Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Israel's superfluous election

Ehud Olmert's greatest challenger in the Israeli elections is apathy, writes Graham Usher in Jerusalem

Elections in Israel usually circle around a big idea. In 1992, it was peace. In 1996 it was security. In 1999 it was peace again, combined with the desire to end Israel's 20-year occupation of Lebanon. In 2003 it was the Intifada and how Israel was to deal with the Palestinians' second national revolt in less than a decade. Ariel Sharon insisted that any retreat -- territorial or otherwise -- would be a "victory for terrorism". The Labour Party leader, Amran Mitzna, called for negotiations and/or a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon won the elections and implemented Mitzna's policy, minus the negotiations.

There is no big idea for the Israeli elections on 28 March. There is a continuation of existing government policy. It's called separation and carries Sharon's imprimatur. All that his successor, acting Prime Minister and Kadima leader Ehud Olmert, has done is provide the details: the West Bank wall will be Israel's eastern border, including its concrete envelop around occupied East Jerusalem; the West Bank settlements will be "converged" into three vast blocks; Israel will retain security control over the Jordan Valley; and there will be a permanent severance between the West Bank and Gaza, with the latter under Israel's total control. The same will be the fate of the West Bank cantons.

Aside from Meretz -- polled to win seven seats in the 120-member Knesset -- none of the main parties are advocating peace, negotiations or even the roadmap. Kadima's mantra is separation. Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party doesn't object to separation per se (he now rarely speaks of the "Greater land of Israel") but rather its unilateralism. Like Sharon circa 2003, Netanyahu asserts that any retreat will be a "victory for terrorism". But, unlike Sharon in 2003, Netanyahu's aim is not government. It is to win 18 seats. He knows anything less will mean the end of his leadership.

Labour Party leader Amir Peretz says Hamas's rise to power in the Palestinian Authority means Israel must cultivate Palestinian "moderates". He has met and broken the Israeli embargo on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to demonstrate his seriousness. But he has also made it clear that he won't let "political" issues like Olmert's separation plan prevent Labour from joining a Kadima-led coalition. Rather the price for partnership will be implementation of his social agenda: a raise in the minimum wage; pensions for all; and increased old age allowances.

But, like Netanyahu, Peretz is not aiming for government. With less than a week before voting he knows the gap between Kadima and Labour is simply too wide. Rather he seeks 21 seats, and for the same reason Netanyahu seeks 18. Anything less may mean the end of his leadership.

The result is an election campaign that is bereft of contest. Pundits have long stopped speculating about the outcome. The debate is will Kadima form a coalition government with Labour, a Netanyahu-less Likud or with Avigdor Leiberman's racist Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres says he can't remember a more boring poll. "The competition is between TV presenters not politicians," he yawns. He should know. Peres has spent 50 years fighting and losing elections.

It is a sentiment with which Olmert concurs. He knows the main threat to Kadima winning a landslide is neither Labour nor Likud but apathy: the fear that thousands of Israelis will stay at home on 28 March because they see the result as a done deal. Olmert has mobilised 30,000 activists to dispel that assumption. "We need to treat the election with respect and that means focusing solely on winning", he said on 20 March.

Until 14 March the only imponderable was what would be Israel's actual policy toward the new Palestinian government. The Israeli army's forcible abduction of Ahmed Saadat and five other political prisoners from a PA, internationally- monitored jail in Jericho appears to have answered the question. In Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper on 17 March, military correspondent Alex Fishman wrote: "Israel's takeover of the Jericho prison can be viewed as a microcosm of ... Israel's relations with the Palestinians and what kind of future lies in store with a Hamas-led PA".

He continued: "The raid in Jericho marked a turning point in terms of the importance attached by Israel to the PA's stability. The operation's effect on the leadership ... of Mahmoud Abbas did not interest anyone. This pattern will likely be repeated in Israel's dealings with the PA in the future". Fishman also sketches the future. "Defence officials sense that Israel is heading for an unavoidable clash with the PA. They are not certain it will happen in May, June or July, but they know it will happen."

The last prediction is one of the few on which Israeli "defence officials" and Palestinians agree. Everywhere you go in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem the Palestinian consensus is that the "third Intifada" is just waiting to blow. It is not clear whether Israelis also sense this. As they live, eat and work in their various cities against the background of a largely superfluous election they feel as though they are "separate" already. But, then, in 1999, they believed peace was just around the corner. It took the Al-Aqsa Intifada to dispel that illusion. It is beginning to look like it will take another, "third" revolt to dispel their latest fiction.

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