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Israel: New Cabinet, Old Problems

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: May 5, 2006


The political establishments in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories have been thoroughly shaken during the past six months. Though it will still be some time before all the pieces settle into place, a picture of the leadership is coming into focus. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition government won formal approval on May 4 (NYT), and he is expected to hold meetings with President Bush and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Guardian) later this month. The electoral victory by Olmert's centrist Kadima Party upended the Israeli political landscape and put in place the most liberal leadership (CSMonitor) since the start of the second intifada in 2000; it also marked a "farewell to the generals," as the Economist put it, with Olmert's coalition partner, Amir Peretz, set to become Israel's first civilian defense minister.

The biggest challenge the new leaders face will be how to deal with Hamas. Since taking the reins of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has refused to recognize Israel and renounce violence. In turn, flows of U.S. and EU humanitarian aid into the Palestinian Territories have slowed to a trickle, and the government faces a severe financial crisis, which is explained in this Background Q&A. But CFR Senior Fellow Henry Siegman tells's Bernard Gwertzman in an interview there are signs Hamas is already moving in a moderate direction. Siegman says U.S. policymakers should be careful not to "undermine the moderates and strengthen the extremists." The Washington Institute for Near East Policy offers an extensive guide to the Hamas members on the Palestinian Legislative Council (PDF).

Atop Olmert's agenda is a campaign pledge of "convergence," which involves a further withdrawal from the West Bank settlements, but also brings the Israeli population together inside redrawn borders (Haaretz). As the Washington Post's Jefferson Morley explains, the idea is widely supported, though critics are concerned the unilateral ceding of territory will be seen by Palestinians as a direct result of their armed resistance and only serve to prolong the violence. Meanwhile, the outgoing Israeli cabinet agreed April 30 to reroute and accelerate construction of the security barrier (IHT) that is expected to insulate Israel from Palestinian militants as well as incorporate some large Jewish settlements inside the West Bank.

Not everyone in the ruling coalition supports convergence. In order to win the necessary majority, Olmert needed the twelve votes controlled by Shas, a highly religious party. Shas only agreed to join the coalition with the understanding that it is not obliged to back Olmert's convergence plan (JPost). The complicated process of forming a ruling coalition is described in this CFR Background Q&A.

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