The election Israelis face (ElectionGuide.org) would have been unimaginable a few short months ago. The founding of a new centrist party, Kadima, late last year by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew mass defections and ended a generation of politics in Israel that pitted right-wing Likud against left-wing Labor. The election is previewed in this CFR Background Q&A by cfr.org's Esther Pan.
Gone, too, is Ariel Sharon himself. The blow he dealt to the political system was quickly followed by an even more devastating one: a stroke that left Israel's most forceful leader in a coma (WashPost), his career at an end. These events alone would have completely changed Israeli politics. Yet a third bolt from the blue—the victory of the terrorist group Hamas in Palestinian elections—looms even more ominously over the process.
What's an Israeli voter to do? According to polls (VOA), Israelis will likely give power to Sharon's new party, led now by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, profiled here by the Washington Post. Olmert, dismissed by rivals as merely a caretaker, has successfully retained much of the surge of support Kadima drew when Sharon, frustrated with dogma in the traditional parties, founded the centrist group. However, as political analyst David Makovsky tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman in an interview, "Olmert deserves a lot of credit for doing something that was unthinkable in Israeli politics. He turned Israeli politics on its head by putting forward a controversial policy initiative in the middle of an election campaign."
This has Olmert already thinking beyond the elections—demanding, for instance, that any aspiring Kadima coalition partners agree to fully support his plans for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank (Haaretz). But this could be an overconfident move. Polls show Labor gaining as the election nears, and, as Britain's Independent notes, Kadima's poll numbers "reflect at once a weariness with continued conflict and the peace process, along with a recognition of the demographic argument that a Jewish state is incompatible with wholesale occupation of Palestinian territory."
Indeed, for all the freshness of Kadima, many are skeptical it will bring fresh ideas to the Middle East. Yoav Peled, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, sees Olmert as far less likely to carry through dramatic plans than Sharon. "Before the Gaza disengagement, Sharon had to replace the heads of all three services, the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad, and the General Security Service (Shabak), in order to make them cooperate with his plans," Peled writes in an analysis for the dovish Middle East Report. "These institutions have a vested interest in the occupation and have consistently opposed any withdrawal." Likud, meanwhile, is resigning itself to opposition. Led by Sharon rival and Labor nemesis Binyamin Netanyahu, the party is polling poorly (BBC).
Egypt's Al Ahram, a good example of moderate Arab sentiment, dismisses the idea that anything has changed. "There is no big idea for the Israeli elections on 28 March," says the state-run paper. "There is a continuation of existing government policy. It's called separation and carries Sharon's imprimatur."
With Hamas asserting its right to ignore previous peace agreements, no one in Israel is pushing for new peace talks. And according to Rashid Khalidi, an expert in Palestinian politics, neither are average Palestinians. He tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that Palestinians who voted for Hamas in January's elections were frustrated with the long-ruling Fatah Party, which in their eyes failed in their negotiations with Israel and "ended up getting the Palestinians a terrible deal." Even those Palestinians who may not subscribe to Hamas' platform may "want a much tougher negotiating stance vis-à-vis Israel," he says. As the Economist put it, Israel's new consensus on the future has gone from "land for peace" to "shutting itself in, hoping for the best."