Israelis hold parliamentary elections March 28 against a backdrop of two major events - the departure of Ariel Sharon from the political scene and the stunning electoral win of Hamas in Palestinian Authority elections in January. All indications point to a victory for Kadima, the centrist party formed by Sharon before his incapacitating stroke, and a subsequent governing coalition with the leftist Labor Party. Kadima leader Ehud Olmert then faces the challenge of navigating the coalition through a planned unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, opposed by right-wing parties, settlers, and the military. His ability to engage the Hamas-led government in peace talks remains uncertain.
What is expected to emerge from the Israeli elections?
The centrist Kadima Party, founded by Ariel Sharon and now headed by acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is widely expected to win the most seats in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) in the March 28 elections. Kadima has consistently topped polls and is well ahead of its two major competitors, the leftist Labor Party and the right-wing Likud. None of the three parties is expected to gain enough votes for an outright majority in the Knesset. A Kadima victory would likely lead to a coalition government with the Labor Party, headed by Amir Peretz, and several smaller parties. Olmert has warned, however, that any potential coalition partners would have to support his plans for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. As a result, "these elections are regarded as a referendum on whether Israel is going to stay in the West Bank," says Philip Wilcox Jr., a former U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Wilcox warns it's too early to take a Kadima victory for granted. "Israeli elections are always unpredictable, and pre-election polls are often not reflected in the results," he says. Some eighteen to twenty-five of the 120 Knesset seats are currently up for grabs by undecided voters.
How does the electoral system work?
By proportional representation, not direct election. Voters cast their ballot for a party list rather than individual candidates. The number of votes received by the party determines how many of its members gain Knesset seats. A party—or group of parties —needs sixty-one seats to have a majority coalition. The leader of the largest party in the coalition is awarded the prime minister's post. Israel's fractious political culture has resulted in a history of coalition governments. Sharon's controversial decision to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip last August broke the coalition government of his former party, Likud, and led him to form Kadima and call for early elections.
What kind of turnout is expected?
Around 65 percent, Wilcox says, which is low by Israeli standards. Experts say these elections, lacking the towering and controversial figure of Sharon, are not captivating the public's attention. "There's a mood of apathy," Wilcox says. "[Amir] Peretz is a newcomer, and his policies focusing on economic welfare are not very popular. Olmert is not particularly likeable." And other experts say the public is disillusioned with Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who accomplished little in his previous stint as prime minister from 1996-99, and who pushed through tough austerity measures as finance minister in Sharon's recent government. Many experts say Israelis are tired both of violence and the illusory promises of the peace process, and now favor unilateral action to set Israel's borders. "Israelis want to wash their hands of the Palestinians," says Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They're willing to make sacrifices for peace, but they don't believe they have a partner." Wilcox agrees. "I think most Israelis would like the Palestinians to go away and stay on their side of the wall," he says.
The public reaction also reflects a generational shift in Israeli politics, where a younger cohort of leaders—like Olmert—is seen as colorless bureaucrats who haven't yet proven themselves. The "founding fathers" of Israel, military men-turned-statesmen like Yitzak Rabin and Ariel Sharon who fought Israel's wars and set its policies for the half-century since its founding, are now mostly gone. Only Shimon Peres, the 82-year-old Labor stalwart, remains active in politics. He has joined the Kadima coalition.
Which significant minority constituencies could affect the election results?
Several minority groups hold considerable power in Israel's tiny voter pool of five million, according to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They include:
- Russians. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who have been arriving in Israel since 1990, now make up some 15 percent of the population and are an important bloc of swing voters. They tend to be both hawkish and secular. This group overwhelmingly favored Ariel Sharon, who they viewed as a strong leader, and also Tommy Lapid, the retired former head of the Shinui party. With both those figures out of politics, Russian immigrants have turned to Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party. Lieberman is an immigrant from Moldova who formerly opposed Palestinian statehood. However, in this election Lieberman says a two-state solution is inevitable and favors a population swap that would push Israeli Arabs into the Palestinian state. Yisrael Beitenu is expected to take from ten to fifteen Knesset seats.
- Israeli Arabs. Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population, but have less political clout than their numbers would suggest. The population tends to be politically divided, has lower voter turnout than other groups (around 63 percent in 2003), and has historically focused on Arab nationalism instead of working within the Israeli political system. Recent polls show that fewer Israeli Arabs planned to vote for Israeli parties than in the past. Changes to the election law requiring 2 percent of the total vote to win a Knesset seat will also likely hurt the main parties representing Israeli Arabs: the left-wing Hadash party, the nationalist Balad party, and the United Arab List. These three parties combined are expected to take fewer than ten Knesset seats because of the higher vote thresholds now required to earn a seat.
- Religious Jews. The three main religious parties in Israel are Shas, which presents Sephardic orthodox Jews; United Torah Judaism (UTF), which represents Ashkenazi orthodox Jews; and the National Religious Party-National Union, which is the political wing of the right-wing religious settlers. Shas and UTF could join a Kadima coalition, experts say, but the National Religious Party-Religious Union would oppose Olmert's plan to withdraw West Bank settlers. The three religious parties are expected to gain about twenty-five Knesset seats among them.
How does the new Hamas government affect the race?
Experts say the surprise January victory of the militant Islamic group Hamas to lead the Palestinian Authority made Israelis even more wary of Palestinians. "For most Israelis, the election of Hamas cements the view that there is no Palestinian partner [for peace]," Wilcox says. Makovsky writes in a briefing paper that the Hamas win has reinforced the Israeli view that the country must act unilaterally. However, Hamas' win did not push the Israeli electorate to the right, as some observers had predicted. Voters tired of both Labor and Likud are supporting Kadima as a newly pragmatic option, Wilcox says. Israelis are increasingly coming to believe that Olmert's plan for withdrawal is necessary "so Israel can become the normal, peaceful state dreamed of by its founders," he says.
But that view will likely hold only as long as Hamas continues its ceasefire with Israel, now in its thirteenth month. Experts say it's in Hamas' interest to keep the peace as long as possible. "Terrorism would be offensive to the Palestinian public, which is exhausted and does not want to return to violence," Wilcox says. And while Hamas has been unwilling to recognize Israel or renounce violence, it will also try to prevent provoking the Israeli army. "[Hamas leaders] are not going to alter their world view, but they're also pragmatic," Cook says. "They don't want to give Israel an excuse to crack down on them."
How does the loss of Sharon affect the race?
It has removed the most charismatic candidate, and left a vacuum nearly impossible to fill, experts say. "No one else has Sharon's experience, cunning, or stature," Wilcox says. "He was a towering figure, whatever you thought of his policies. Olmert won't be nearly as strong as Sharon was, and will have to do more diplomacy and internal politicking to build and maintain a coalition." However, Kadima is showing it is more than a personality cult, as some believed. Sharon's incapacitation has given Olmert a chance to step out of his mentor's shadow and push his own agenda while claiming to continue Sharon's legacy.
What are the prospects for a Kadima government?
It depends, experts say, on the type of coalition that results, the level of the party's public support, and what happens with the Palestinians. "Israel has a long history of centrist parties that make a big splash, and then fade out over time," Cook says. Olmert and Hamas have given each other some breathing room for now, but it remains to be seen how long that will last, he says. Olmert currently enjoys strong public support for his withdrawal plan. "Olmert's policy reflects the desires of the Israeli public, which understands that the whole settlement adventure has come at a huge cost," Wilcox says. But Olmert will face tremendous internal opposition to his plan from right-wing parties, settlers, and the military. In addition, the plan's unilateral nature limits its prospects with Palestinians, and a resumption of violence could derail it entirely, experts say.