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Israel's political three ring circus

By Yehonathan Tommer

From the top: Kadima’s Olmert, Labor’s Peretz and Likud’s Netanyahu

Kadima, Israel’s infant centrist party led by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is currently predicted by polls to win a major victory in the general elections on March 28. This scenario is provided that Hamas’ election win, Palestinian terrorism, Qassam rocket fire or renewed military tension with Hezbollah do not dramatically dissipate the current wave of public sympathy over Sharon’s illness. Olmert, Ariel Sharon’s right-hand man over the past few years, has moved swiftly into the seats of government and party to fill the vacuum created by the charismatic 78-year old Prime Minister after a serious stroke struck him down in early January.

A former Likud hardliner and mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert is likely to continue Sharon’s pragmatic policy to assure Israel’s future as a democratic, Jewish state. He is a trained lawyer, fluent in English, blunt and frequently sarcastic. He is also an astute politician and a seasoned parliamentarian with 30 years in politics. While he lacks defence and foreign affairs experience, in recent years he has held the senior Industry and Trade and Finance portfolios. As a non-military man with strong connections in business, Olmert has mainly focused on economic priorities in recent years and is known in Washington and other world capitals, including Canberra.

Olmert has so far earned popularity for his "sensitive, no blunders" succession, following Sharon’s sudden incapacitation. If, as polling indicates, Kadima wins 40 Knesset seats or more, Olmert can comfortably cruise into office, possibly with a broad parliamentary coalition involving Labor and one or two smaller sectarian parties. His deep personal rift with new Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu may make fruitful cooperation with the Likud more difficult. The largest political upheaval in Israel’s multiparty system in many years erupted in October when former Histadrut trade union boss Amir Peretz defeated Labor’s elder statesman Shimon Peres for the party leadership. Peretz pulled Labor out of the national unity government, making early elections, otherwise scheduled for November 2006, all but inevitable. This in turn triggered Sharon’s decision, spurred by frustration with opposition from Likud rebels, to launch his centrist Kadima (Forward) party.

The Likud split led to a wave of defections by politicians and party members from the Likud, Labor and secular Shinui parties to Kadima. Weekly polling indicates that the three main parties are now competing for power. Two of the three will probably form the next government coalition together with one or two smaller sectarian factions. If elections were held today, Kadima would win 40 or more Knesset seats, Labor some 20 and Likud some 12 to 17. The religious party Shas is currently polling in fourth place with some 10 Knesset seats. Shinui, a secularist and centrist party which was the big winner last election with 16 Knesset seats, has disintegrated and may not pass the minimum threshold of votes needed for Knesset representation.

Kadima reflects Israel’s new centrist consensus that has been crystallising over the last three years around the country’s growing desire to disengage from the territories and refocus on a pressing domestic agenda, says Cameron Brown, deputy director at The Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. Brown continues:

"The new consensus has moved the vast majority of Israelis to the political center. The Israeli Right has recognised that (if Israel is to remain Jewish and democratic) it cannot cling to the territories in Gaza and the whole of the West Bank indefinitely; that there is no choice [but] a two-state solution, in which a Palestinian state is created on most of those territories. On the other hand, people on the Israeli Left have moved to the right, accepting the view that in the foreseeable future there is no Palestinian partner [with whom to negotiate a settlement]. This is something which should have happened a long time ago... Kadima is a natural progression from the moribund Third Way and Centre parties of the past decade, neither of which survived a second parliamentary term and eventually evaporated."

Pledging to continue Sharon’s policies on counter-terror and relations with the Palestinians, Kadima under Olmert pledges its commitment to "a sovereign, Jewish and democratic state. According to its platform, it is ready to make undisclosed "territorial concessions from parts of the land of Israel" to ambiguously defined final borders. But Kadima also pledges to retain control over areas "housing large Jewish settlement blocs vital to Israel’s security, Jewish religious sites and national icons, including above all a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital." Kadima is also publicly committed to a two-state solution to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Parrying Labor’s explicitly socialist ideology under Peretz, Kadima promises also to improve the welfare of Israel’s 1.5 million poor with tax cuts for lower paid workers, structural economic changes, investments in national infrastructure and job-creating manpower incentives. Originally, Sharon’s charisma and credentials as "Mr. Security" were the uncontested glue binding Kadima’s disparate elements together. His forced removal from the political scene threw the parties into limbo, freezing the election campaign. But if Olmert can now present a viable sense of leadership, a clear election platform and an assertive government, he will be demonstrating that Kadima can perpetuate Sharon’s somewhat incompletely defined political legacy.

By contrast, Labor is focusing on promoting a domestic "new deal." Peretz’s election campaign emphasises social welfare and the economy. It promises legislation for a legal minimum wage of NIS4,000 per month (A$1,000) for the country’s low paid, salaried and wage earners. It also pledges greater equality of opportunity and access to the country’s legal services, and to reduce the widening gap between Israel’s rich and disadvantaged (who are found disproportionately among the aged, the handicapped, single parent families and Israeli Arabs). Labor says that it will achieve these goals by reversing elements of the Sharon government’s economic reforms and by diverting funds to stimulate growth in Israel’s depressed cities and peripheral regions. "Labor hopes to strengthen its electoral support by focusing on national domestic priorities," says Brown. "Stressing the economy and social issues and underplaying defence and security plays to Peretz’s advantage and avoids his weakness. Labor can portray both Likud and Kadima as greedy capitalists versus the party which cares for the little people. In the coming weeks the Moroccan-born Labor leader will court the poorer citizen and the traditional observant Sephardi voter by appearing at the Western Wall, bar mitzvah celebrations and weddings," Brown predicts.

Shimon Peres’ defection to Kadima, along with two former Labor cabinet ministers, Dalia Itzhik and Haim Ramon, could cost the party between six and seven Knesset seats, according to one survey. Labor, Israel’s ruling party from 1948 through 1977, has been progressively haemorrhaging seats at every election since their last victory under Ehud Barak in 1999. Polls suggest that Labor might expect some modest gains compared to their historically low Knesset caucus of 19 seats won in the last election. But Peretz is confident that, with newly hired campaign strategists, Labor can turn this into a major electoral comeback and win 30 Knesset seats, possibly enough to form a government.Agreement on a two state-solution to end the conflict with the Palestinians is in the national consensus, says Peretz. A Labor Government, he continues, would seek a long term land lease agreement (similar to Britain’s arrangements with China for Hong Kong in 1898) with the Palestinian Authority for large West Bank Jewish settlement blocs in exchange for financial compensation or a land swap. Peretz has indicated he has less affinity for the unilateral and interim arrangements favoured by Sharon, and is more likely to seek fast-track negotiations with the Palestinians toward a final status agreement.

Amir Peretz has no defence and foreign affairs experience or international exposure. Consequently, according to Brown he will have "to upgrade the [Labor] party’s defence and security image and appoint one of his numerous ex-generals to the party list as his second in command and an alternate Defence Minister (in his British style shadow Cabinet) - someone who speaks like a hawk on Palestinian terrorism, the need to retaliate and re-establish deterrence." After Shimon Peres defected to Kadima and Ehud Barak (former Labor prime minister and defence minister) was excluded from the party’s senior leadership, "Peretz has to speak clearly and lucidly on re-establishing negotiations with Abu Mazen and what to do with the Palestinians." said Brown.

Likud, which had 40 parliamentary seats in the outgoing Knesset before Sharon decided to form his breakaway faction, is polling between 12 and 17 seats. Netanyahu must decide whether to compete with Kadima and Labor for the political centre presenting a clean-party (anti-corruption, anti-criminal, social welfare) ticket, or lead the bloc of right-wing parties opposed to territorial withdrawals and demanding tough measures against Palestinian terrorism, says Hebrew University political scientist Mordechai Nisan, who specialises in Israeli right wing politics.

"I don’t see Likud significantly rising in the polls unless they adopt a very clear right wing strategy… Likud are really going nowhere unless they succeed in differentiating themselves from the other two parties and appeal to their traditional [constituency of Jews of Middle Eastern origins and nationalist-religious voters.] But if they target the political centre they are making a big mistake," says Nisan.

If Netanyahu opts for an ideological, nationalist platform he risks losing additional moderate party big wigs and swing voters to Kadima. But if he opts for a centrist platform he risks losing his dedicated right-wing constituency. Cameron Brown agrees: "Despite the [defection of many disengagement supporters to Kadima], settler voters and their sympathisers are suspicious of further isolated settlement pull-downs after the elections and are likely to punish Likud for its ‘dual betrayal’ by voting for the far right National Union and National Religious parties."

Alternately, with Sharon a non-player, Netanyahu will argue that an ex-prime minister is a safer bet than novices like Olmert and Peretz to lead the country through the difficult times ahead. "If security-related issues again grab the front stage and people start asking whether the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank was a mistake…Netanyahu can play them up and this would definitely hurt Kadima," adds Brown.

Kadima, even without Sharon, currently retains its unchallenged electoral lead. As acting prime minister, Olmert will be called on to make crucial diplomatic and military decisions that will indicate the direction (Road Map implementation, final status agreement or unilateral delineation of interim final borders) of Israel’s post-election Palestinian strategy, foremost among them a far-reaching response to Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian Legislative Assembly elections on January 25.

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