Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mapping the Israeli elections

With only 12 days before the Israeli elections, Graham Usher looks at the runners and riders

Olmert; Netanyahu; Peretz; Bishara

Two weeks before the elections Israel's political map has crystallised into five main blocs. A nationalist centre, represented by Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party; a nationalist right, represented by Likud and pro-settler coalitions like the National Union/National Religious Party (NU-NRP); the Zionist left, represented by Amir Peretz's Labour Party and Meretz; orthodox religious parties like the Sephardi Shas movement and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) coalition; and the anti-Zionist Arab parties.

It remains to be seen what alignments between the parties will emerge after the elections to form the next Israeli government. It is clear what divides them. As always in Israeli politics the fundamental fissure is not over social, economic or cultural policies, though these play a part. It is over the national struggle with the Palestinians and the fate of the occupied territories.

KADIMA, THE NATIONALIST CENTRE: Formed by Sharon late last year Kadima has vowed to remain true to his legacy. This boils down to two alleged imperatives: the need to determine Israel's permanent borders to preserve its character as "a Jewish and democratic" state; and, if necessary, to do so unilaterally in the absence of a "Palestinian partner", a veto that was applied to Yasser Arafat in the past, President Mahmoud Abbas currently and a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government in the future.

Sharon was always circumspect about the future. His successor as Kadima leader (and acting prime minister), Ehud Olmert, is less so. In a series of interviews with the Israeli press last weekend he charted the political strategy of any future government led by him.

Initially he would give pause for the Hamas government to meet his "threshold conditions" for resuming PA-Israeli contacts. These are recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; disarmament of all the Palestinian resistance factions; and adherence to all previous PLO-Israeli agreements, including the 1993 Oslo accords and the 2003 roadmap "towards peace".

In the likely failure of Hamas meeting those conditions, Olmert has said Israel will determine its eastern border by 2010 -- that is, within the term of the next government. The separation line, mostly, will be the West Bank wall, currently annexing around 10 per cent of occupied Palestinian territory. A future Israel will include the settlement blocs of Maale Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion as well as Jerusalem's Old City "and the adjacent [Jewish] neighbourhoods" in occupied East Jerusalem. Olmert will also ensure territorial and residential contiguity between West Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, six kilometres within the West Bank. Finally Israel will retain "security control" over the Jordan Valley.

Israel's "disengagement" from Gaza last summer had majority support among Israelis. It is not clear whether a unilateral West Bank withdrawal would be equally popular, especially as it would involve the evacuation of thousands more settlers. Nor is it known how much unanimity Olmert's "separation" plan has within Kadima.

Former Labour leader, Shimon Peres, still advocates some form of negotiations with the PA, or at least that part of the PA headed by Abbas. Olmert has rejected any division between a "Fatah presidency" and a "Hamas parliament" as "artificial". Former Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, has said any future West Bank withdrawal will be a "civilian disengagement" not a military one: i.e. while settlers would be gathered into blocs, the army would retain control of vacated territory. Defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, is said to prefer a military withdrawal, akin to Gaza.

For now, however, Kadima reigns supreme. Although it has sagged a little in the polls recently, it is still projected to win 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset, 19 seats ahead of its nearest challenger. It will take a near miracle -- or a major disaster -- for Kadima not to be the largest faction in the next parliament.

LIKUD, THE NATIONALIST RIGHT: Likud is still reeling from its opposition to the Gaza disengagement and the defection of many of its main figures (Olmert, Mofaz, Tipsi Livni) to the ranks of Kadima. Nor is it helped by the historical animus between its leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Sharon, especially when the Israeli prime minister is still lying comatose in a West Jerusalem hospital.

The blows are reflected in the polls. From being the leading party in the last government Likud is currently expected to win barely 15 seats. Netanyahu has decided to win back lost ground by lurching to right.

Likud's election programme is a series of negatives: no to any further withdrawals; no to any negotiations with the PA (on the contrary, "we will combat Hamas"); no to any transfer of Palestinian funds; no to the roadmap; no to a Palestinian state; and no to any Palestinian workers inside Israel. Netanyahu has even said no to any future coalition government with Kadima, a move that surprised certain of these Likud colleagues since the issue had yet to be discussed in the party. In fact the only proactive policy is a pledge by Netanyahu to move the wall eastwards i.e. deeper into the West Bank.

The negativism has yet to make any dent in Kadima's support. If the elections results on 28 March reflect current polls, Netanyahu will be at the end of his political life and so, perhaps, might Likud.

The rest of the nationalist right is divided between the NU-NRP and Avigdor Lieberman's Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The NU-NRP's constituency are the settlers, with the two parties resolutely opposed to any further disengagement, civilian or military. Lieberman's position is less predicable. He advocates a "soft transfer" where settlements are annexed to Israel in exchange for Palestinian areas in Israel (like Um Al-Fahim) becoming part of the PA. "I don't believe in co-existence", he says. Yisrael Beiteinu is projected to win 8-10 seats and could well be a part of a coalition government.

LABOUR AND MERETZ, THE ZIONIST LEFT: Palestinian hopes were raised when Amir Peretz won the Labour Party leadership last November. This was not only because for first time Labour had chosen a working class activist of Moroccan background as chairman. It was also to do with Peretz's track record on peace: he had been a supporter of the Oslo process, a signatory to the virtual Geneva Accords peace agreement and a founder of Israel's premier human rights organisation in the occupied territories, Btselem.

Scant traces of that history are visible today. No sooner had Peretz exchanged his union card for the politician's suit than he started to move rightwards, vowing that he would never "divide Jerusalem" or tolerate a right of return for Palestinian refugees. Since the election of Hamas, he has echoed Olmert's mantras of recognition, disarmament and adherence. He has met Abbas and prefers negotiations to diktat to determine the final status of the occupied territories. But Peretz's priority now is his social agenda: he has conditioned Labour's participation in a future Kadima government not on peace but an increase in the minimum wage and "pensions for every citizen".

It has yet to do him much good. Labour's aim is to win 25 seats. Anything less and its most untypical leader may also be among its briefest.

Israel's other Zionist left party is Meretz, headed by former justice minister Yossi Beilin. It champions the Geneva Accords as the solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and, to its credit, runs an election campaign with the slogan "Meretz will divide Jerusalem". But with polls projecting only five seats few expect Meretz to have much influence in the next government, especially if Kadima heads it.

THE ORTHODOX PARTIES: Shas and the UTJ are expected to win 15 seats between them. The UTJ will join any government that preserves its control over religious institutions and schools. Shas was and is violently opposed to Netanyahu's neo-liberal economics, which hurt its Sephardi working class base. But it could easily join a government led by Olmert. It is agnostic about further West Bank withdrawals and opposes any dealings with the PA until Hamas recognises Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

THE ARAB PARTIES: Israel's one million plus Palestinian citizens are represented by three parties. The United Arab List (UAL), backed by the "southern stream" of the Islamist movement in Israel; the secularist Hadash coalition, backed by Israel's Communist Party; and the nationalist Al-Balad movement led by Azmi Bishara.

All three advocate policies for political and civil equality as well as Palestinians receiving collective rights as a recognised national minority in Israel. Hadash and the UAL support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and a return to negotiations based on the roadmap. Balad supports a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as an intermediate solution. Its ultimate goal is one binational state "for all its citizens", Arab and Jewish alike.

The Arab parties are projected to win eight seats. Balad may not make the electoral threshold. None has said it will join a coalition based on unilateral disengagement. Peretz has said he would invite the Arab parties to join any coalition led by him. Olmert is opposed to any Arab minister in his cabinet. In fact there is not a single Palestinian in Kadima's top 50 candidates.

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