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Israeli Elections 2006

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on March 29, 2006

On Tuesday March 28, the citizens of Israel voted in what was arguably one of the most important general elections in the nation’s history. With a record low voter turnout, the centrist Kadima Party secured a plurality with 28 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Kadima, led by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was widely expected to win, but its base of support has narrowed sharply over the past few months. Kadima founder and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a massive stroke on January 4 and remains in a coma, and while Olmert initially maintained and exceeded Sharon’s poll numbers, Kadima’s popularity has fallen since then. Despite their victory, Tuesday’s results were particularly disappointing for Olmert and his allies, as voter-intent polls in January showed Kadima winning over 40 Knesset seats, and polls from earlier this week suggested that Kadima would win 34 seats.

The Israeli Labor Party, under its new leader Amir Peretz, earned 20 Knesset seats. The Likud Party, Labor’s traditional rival and Israel’s largest party before its former leader Sharon broke away to found Kadima in November, won only 11 seats. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who masterminded the internal Likud rebellion that forced Sharon and others in favor of the continued removal of Jewish settlers from Palestinian lands to leave the party, had the dubious distinction of leading Likud to the worst showing in party history. The religious (Orthodox Jewish) Shas Party won 13 Knesset seats and Israel Beiteinu, a socially conservative party whose support has traditionally been limited to Jews of Russian ancestry, won 12 seats. Surprisingly, a the Gil (Pensioners) Party, which has little political ideology except increased spending on senior citizens, won 7 seats.

While emphasizing their opposition to a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, many Palestinian leaders were enthused by the results. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas expressed his happiness over the “humiliating defeat” of Netanyahu and Likud, who have pledged to oppose any and all further removal of Jewish settlers unless the Palestinians make some (largely unspecified) concessions first. It should be noted that in addition to Likud, the National Union-National Religious Party with 9 seats and the United Torah Jerusalem Party with 6 seats also oppose further withdrawals.

The most likely governing coalition will probably be anchored around Kadima, Labor, and the secular leftist Meretz party (with 4 seats) which all support Olmert’s plans to define the borders of two independent Israeli and Palestinian states by 2010, using negotiation if possible and using unilateral action if necessary. Such as coalition could probably muster at least 60 and perhaps more than 65 seats, while a potential anti-disengagement coalition led by Likud, National Union-NRP, Israel Beiteinu, Shas, and United Torah Judaism is unlikely to consist of more than 50 seats. “I think we can run a government with 28 seats. It will be difficult, but possible,” said Shimon Peres, a top Kadima politician who is both a former prime minister and the previous Labor leader.

In my view, a Kadima-Labor government led by Olmert represents pretty much the only hope for advancing the peace process and working towards an even slightly feasible two-state solution. Likud’s leaders, who were merely intransigent a few months ago, have become malicious in their attempts to obstruct Olmert’s efforts towards resolution of the settler and border questions. Perhaps a sound defeat will humble Likud into becoming more constructive, but until then, the party cannot be trusted to participate in the peace process. The Israeli economy currently suffers from many problems, both cyclical and structural, and the new government will be forced to address them. However, Peretz’s economic plans largely consist of spending more money (and possibly raising the minimum wage), and there is a danger that a center-left coalition including Kadima, Labor, Meretz, and possibly the Pensioners would enact wasteful spending programs that fail to address the root causes of such problems as high unemployment, low industrial production, sluggish GDP growth, and large government debt. (While I don’t know for sure what caused these problems, I am relatively certain that more government spending, unless very carefully targeted and combined with labor market reforms and measures to promote trade and investment, will make things worse.) Furthermore, there will be a great temptation for Laborites to make trouble for Kadima in hopes of forcing another election soon and claiming the top spot. This would be a mistake, as I believe that the low turnout reflects (in part) the ire of the voters at being forced into a tumultuous election only three years after the previous one.

The emergence of Kadima as a credible centrist party represents a fundamental transformation of Israeli politics. Israel, which has been governed throughout its entire history by either Labor or Likud, has a tradition of bitter partisan disputes, but the importance of securing peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire Middle East has made such nonsense especially intolerable. Kadima and Labor must work together to repair their nation’s social and economic weaknesses while moving forward towards a permanent two-state arrangement with the Palestinians. As for the anti-disengagement parties, they should conduct some ideological introspection and contemplate forming a civil opposition capable of criticizing the conduct of the Olmert government while still coming to terms with the necessity of actively seeking peace and resolution.

Things will get more interesting, and probably uglier, as the coalition-building progresses. For now, I’m glad that a centrist pro-withdrawal coalition is viable and that Kadima’s plunge in popularity didn’t prevent Olmert from securing his much-needed plurality and continuing his service as prime minister.

UPDATE: In May 2006, a coalition centered around Kadima and Labor was formed, with Olmert elected Prime Minister and Peretz named Minister of Defense. Dalia Itzik of Kadima became the first female speaker of the Knesset. Israel Beitneinu was later added to the coalition, with its leader Avigdor Lieberman controversially named Supervising Minister of Israel-Iran Issues. In January 2007, the Israeli President (a largely ceremonial role), Moshe Katsav, took a leave of absence due to impending charges of sexual harassment and rape. Itzik is serving as Interim President, and Katsav will likely be succeeded by Shimon Peres.

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