ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Election Battle for the Center

Election Battle for the Center

25 March 2006

by Yisrael Ne’eman

Last week when interviewed on Israel’s Channel 10 Kadima’s Acting PM Ehud Olmert broke with mentor Ariel Sharon and revealed his plans for a unilateral withdrawal and annexation as concerns Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Israel is to keep the large settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adummim, Givat Ze’ev (all three in the Jerusalem area) and Ariel plus certain towns close to the old 1949-67 demarcation line east of Tel Aviv and Netanya. In the Jordan Rift he will leave a military presence. The centrist Olmert said that potential coalition partners must agree with him or sit in the opposition. Sharon would have let the rumors fly as to whether there would be another withdrawal but neither confirm nor deny anything.

Labor and the Left made noises about Kadima being right wing while the Right blasted him as being defeatist, “giving something for nothing” and rode the images of a renewed Gaza and northern Samaria Disengagement, but the inference was no longer the fairly smooth summer operation but rather more scenes from Amona. Much of Israel’s voting public responded with a yawn. The 2006 general elections are marked by apathy, indifference and malaise, or so it appears on the outside. Some 35% of the public has declared they will not vote.

In public opinion surveys Kadima continues to hold a lead of 36 seats out of the 120 member Knesset, yet has the highest percentage of potential supporters who say they may change their vote at the last moment. Yet according to the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot the average person appreciates Olmert’s candor, whether they agree with him or not. The Acting PM has taken three other steps by promising the education portfolio to Prof. Uriel Reichman, the new Galilee/Negev Development Ministry to former PM and #2 Shimon Peres and has awarded Foreign Minister Tzippi Livne the vice-premier post and continuation in her present function should Kadima win. Kadima’s is lacking in an economic policy or someone of renown who can implement it. But even more so the party is tainted by scandals involving the Sharon family (Omri will go to jail) the recent file opened against Tzachi Hanegbi and accusations of real estate irregularities concerning Olmert himself.

Avi Dichter, formerly in charge of the General Security Services and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz are seen as ensuring a high level of security for Israel’s citizenry. Kadima’s political agenda of unilateral separation from the Palestinians (Oslo, the Greater Land of Israel and the New Middle East all failed) and the policy of keeping most West Bank Jews in Israel new borders appeals to the populace. Many expect such moves are coordinated with the USA.

The left of center Labor cannot compete on the border issue so party leader Amir Peretz is playing the economic and minimum wage ($1000 a month) card where the average person supports him more than any other candidate. If security issues did not dictate the tone (as usual) Labor would have an excellent chance of winning the elections. According to TV Channel 2 approximately 1 million Israelis will need some sort of food assistance to get through the Passover holiday as a result of the enormous and growing social gap between rich and poor. Ben Gurion University President and world renown economist Avishai Braverman is Labor’s point man for domestic development and closing the class gaps. Peretz very much wants to be in the next coalition. In the last polls this weekend Labor is expected to obtain 20 seats.

Two parties are vying for the right of center vote, Yisrael Beitainu led by Avigdor Leiberman and Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Both believe in re-dividing the Land of Israel, just that they declare that it will not be done unilaterally but only in agreement with the Palestinians. With Hamas (or even Fatah) at the helm in the Palestinian Authority, Israelis know that means “never” and therefore such promises are not taken seriously. Over a month ago Leiberman stated that he would even leave his own home in the West Bank to guarantee a two-state solution. Furthermore, he would transfer certain Arab population centers in Israel (such as Um el-Fahum) to the new Palestinian State and annex Jewish developments across the 1967 line by a mutual adjustment of the border. Leiberman, who himself is Russian, is attracting Russian immigrants who formerly supported Kadima when led by Sharon while biting into chunks of the Likud. Yisrael Beitainu will get around 11 seats.

Netanyahu and the Likud are the most interesting of all the parties. Sharon and the centrist part of the Likud formed the basis of Kadima while Netanyahu remained with the right wing. Supposedly Netanyahu will “never” join a Kadima coalition advocating unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank even though he favored the Gaza Disengagement until the last vote in August and then he left the government. The Likud’s #2, former foreign minister Sylvan Shalom supported the Disengagement until forced to resign when the Likud quit the government.

As finance minister Netanyahu was very successful and pulled the country out of a depression while securing a growth rate of over 5% per annum, but the success did not trickle down to the lower classes. It was agreed there was no choice but to implement Netanyahu’s capital incentive policies. Today he is unfairly under attack by Labor and hypocritically so by anyone who dares to do so from Kadima. But as a result of such policies many of the traditional blue collar security minded Likud supporters have shifted their support to Labor. Many of the middle class moved to Kadima.

Netanyahu is perceived as having been a good finance minister but mediocre as PM from 1996-99 and the more moderate Shalom is awaiting his downfall. The two rivals have not been photographed together during the election campaign. Unsettled and full of conflict the Likud is expected to poll some 15 seats. If Netanyahu does not bring them into the expected Kadima coalition he will most likely be replaced by Shalom (who has foreign policy positions closer to Olmert).

Finally, the promises made by the above mentioned politicians are of no importance. What counts is how many seats they poll. Playing the numbers will decide what coalitions can be built. The Likud and/or Yisrael Beitainu could end up supporting a unilateral withdrawal (but call it something else) or Kadima may not be able to implement a withdrawal. Labor may join a Kadima government but not raise the minimum wage. Reality will show its face when the election results are in.