crack the top three in Israel's two largest cities, or in Haifa and Beersheba either. As scenes of Holocaust survivors lining up for pre-Pessah handouts have demonstrated only too well in recent days, we are also horribly divided economically. Kadima fared especially well in Israel's middle-class heartland, rendering it the party of what The Jerusalem Post's Dan Izenberg has branded the "satisfied" Israelis. Toney areas like Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon gave well over a third of their votes to Ehud Olmert's party. Not so the misnomered "development towns" in what is absurdly known, in our tiny country, as the "periphery." Kadima trailed behind Israel Beiteinu, Shas and Labor, for example, in Dimona, in Yeroham and in Sderot. The Gil Pensioners Party, the new would-be champions of the mistreated, fared abysmally in those areas as well, emphasizing how much of its support stemmed from its clever "cool" appeal in Tel Aviv (9.1%), and how little came from areas at the bottom of the nationwide economic scale. Beersheba gave Gil 4.2% of its votes; Dimona, 2%; Yeroham 1.8%, and Sderot, 1.1%. In areas like these, the much-hyped social agenda of Labor's Amir Peretz paid dividends: His home town, Sderot, gave Labor 25.3%; Dimona voted 17.9% Labor and Beersheba gave it 16.8%. But along with Labor, the parties of choice for disadvantaged Israelis - that swathe of the electorate that helped Menachem Begin's Likud to power in 1977 and kept it there for much of the time since - are now plainly Shas and Israel Beiteinu, each polling up to a fifth of the vote, and sometimes more, in many development towns and poor neighborhoods. Much as Binyamin Netanyahu asserted that he had saved the nation from economic collapse as finance minister, the fact is that he hurt many traditional Likud voters in their pockets, and they did not forgive him. The Likud scored around 10% of the vote in many neighborhoods of former staunch party territory. There's a lesson here for Peretz, if he's listening, and a warning from the electorate for Labor, the Likud and Kadima: Exacerbate Israel's economic inequalities at your peril. Go easy on the biting, Thatcherite economic strategies, because the parties that champion a more socialist agenda, however irresponsible this may be considered by the academic experts, are poised to grow further still. The familiar Israeli divide over how to handle the Palestinians was overshadowed by economic concerns in poorer areas, but was still a major factor in many others - especially, inevitably, those most directly affected. The more ideological the settlement, the greater the preponderance of support for the NU-NRP alliance. That this partnership, nonetheless, failed to achieve more than nine seats in all confirms the gulf between the dominant passion of a motivated minority and the relative indifference of the rest of the nation. The NU-NRP took 76.9% of the vote in Shilo, for instance, and 73% in Eilon Moreh, settlements beyond the route of the security barrier and outside the parameters of the Olmert "convergence" plan. Even Efrat, "safely" within Olmert's Israel vision, but where many residents are immensely wary of "convergence" both in principle and in its direct impact on the Etzion Bloc, voted 64.2% for the NU-NRP. Tel Aviv gave that grouping just 3.3%, however, and Haifa 4.2%. Evidently, the residents of the largest of all settlements, Ma'aleh Adumim, are relatively more sanguine, voting 19.6% for the NU-NRP, 19.2% for the Likud, and 15.5% each for Kadima and Israel Beiteinu. Ariel, the second most numerous settlement, with a sizable Russian immigrant population, gave 34.6% to Lieberman, and another 24.1% to the Likud. The fact that the center-left bloc of Kadima, Labor, Pensioners and Meretz wound up, after this week's final adjustments of the national total, with precisely 60 of the 120 Knesset seats, rather compromises Savir's talk of a "vast majority" backing further withdrawal, even when the 10 seats won by Arab parties are added to the equation. But that absent wider resonance, across the country, of the core Likud and NU-NRP platform, suggests that there is nonetheless a vast majority of sorts - a vast majority for whom maintenance of the entire settlement enterprise is not an overwhelming priority. AS OLMERT yesterday accepted President Moshe Katsav's formal invitation to form Israel's next government, all these statistics will surely give him much pause for thought. If not quite a poisoned chalice, the task of leading so fractured a nation, moreover in so fraught a regional context, makes the job he performed in recent weeks, of keeping all his Kadima partners in line ahead of polling day, look like child's play. Yet his initial mission - by virtue of Kadima's less than sensational electoral performance and the vagaries of our electoral system - requires still more of the nannying. He must somehow squeeze dozens of inflated political egos into 23, or maybe 24, or just possibly 25 ministerial seats. Already the portents are bleak. Much compromised principle and lawyerly finesse will be required to weave a coalition suit from the disparate political cloths of Kadima, Labor, the Pensioners, Shas, United Torah Judaism and (perhaps, however improbably) Israel Beiteinu. Trouble also awaits "at home," where Olmert cannot possibly satisfy the ministerial ambitions that soared in Kadima when polls showed the party heading for 40-plus seats. And then there's the issue of the Labor leader. Amir Peretz was apparently just about the only man in the country who failed to appreciate that Labor had lost the election, and flirted pathetically, albeit briefly, with the notion of assembling a coalition, excluding Olmert, in breach of all the principles he had repeatedly stressed on the campaign trail. This is the man on whom the presumptive prime minister must rely as his foremost coalition ally. Issues of prestige, meanwhile, are now apparently propelling Peretz toward the Defense Ministry - the most senior cabinet post on offer to Labor and one, therefore, that the party leader feels he must fill himself. Those who argue that overfamiliarity with the defense establishment can be a handicap in the job, and that a non-general might constitute a refreshing and constructive change, may have a point. Or they would have were it not for Peretz's own insistence, as he campaigned for the prime ministership, that he was not the right man to dominate cabinet security discussions, and that he saw himself instead, as he memorably put it to the Post, as a "social general," who could only defer to and rely on the expertise of decorated colleagues where defense matters were concerned. It is also interesting to ponder how a defense minister Peretz would go about reconciling his social agenda - with its stress on billions of dollars of new government spending on an increased minimum wage and better health, education and pension provisions - with the duty to safeguard his own ministry's budgetary elephant, the presumed prime target of the cutbacks needed to finance the social program. PRIME MINISTER after prime minister here in recent years has seen his term in office cut short by disintegrating coalitions, and several of them started off on more solid ground than the voters gave Olmert. But the nous required to fashion a dependable Knesset majority pales by comparison to the wisdom needed to formulate appropriate policies for the country, and advance them on a basis of relative national unity. It was encouraging to see Olmert exuding so confident a sense of purpose at his press conference with the president yesterday. Hopefully it reflects mature appreciation of the task ahead, rather than insufficient realization of quite exactly what he's gotten himself into.