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Makovsky: Olmert Likely to Head New Israeli Government in Coalition with Labor

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: David Makovsky, Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
March 22, 2006

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David Makovsky, a leading expert on Israeli politics, says all the signs from Israel point to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leading the Kadima Party to victory in next week's parliamentary elections in Israel (ElectionGuide.org). Kadima will likely form a center-left coalition with the Labor Party, headed by Amir Peretz, and possibly some smaller parties as well. Makovsky, who is senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, also believes Olmert will try to persuade President Bush to agree to his plan for a further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, making that part of Bush's Middle East legacy.

The Israeli elections for a new prime minister are a week away, and I thought it would be useful if you could run down who the major candidates are, and who's ahead in the polls.

Right now you've got three major candidates. The front-runner, Ehud Olmert, who is also the acting prime minister of Israel, leads the new party, Kadima, which was set up by Ariel Sharon after his feud with Likud over the unilateral Gaza withdrawal. Kadima is seen as winning about thirty-nine of 120 seats in the Knesset.

That's based on polling?

Yes. Remember, the Israeli electoral system is based on proportional representation. People vote for a party and not for an individual as prime minister. Several years ago, the Israelis tried a direct vote for the prime minister, but now have moved their system back to the old system. You vote for a party, and a party or parties need sixty-one out of 120 seats to have a commanding majority coalition. The leader of the biggest party that heads that coalition gets the prime minister.

Kadima is seen as a centrist party and centrist parties in Israel have a history of beginning with a sizzle and ending with a fizzle. They begin with a lot of promise and fireworks, and tend to disappoint. This Kadima, though, is an unprecedented party in the sense that it is being run by the sitting prime minister. The Kadima idea was basically a belief that models on the left and the right have both failed. The model on the left promised there could be a negotiated end-of-conflict peace treaty with the Palestinians. And the model on the right believed the status quo was indefinitely tenable. What Kadima came along to say has been, "Yes, there might not be a Palestinian partner, but Israel does not want to continue occupying Palestinians," and that it essentially is willing to unilaterally disengage from large parts of the West Bank.

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. In Israel, the tendency has been to speak in more vague policy terms about initiatives, for fear that the more explicit you are in your policy prescriptions, the more likely you are to alienate key voting constituencies.

Because he's leading in the polls, with double the number of seats than his rivals, Olmert has been able to take risks and to say, "Look, this is what I want to do, and if you vote for me you know what you're voting for." This is critical because a lot of the critics of peace moves in past Israeli elections have said that leaders were deliberately not explicit during campaigns. Often, by the way, they didn't know they were going to do certain things. I'm sure Yitzhak Rabin had no idea in 1992 when he became prime minister that within a year and a few months he'd be shaking Yasir Arafat's hand on the White House lawn. But the critics from the right tend to say Israeli prime ministers do not have a mandate for concessions because they didn't run on these ideas, and that there needed to be a referendum on these ideas. Where Olmert has turned the politics in Israel on its head is by saying, "Look, I'm going to tell you what I'm going to do, and if you don't like it, don't vote for me." Even [Binyamin] Netanyahu, head of Likud, who has been Olmert's bitter rival, has said this election is a referendum on Olmert's idea. Kadima also gains, of course, by the sympathy vote for Sharon, who is comatose now after two strokes.

Let's talk about Peretz and Netanyahu, who are the other major candidates.

Amir Peretz heads the Labor party. They're right now polling at about nineteen seats. Peretz, some would say, is a wonderful Israeli success story. He's a Moroccan immigrant who came to Israel in impoverished circumstances. He is now the first Sephardic candidate of a major party seeking to be prime minister since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. He's a trade unionist. He's much more focused on a socioeconomic platform. He's hoping to woo back disaffected Sephardic voters, the Jews of Middle Eastern origin, whose parents abandoned the Labor Party when they felt its conduct toward immigration in the early years was not adequate.

His problem is that, in Israel's fifty-eight-year history, it's had very few "pocketbook" elections. It's not a normal country where the person asks, "Are you better off financially today than you were four years ago?" Because they live in a rough neighborhood, Israelis tend to vote primarily on issues of peace and security. It is Peretz's bad luck that not only does Israel not have "pocketbook" elections, but this year Hamas just won in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Iranian president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is threatening to wipe Israel off the map. In that political environment, it's very hard to say the issue at the top of the Israeli agenda should be the minimum wage, even though Peretz is correct that the economic gaps in Israel have certainly widened in recent years. Also hurting Peretz is that he's had no national security experience, and since 1967, virtually every prime minister who has won has had such experience.

And Netanyahu?

"Bibi" Netanyahu believes the world is unfair. He's gotten plaudits all over the world for his handling of the economy as finance minister during the height of the [second] Palestinian intifada. He's helping to turn Israel's economy around. And yet, he's been attacked by a lot of blue collar voters, who were his supporters in the past, who now believe his austerity budgets came at their expense.

And in the polls, how is he doing?

He's polling at fifteen seats. So he has found he has very high negatives, and he thought that with Hamas' victory, he would surge amid fear of Hamas. But since there have not been suicide attacks as there were in 1996, which catapulted him into office [as prime minister] in a razor-thin victory over [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres, here, the lack of attacks has muted this move to the right that people expected. Also, there's this backlash against Netanyahu by voters who were angry about his austerity budgets and have other complaints about his stewardship when he was prime minister in the late 1990s.

Any surprises in the campaign so far?

The guy who's kind of a dark-horse to look at as a fourth party, who according to the polls is gaining on Netanyahu, is named Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu party, the "Israel Our Home" party. Lieberman is an immigrant from Moldova [formerly the Republic of Moldavia] from the old Soviet Union in the late 1970s. The Russian immigrants compose about a sixth of the Israeli voting public. They've gravitated toward Lieberman because the two guys they like best, Ariel Sharon, who they saw as a strongman in the classic Russian tradition, and Tommy Lapid, who headed an anti-clerical party, Shinui, are both out of the picture this time. The immigrants are gravitating to Lieberman, who echoes the concerns they have. At the same time, they see him as trying to change his image from a right-wing, high-right party, to accepting there has to be a two-state solution. His polling numbers have tripled. Last night he was at twelve seats in the polls, and one wonders if he will overtake Netanyahu for third place. He's come out with a controversial policy agenda which says, "Look, the two-state solution with Palestinians is inevitable, Israel should just accept it." But he wants to gerrymander Israeli-Arab citizens into the new Palestinian state.

You mean expel them?

Well, he won't say that, he'll say you can't expel somebody if they're not a refugee, if they never packed their suitcase. But he would like Israel's border to be re-gerrymandered so that the maximum number of Israeli Arabs are living in the other state. This is a highly controversial idea, because after all they are citizens of Israel. But because he's not objecting to a Palestinian state as he did in the past, he's actually attracting more Russian voters.

Now, what's the history of polling in Israel? Is it usually pretty accurate?

It's usually pretty accurate, although there's sometimes a two [percent] to three percent under-representation of the right that is wary of pollsters, and some of them we think have a perverse pleasure in misleading pollsters. Shimon Peres in the past would win every poll, but he'd lose the election by one or two points.

Well, assuming Olmert's party has the most seats, they have to have a coalition. Who are they most likely to form a coalition with?

I think it's most likely they would turn leftward, to the Labor party. Netanyahu has said the Olmert ideas of disengagement are dangerous, even though the Israeli army would stay behind to make sure there isn't rocket fire against Israeli cities. But I think that increases the likelihood of a center-left government.

What kind of job would Peretz get?

Well, that would be a big question. It depends how well Labor does. If the Kadima gets, let's say, forty seats, and Labor doesn't even get twenty, I don't think Olmert will feel obliged to give one of the three big ministerial portfolios—defense minister, who's key in dealing the Palestinian issue, foreign minister, or finance minister—to the Labor party, but would keep these major portfolios for his Kadima party. So it depends on the relative weight of these parties in the vote, but I think Olmert probably will bring along some of the religious voters and maybe Lieberman to create a broad coalition alongside Labor. What's critical is to know if Kadima and Labor, together, will have sixty-one seats. That will be the policy core of the government where there's a common political vision on the government's main mission. All the others are hangers-on, if you will.

Do the numbers add up? Do they get sixty-one?

Well they don't yet. Right now they're at fifty-six, I think, and then there's Meretz, a party which is polling for four seats, so that's sixty. The problem is that the hoopla has been saying Olmert could get up to eighty. There has been a tradition problem in Israel, or a challenge is a better word, in that the Israeli-Arab parties tend to take strident views that make them "not coalitionable" with the mainstream Zionist parties. They were actually important in the Gaza disengagement in supporting the government from the outside. That could happen again, too. So I think the key is, whether the parties to the right of Kadima—meaning Likud; the National Religious Party; and the National Union, which is the jointly merged party to deal with the settler issue, along with some of the other religious parties—don't get near fifty-five, it should ease Olmert's way in moving forward with his policy initiative. I think there's no doubt he's going to be able to put a coalition together. The question is will his relative weight of his own party be so dominant within that coalition that he can set its terms and be very explicit in his disengagement idea from the West Bank.

What about Shimon Peres, who's a member of Kadima now, but a longtime leader of the Labor Party?

You know, everyone kind of wrote him off and said he's too old—he's eighty-two years old—and that he had no impact. But I think, frankly, he took away about nine seats from the Labor party. The Labor party, you know, always derided the fact that Shimon Peres couldn't win an election. Labor voters liked him, and when he defected to Kadima, support for Peretz went from twenty-eight to nineteen, and it basically hasn't budged in months.

There will be those who want to impute all sorts of motivations, saying the Labor Party people who are the founders of the country are not ready for a Sephardic prime minister, but I don't know if that's the case. I think there's support for Peres, and I think a lot went with him.

Is there any chance Peres will be given the foreign minister job?

I don't see that. I think he will be called "minister for the development of the Galilee and the Negev." It will be very interesting if Tzipi Livni, who's a young, articulate, pragmatic woman who's the current foreign minister, who's seen as No. 2 in Kadima, keeps that job. People seem to believe she and Condoleezza Rice will develop a very cordial relationship together, being very like-minded.

Now assuming Olmert is elected, is there any chance he would change his position and agree to deal with the government of the Palestinian Authority, so long as Hamas is there?

I don't believe there will be any chance of dealing with Hamas at all. Israel sees it as a terrorist group, and I don't think that's going to change. The question will be whether he will, say, meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. He hasn't done it during the election period. We don't know what he would do after an election. But I think, in terms of negotiation with Hamas, it's pretty much out of the question.

Are Israelis hoping, somehow, that a miracle would occur and Fatah could throw out Hamas?

I think they would like to see the history wheel turned back, but I don't know if they feel they can engineer the Palestinians to head in that direction. I'm sure they have longings for Fatah. We've seen, with the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] in Mexico and other groups, sometimes when these hegemonic parties fall, they fall pretty hard.

How will Olmert deal with the U.S.? Will he get along well?

He sees himself as a very westernized civilian prime minister. Unlike other leaders in Israel who were generals, he sees himself as part of a globalized elite. He feels very comfortable in the United States. He has many friends here. And I think it will be interesting to see if he takes some like-minded people, like [former Finance Minister] Dan Meridor, who is well known here, and makes him ambassador to Washington or gives him another senior portfolio. We wonder also about [former Labor Prime Minister] Ehud Barak, someone who he's friendly with and could try to bring back. But I think he sees himself as a civilian prime minister who wants rational answers to problems and feels like he knows the key players in America and is comfortable here.

The question, it seems to me, is to what extent he is going to want to negotiate any disengagement. He won't think it's possible to negotiate with Hamas. But he might want to negotiate with Washington, and will try to approach President Bush to persuade him that this could be part of his Middle East legacy for the end of his tenure in office. So I expect that after he's assembled a government, which could take several weeks, he'll try to reach common understanding with this administration on the contours of this disengagement from the West Bank.

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