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Siegman: Some Major Surprises in Israeli Election

Interviewee: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 29, 2006

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Henry Siegman, CFR’s leading expert on Israeli and Palestinian affairs, says that although Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister of Israel, has emerged as expected as the putative next prime minister, there were several major surprises. One was the major setback to the Likud party, its most significant defeat in the past 30 years.

“This election does indicate a significant change in Israel’s political dynamics. It marks the defeat of the right, particularly of the Likud, which is in shambles for the first time since the mid-1970s,” says Siegman, Senior Fellow and Director for the U.S.-Middle East Project.

“Likud is really completely sidelined, and the whole idea of the ‘land of Israel’ has pretty much been defeated. It’s no longer an option that is considered seriously in Israel’s political life,” he says. Siegman also says the ability of the Pensioners’ Party to gain seats in the Knesset was also unexpected, as was Olmert’s calling for negotiations directly with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

The election results in Israel are now in and acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party has won the most seats, but less than had been predicted by some pollsters. What kind of government do you think he would like to put together?

Well, he received fewer seats than anticipated: twenty eight instead of the thirty four that were predicted in the polls just before the election, and of course many fewer than was anticipated when the party was first formed by Ariel Sharon. People then spoke about anywhere between forty and fifty seats. Because Olmert received so many fewer votes, he will have a much more difficult time than anticipated in forming a government. But the government will be decidedly a center-left government. The right-wing parties suffered a significant setback and will not be able to put together a “blocking coalition” that would prevent a center-left government to implement withdrawals from theWest Bank.

Did Olmert’s party receive fewer seats because he made public his plan for unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank?

It’s difficult to know without post-election polls that ask the voters why they voted the way they did. But the speculation in the Israeli media today is that Kadima got fewer votes because Olmert is not a very attractive candidate. He is one of the least popular and least respected politicians in Israel. The same is true, of course, of Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu [the head of Likud]. Netanyahu’s personality damaged his party so badly that they were devastated by receiving only eleven Knesset seats.

And Amir Peretz, the head of the Labor Party, is a popular politician?

Well, Peretz is popular in certain circles. He’s a tough trade unionist, so the people he represents like him and he’s very popular with them. In his case his personality probably helped with the constituency he needed to attract.

Labor has won twenty seats, and Kadima, twenty eight. That makes forty eight, and where do you think Olmert will get the other twelve plus votes he needs?

You know he’s going to need well over sixty seats to rule, and he’s expected to get that from Shas, the religious party, headed by Eli Yishai. They received thirteen seats. That Shas will join Kadima is taken for granted by most pundits. Olmert is also expected to bring in a new party called the Pensioners’ Party. If there was a surprise in this election it is the success of that party, which won 7 seats. In the past they weren’t able to get even a single seat.

And they’re led by whom?

They’re led by Rafi Eitan, who just shortly before the election assumed the leadership of the party. The party has been around for a while, and as the name implies, represents older people whose pensions are inadequate and at risk. In the past they weren’t able to get sufficient support to reach even the minimal threshold for a single Knesset seat. This time they won seven seats. The man who heads the party is a real character. He’s a former member of Israel’s secret services who has been engaged in all kinds of notorious adventures.

He’s a ‘Palmachnik,’ eighty years old.

What does a ‘Palmachnik’ mean?

That he belonged to the Palmach, the pre-state commando unit in Israel. He also took part in the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. And he was the Israeli agent who ran Jonathan Pollard, who is in prison in theUnited Statesfor spying forIsrael. In fact, Eitan is a wanted man in the States. He also has been in business, and his business partners have been Cubans, and the Cuban government. He’s a very colorful and controversial character, and only recently decided to take over the leadership of this party and wound up with seven seats. So he is expected to come into the coalition, both because he’s a personal friend of Ehud Olmert and also because his interests in representing the pensioners are very close to the Labor party; it’s a natural fit.

And Meretz, with four seats, will it come in too?

Well, they’d love to come in. Yossi Beilin, who heads the party, and is a well-known peace advocate, has publicly expressed his desire to be part of the new government. Whether Olmert will bring Meretz in or not is uncertain at the moment because some people think that this may make that left wing of Olmert’s government too left. Olmert believes, correctly I’m sure, that he will have the support of Meretz in any case, and doesn’t need to bring them into his government.

And the Arab parties? There’s ten seats from the Arab parties.

He won’t take them in for the same reason. If he proceeds with the removal of some West Bank settlements, Olmert will not be helped by inclusion of Arab parties in his government. Of course, that is not a particularly good reason for marginalizing Israel’s Arab parties.

Olmert has now called for negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), on settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli issues. And Abu Mazen says he’s very interested in negotiating on behalf of the PLO, which he heads. But the government of Palestine is now going to be headed by Hamas. Are negotiations really possible?

Well, let’s back up for a moment. First of all, Abbas and the Palestinians—in fact even [Yasir] Arafat—have always said that they want to negotiate. So there’s nothing extraordinary about Abbas saying he’s prepared to begin peace negotiations. They’ve desperately wanted to do that. It’s the Israeli government under Sharon, subsequently under Olmert, that refused to have those negotiations, and who said that the Palestinian Authority—this is before the elections, not after the elections—run by Abbas, is not a partner for peace.

They said Abbas was a chicken without feathers and publicly rejected his offers and humiliated him, and said he is not a partner for peace. So what is remarkable is not that Abbas offered to negotiate—he’s been pleading all along for such negotiations—but that Olmert, who until now said that he agreed with Sharon that there was no Palestinian partner, has now called on the Palestinians to begin negotiations. So I think one has to wait and see what exactly Olmert has in mind.

In the past, Sharon has always said there cannot be negotiations with the Palestinians unless they first meet certain conditions. And the conditions always assured that no negotiations would take place, because they have always included demands that Israel knew Abbas couldn’t meet. If Olmert is now suggesting negotiations without conditions, which is what Abbas has been asking for all along, that’s good news.

And can Abbas really negotiate at this particular point?

That’s highly unlikely. He can certainly sit around the table if Olmert wants to talk to him about permanent status issues. But little can come of it. My impression is that first, [aside] from the fact that there are likely to be conditions for the beginning of such talks, that Abbas will not be able to meet, once they sit down I suspect that the new government, and Olmert particularly, like Sharon before him, will want to focus on what Sharon always described as the transitional period.

In the past, Sharon always insisted that the time is not right for a discussion of permanent status issues. He said it would take another ten or twenty years before the permanent status issues could be discussed. So the only thing he was prepared to talk about was what the road map called “phase two” of its plan, a transitional state, before the permanent issues are even addressed. So there are many uncertainties about what Olmert really has in mind.

Ironically, while Palestinians until now always rejected the idea of a transitional state, there is now a Hamas government that, on this issue at least, is closer to the Israeli position. Hamas is just as unprepared to tackle permanent status issues as I believe Olmert is.

Now a key issue facing the United States, the other members of the road map quartet [the European Union, Russia and the United Nations], and the Israeli government, is what to do about aid questions for the Palestinians. I suppose Olmert will try to get an early visit toWashingtononce he has a government, right?

Yes, but it won’t be for another month or so, because a government won’t be formed before then. It’s not going to happen quickly.

What about this aid question? Is that at all resolved?

That’s a very critical issue, and it will have to resolved well before Olmert forms his government, because as you know the situation in the territories, and particularly in Gaza, is very critical, and unless some money is made available to the Palestinian Authority very quickly there is the possibility of real hunger and the total collapse of the Palestinian institutions. The World Bank and the United Nations have both warned that the situation is very much on the cusp of a complete collapse.

Do you think he’ll keep his current foreign minister?

Yes, Tzipi Livni. He made a very explicit commitment that she will keep that job.

One report said that Peretz was asking for senior seats like the defense ministry. Is that possible?

Well, yes. Peretz wants at least three senior ministries. Whether he will get them is a different story. The Labor party is asking for finance, which is one of the premium positions. They’re also asking for defense and for education. The Labor party has already publicly committed itself to giving the education ministry to Yuli Tamir.

With the surprise showing for the Russian party, Yisrael Beitenu (which means, “Israel is our home”), headed by [Avigdor] Lieberman, which won 12 seats, will it be invited into the government?

Avigdor Liebermanis a fascist. He is [French far-right leader] Jean-Marie le Pen’s counterpart. In most countries when somebody like that does well at the elections and enters government he’s quarantined by the rest of democratic society in that country and in the region. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that Olmert may bring him into his government.

For what reason? Why would he do that?

The guy is an out-and-out racist. He has said over the years that he has no use for democracy and Israel should have a strongman, that sort of thing. If Olmert were to invite Lieberman into the government, it would be because he wants some added weight on his political right. He doesn’t want to be seen as a captive of the left. And if he can get this right-wing extremist to cut a deal with him that would allow Olmert to implement further withdrawals from the West Bank, it would give Olmert a certain protection against other right-wingers.

Did the election really destroy Likud?

This election does indicate a significant change in Israel’s political dynamics. It marks the defeat of the right, particularly of the Likud, which is in shambles for the first time since the mid-1970s. Likud is really completely sidelined, and the whole idea of the “land of Israel” has pretty much been defeated. It’s no longer an option that is considered seriously in Israel’s political life. The other interesting thing is that when Hamas was first elected there was this total panic that seized everyone. There was the impression that Hamas’ ascendancy spelled the end of diplomacy. And it was fully expected that their coming to power would strengthen the right in the Israeli elections. It was like a major suicide bombing. In the past, the impact of those terrorist acts on Israeli elections was always very decisive. But Hamas’ ascendancy, which was greeted with such panic, seemed to have had virtually no effect on the Israeli elections, which is, to me, one of the most interesting observations to be made about this election.

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