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Kadima Wins, Not With a Bang But a Whimper

The Israeli election results are pouring in. Haaretz reports that Kadima won 28 seats, Labor 20, Shas 13, Yisrael Beitenu 12 and Likud 11. Voter turnout was just over 63%, the lowest in Israeli history and ‘worsting’ the 68% previous record for the previous election. What does it all mean?

Ehud olmert and shimon peres celebrate election victoryPeres and Olmert celebrate Kadima’s victory: the Has-Been and the Might-Be (photo: AP)

First, the losers: Ehud Olmert has put on a disappointing show as Kadima’s party leader and prime minister designate. It may be reasonable to assume that the 5% decline in turnout consisted of Kadima voters who voted with their feet and took Election Day as a vacation day. As recently as a week ago, polls predicted 42 seats for Kadima. So 28 seats is a shocking fall off. He ran a lackluster campaign and aside from kidnapping Palestinian terrorists from Palestinian jails and a dubious plan to set Israel’s permanent borders unilaterally, he gave his supporters precious little over which to enthuse. While Olmert still gains the right to create a governing coalition, his hand will be weaker than it would have been had he won the 36 seats projected in polls as recently as three or four days ago.

Bibi Netanyahu also loses dramatically, seeing Likud decline from 38 seats in the current Knesset to 11 in the coming one. Such a grievous outcome couldn’t have happened to someone more deserving of it. After picking the pockets and the meat off the bones of the poor and elderly as Sharon’s finance minister, Netanyahu had nothing to offer the Israeli electorate. Likud was stripped of its main campaign talking points. Settlements had become a non-issue because Sharon ensured that Israelis no longer found them terribly relevant in their domestic politics. The typical Likud red-baiting and Arab-baiting didn’t work either, perhaps because Olmert and Kadima were draped in Sharon’s bullet-proof security mantle.

Amir Peretz speaking after electionAmir Peretz, one of the ‘winners’ in yesterday’s election (photo: AP)

And the winners: Amir Peretz definitely comes out smelling like a rose. In winning 20 votes (as opposed to 19 in the last Knesset), he took a moribund party which Shimon Peres had essentially run into the ground via his accomodationist politics and breathed new life into it. He gave the party a new relevance in direct response to Netanyahu’s draconian politics of fiscal austerity. And Peretz has done something equally important in putting a Mizrahi face on Labor. Never before has a major party put forward a Mizrahi for prime minister. But make no mistake, as Menachem Klein said tonight in analyzing electoral results, a good number of veteran Labor voters abandoned the party in a a racist gesture of anti-solidarity. But perhaps an equal number of Sepharidm abandoned their traditional Likud base to return to the Labor party for whom their parents perhaps had one time voted. Those eastern Jews who fled Labor and flocked to Likud during the days of Menachem Begin never returned to the “home” in Labor. And now, some of them have. And this could break an ethnic logjam in Israeli politics and allow Labor to break out of the elderly Ashkenazi ghetto to which Shimon Peres had consigned the party.

Avigdor Lieberman certainly wins taking a party that didn’t even exist during the last election and bringing it into the new Knesset with 12 seats. According to Klein, Lieberman too breaks an ethnic logjam of sorts. Previously, he and Natan Sharansky were the political representatives of Russian Israelis. Their appeal never really transcended that community. But with Yisrael Beitenu, Lieberman has drawn to his side the Israeli’s Israeli he needs to broaden his appeal within the Israeli electorate. Among his list, are former Labor intelligence officials, academics, etc. He himself has said that he plans to use this victory as his stepping stone to the prime ministership in the next election. Heaven forfend! But he is a force to be reckoned with.

Shas, with 13 seats also is a force to be reckoned with. It increased its representation from 11 in the last Knesset. But their position possibly doesn’t change much because they were a key element of Sharon’s ruling coalition in the last Knesset. And they may play such a role in the new coalition should they choose to do so. Of course, with its shrill, shallow and corrupt ethnic politics, it will do Olmert no favors by joining him. But almost every Israeli government includes a religious party as some form of insurance or balance to more secular political elements and the next coalition will prove no exception. The only question is whether the religious partner will be Shas or one of the other parties.

Finally, and perhaps the most shocking development is that Jonathan Pollard’s old “handler,” and the Mossad operative who single-handedly brought Israeli-U.S. relations to its knees for a time, Rafi Eitan, has led the Pensioners’ (Gil in Hebrew) Party to seven seats in the new Knesset. This may be the only blog in the world where you’ll learn this relevant background information about Eitan:

The 80-year-old Eitan fought in the Palmach pre-state army, where he won the nickname “Stinker” after falling into a pit of sewage while on a mission.

This is another party that didn’t exist before this campaign. Like Peretz, this party’s platform responds to the threat Netanyahu posed to Israeli citizens, like pensioners, who live on fixed incomes. If you add its seven votes to Labor’s 20, you find that parties running on a progressive economic platform polled as many votes as Kadima, which seemed to run away from social equity and the economy as political issues. This posed another one of Olmert’s tone-deaf weaknesses in this campaign.

How does this affect Israel’s relations with the Palestinians? Alas and alack, it probably doesn’t affect it at all in the sense that Olmert will likely continue his same tone-deaf unilateralist policies (it didn’t work for Bush regarding Iraq, so why does he think he’ll have any success at it?) toward the Palestinians. I do note one possibly slightly hopeful sign is that both Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert have called for face to face meetings to get negotiations under way. Until tonight, Olmert had told the electorate he had no interest in meeting with Abbas. However, there is little reason to be excited about this development until we know how serious Olmert is and how substantive he wishes that conversation to be. If I were a betting man, I couldn’t lose betting against Olmert. But he could fool me and I’d be delighted if he did.

In his talk tonight with Joel Migdal, Menachem Klein rejected Olmert’s unilateral approach as serious or viable. He asserted that only face to face negotiations with the Palestinians and Israeli willingness to return to ’67 borders (with adjustments to allow annexation of Maaleh Adumim and Ariel) would bring a true peace settlement. When I asked him how he expects that any Israeli political party to move the current consensus anywhere close to his parameters, Klein replied that no progressive party like Labor was likely to create such consensus. Laughingly he deprecated himself: “I’m under no delusions that I and my leftist colleagues in the Geneva Initiative are going to take over the Israeli government and singlehandedly bring peace. We shouldn’t be fools enough to believe that Yossi Beilin will ever be prime minister. No, a centrist party is the only one which can bring such change. And I don’t care who brings peace. Let it be Ehud Olmert or Avigdor Lieberman for that matter. I’d be delighted. The most I ever expect to be is a mosquito flitting a few good ideas into the ears of Israeli politicians.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Jake Haller March 30, 2006, 9:20 AM

    To quote Menachem Klein

    “And I don’t care who brings peace”

    IMO, too many underestimate the potential contributions of parties like Shas to the negotiating table. Shas is often pilloried among Israeli intelligentsia as a cabal of unsophisticated Eastern fanatics who are out of touch with Israel’s mainstream. Putting aside the vindictiveness of that view, it could actually be a panacea.

    As you know, Shas’ representatives and constituents are members of the Eda HaMizrach and religious ones. In addition to non-hawkish views regarding Yehuda and Shomron, their background both ethnically and religiously just might create some bonding with the Palestinian leadership that the secular Western-oriented Ashkenasim don’t understand or care to.

    Even prior to the Hamas landslide, the Palestinians have become increasingly religious. I think this mindset (along with cultural ones unique to the Middle East) is better understood by the likes of Shas than Labor/Meretz/Kadima etc who appear completely tone deaf if not hostile to the metaphysical yearnings. Amir Peretz would still have a Labor Party culture to contend with as far a being a player of this type, even if he himself was up to the challenge, which IMO is not.

    Trust is not a word to be thrown around lightly, especially in politics and especially in Mid-East politics. But can a case be made that the Palestinians might feel a shred less threatened by the likes of other Levantine people who view theology as a higher priority than Western culture (sic)? It’s a touchy subject and at the risk of sounding categorical, the groups who speak the loudest about comprehensive peace with the Palestinians tend to also shout in support of other causes which scare and anger the Palestinians. No need to list them explicityly; it should be obvious.

    No concrete answers here, but perhaps an oft overlooked idea to ponder.

  • Richard Silverstein March 30, 2006, 1:40 PM

    Jake: There is much to what you are saying. I do think that Hamas would have much more in common w. a religious Israeli than a secular one. In fact, I read something written by an Orthodox rabbi who’d met w. Hamas leaders who told him that they felt they could make peace w. him right there on the spot because of their shared spiritual perspective.

    I too (like the Israeli elite you criticize) have grave reservations about Shas though, since their party is riddled to the core w. outright corruption. I love the idea of a Mizrachi party that is not intransigent about territorial issues and has deep connections to Arab culture (like Shas). I’m just not sure they’re the ones to pull this off (though I could be wrong).

    As for Peretz, I think you sell him short & prob. shouldn’t as he’s a fierce competitor & tough negotiator (as you’ll see in the upcoming coalition negotiations). He may surprise you. I think he’d be far more ready & able to negotiate a peace w. the Palestinians which most Israelis could live with. But that’s moot because unless he becomes Foreign Minister he won’t get the chance to do this (at least in this government). Yes, he’s secular but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t find common ground w. Fatah OR w. Hamas.

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