Israelis Apathetic Over Today’s Vital Election

Image: Flickr, Israel Defense Forces
Image: Flickr, Israel Defense Forces

Jerusalem: Kadima! The truck driver yelled on the street below. Was the Israeli election campaign finally hitting the streets of Tel Aviv?

No, the mystery political campaigner was merely shouting the customary abuse at a stationary driver to move “forward” – Kadima!

Short of war, the issues confronting the Israeli electorate today could hardly be more critical, yet the campaign is dull and the electorate appears jaded and indifferent.

Pollsters expect turn-out to be as low as 55%, with 20% to 30% of voters politically decided. Before explaining the reasons for this apparent apathy, the election needs to be placed in context.

The shock of Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke, followed by the awe of Hamas’s election victory in the Palestininian legislative elections have forced Israelis into a period of political introspection about the future of their country.

The existential questions have been thousands of years in the asking, but today they have sobering resonance. What will Israel’s permanent borders look like? How secular or religious will the state be? How integrated or separate will relations with its Palestinian neighbours be? What are the prospects of a Jewish state within the broader Arab region?
The realisation has dawned that Israel is staring its future squarely in the face and for many it is a desperately uncomfortable and traumatic prospect.

The current milieu provides a perplexing array of uncertainties and imponderables for Israeli voters that may go some way to explaining an apparent disillusionment with party politics.
Kadima, the party founded by Ariel Sharon – in what may prove to be the former general’s most skilful tactical victory – has a ghost leader, no clear ideology, no track record, is light on domestic policy and populated by political shape-shifters, yet is set to win a plurality of seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Although recently slipping in the (sometimes inaccurate) polls, Kadima is consistently forecast to win between 34 and 37 seats. This is at least 10 seats more than its nearest rival, Labour, under newly elected leader Amir Peretz.

Emboldened by the polls, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has declared that he will not enter into coalition negotiations with any party that does not support his commitment to withdraw from the occupied West Bank over the next four years.

This pre-condition has precluded Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud from being part of the next government, along with other parties opposed to Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
It remains to be seen whether Olmert’s pre-emptive strike proves to be a mortal political blow to Netanyahu and Likud as we know it. What we do know is that Likud will struggle to win 15 seats.

Olmert has laid bare his own blueprint to withdraw Israel permanently from the occupied territory and to draw (in concrete if necessary), the final borders of the Israeli state by 2010. His plan therefore also sets the final borders of a future Palestinian state de facto.

The Olmert plan serves as Kadima’s election manifesto and has effectively turned the 2006 election into a referendum on the future shape of the state of Israel and the means of achieving it.
The polls suggest that the majority of Israelis, perhaps as many as 60%, have crossed the Rubicon, however reluctantly, and accept disengagement and a return to some approximation of the pre-1967 borders.
Olmert’s plan envisages Israel retaining about 10% of the current occupied territory, but there is an implicit understanding that this 10%, along with the status of large Jewish settlements and East Jerusalem, will form the upper hand in a final high-stakes game of political poker with the Palestinians.

But to get there Olmert will need to form a strong, rather than fractious, coalition soon after the elections. Given his central plank and political preconditions, his major coalition partner will be Amir Peretz’s re-modelled Labour Party.

Since Labour is in favour of a negotiated withdrawal from the West Bank, it has been emboldened by Olmert’s coalition ground rules. It can now expect a number of second-tier cabinet portfolios in the coalition government such as Trade and Education, but will push for the key portfolio of Finance.

Peretz, the Sephardic Moroccan-born, former trade union leader, has proved personable and refreshing, conveying “campaign sincerity”.
This is particularly so in his commitment to tackling the plight of the country’s burgeoning underclass in this highly unequal society.

In a few short months, Peretz has ousted the iconic Shimon Peres as party leader, conducted an energetic election campaign and re-engineered Labour to approximate a social democratic party.

But Peretz and his party have significant weaknesses. After years of decline, Labour’s finances are poor, it is deeply in debt, and is running its campaign on a shoestring. If it fails to make an electoral comeback this year, its financial crisis may prove its undoing.

Peretz lacks the experience to be statesman-like, an essential quality for Israeli premiership. His English is so poor he recently abandoned a prepared speech after stumbling through the text.
In the eyes of some, he is “nisht undzera” – not one of us.

For Israel’s more than one million Russian immigrants, his policies run too close to socialism and his Stalin-like looks reinforce their fears and prejudices.

Russian immigrants account for up to 20 Knesset nominations, are overwhelmingly conservative and are generally opposed to ceding unilaterally any land occupied by the tiny nation state.

Given that Kadima and Labour combined are unlikely to achieve the 61 seats needed to form a two-party coalition further horse-trading will be needed with a host of smaller parties.

Coalition partners could range from the politically-progressive and secular Meretz party of Yossi Beilin to the religious Shas party. Meretz may be able to deliver five seats and Shas up to 10.

Meretz may join such a coalition from a degree of conviction and pragmatism, reasoning that by doing so would take the country forward.

Shas will only be persuaded to join, for the time being, in exchange for the usual distribution of largesse to powerful orthodox religious interests.

So why the general apathy among Israelis towards this vital watershed election?

“Because it’s quiet – there have been no suicide bombers,” replied a veteran Israeli journalist. “Our security guys have done a good job and Hamas has kept its word.”

21 Apr 2008