Israel's Election: One Result, Many Messages 27.3.2006

Israel Goes to the Polls

Today, Singapore, 27/03/06

 Tomorrow, March 28, Israeli citizens will have to make up their mind who to vote for. There are three candidates for Prime Minister: Two seasoned politicians, acting PM Ehud Olmert and former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, accomplished opportunists who lack any particular ideology other than a strong affinity for neo-liberal economic thinking and one former union leader, social democrat and visionary ideologue, Amir Peretz, slightly sidelined because he has no government experience and lacks some of the pedigrees that still count for so much in Israeli society.

 The major parties led by these candidates, Kadima, Likud and Labor are only supporting casts:  In these elections, everything is personal. Here is what the parties stand for:

 Kadima, split off the Likud by PM Arik Sharon to keep him in power and now, by fate of his illness, serving his deputy Olmert, is not really a party but an ad-hoc assembly of walk-ins trying to hitch a ride on Sharon’s legacy. The party is ready for a further withdrawal from Palestinian territories and promotes a mix of policies plagiarizing the Labor party’s programs, but with a rightist security slant.

 Netanyahu’s  battered Likud (after Kadima’s split), slightly revamped with no ideology other than holding on to as much Palestinian territory as possible is pandering to people’s fear of Hamas and Palestinian terrorism and has painted itself into a corner with a politically untenable platform.

 Peretz’s Labor party has probably the strongest leadership team and is trying to recast itself as a modern Social Democratic Party championing the lower economic strata with a mostly socio-economic agenda and a willingness for major territorial concessions.

 A 4th party gaining strength to a worrisome degree is “Israel Beiteinu”  run by a xenophobic bully of Russian origin, Avigdor Lieberman, who attracts a considerable chunk of the sizeable Russian immigrant vote with an ethnocentric platform tough on crime and Arabs.

 The issues haven’t changed much during the last 10 years, testimony to the lack of creativity and determination of the governments in charge.  The Palestinian conflict remains on top of the list but this is as difficult a time as any for any Israeli initiative. The Palestinian Authority is in disarray after Hamas’ upset victory and it will take time before a functioning Palestinian government with a clear mandate and realistic policy objectives emerges, if at all.

 Economically Israel has done well in the last year beating the growth rates of most developed countries. This has come at the expense of the lower economic strata who have suffered disproportionally from budget cuts and are now clamoring for compensation. To the credit of Labor’s Amir Peretz, he has succeeded in making the socio-economic situation a major campaign issue and Kadima and Likud, burdened by their leaders’ neo-liberal outlook are playing catch-up to Labor’s challenge. Unfortunately, in Israel, until proven otherwise, the saying remains  “it’s the security situation, stupid” and here Labor is playing catch-up. The experience and depth of Labor’s security team may not suffice to compensate for dovish chairman Amir Peretz who has had little exposure to security issues. A plurality of the public feels safer with Kadima’s  tough talking Olmert although his military service was limited to reporting for the army newspaper. Olmert’s  veteran security team has a knack for strong action, unfortunately its sophistication leaves a lot to be desired as proven recently by Israel’s damaging intervention in Jericho.

 The polls indicate a clear lead for Kadima which is expected to garner some 35 seats in the 120 seat Knesset followed by Labor with a predicted 21 seats and the Likud which may pull in 16. But, and there is a big but – Israelis have fooled their pollsters before, the number of undecided voters this close to election day remains uncommonly large and a low turn out may skew the results.

 If Kadima’s Ehud Olmert will become Prime Minister we can expect a continuation of Israel’s policies of muddling through. Should Labor’s Amir Peretz pull off the unthinkable, just as he did when he beat icon Shimon Peres in the party primaries, the Middle East may be in for some positive surprises.  The most likely outcome will result in a coalition government lead by Kadima and Labor although in these elections, more than ever before, unforeseen outcomes including a strong showing by Lieberman’s right wing fringe party cannot be ruled out.

 No matter what happens, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority better get their act together and be ready for a dialogue soon because whoever will be Israel’s new Prime Minister will not wait indefinitely before setting out to determine Israel’s borders unilaterally.

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