New worldview shapes vote in Israel

A centrist third party leads the polls heading into Tuesday's election.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As Israelis go to the polls Tuesday to select a new parliament, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Kadima party lead the field despite staking the campaign on a provocative idea: an unconditional retreat from much of the West Bank behind a unilaterally fixed border with the Palestinians.

The rise of unilateralism, underway since Ariel Sharon's exit from the Gaza strip, signals a shift away from the dominant ideologies of left and right that emerged after the 1967 Six Day War in favor of a new centrist pragmatism. After a failed peace effort in 2000 and five ensuing years of the Palestinian uprising, Israelis have concluded that neither "peace now" nor "greater Israel" are realistic.

"It's a disenchantment with two utopias: with the left-wing utopia of peace and harmony, and with the right-wing utopia of greater Israel by blood and fire," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University.

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"Disengagement was seen as the middle compromise. It takes an element of the right and the left. The element of the right is pessimism about the ability of the Palestinians to sign an agreement. The element of the left is willingness to divide the land. And the disengagement is the perfect synthesis of this," Mr. Ezrahi adds.

In the final surveys taken before Tuesday's balloting, Labor and Likud, the two dominant rivals of the last three decades, are a distant second and third. Unscathed by the threat of Hamas or by Israel's yawning social gap, Kadima ends the campaign fighting primarily voter apathy.

And yet, it is still uncertain whether the urge for a one-sided divorce from the Palestinians can meld into a philosophy that will hold together the political center that gravitated around Mr. Sharon and Kadima before Sharon suffering a massive stroke two months ago.

Newspaper columns describing the vote as a "fateful" decision have made little impression on prospective voters. Opinion polls predict that voter turnout will be weak. In previous elections, the highways would be littered with political banners and bumper stickers, but the public landscape has been relatively clean.

"Most Israelis are tired of the big decision. It is as if they're saying to the politicians do your thing and leave me alone," says Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and journalist. "This used to be a very deeply divided society. For 40 years, we have been debating about the future of the territories, and people now feel that question has been decided."

Warning that the occupation of land conquered in 1967 is a moral albatross for Israel, Israeli doves have traditionally backed negotiations with the Palestinians as a way of trading back land for a peace deal. The answer from the right wing had been to expand Jewish settlements across the West Bank, while dismissing Palestinian peace initiatives as disingenuous.

It was a debate nourished with the ideological fervor of the generation that grew up at the time of Israel's independence and came of age during the 1967 and 1973 wars. But in the subsequent decades, as Israeli society gradually opened up to the West, it became less focused on the old ideological debates.

"That's a deep change in priorities. People are much less political today," Segev says. "They have found other values of life. We are developing normal attitudes, a normal set of priorities. We are growing out of our childhood."

Embraced by an Israeli prime minister nicknamed "bulldozer," unilateralism has become the foreign policy for Israelis who are impatient for a resumption of peace negotiations and realize that Israel's military has no fail-safe answer to suicide bombers.

"It's much more than a policy, it's a paradigm," says Dan Schueftan, the deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at University of Haifa and a proponent of the strategy.

"Once Israelis realized that the option of peace wasn't there, that you won't get a settlement in return for withdrawal, there is a motivation to withdraw unilaterally, and there is no motivation to consider the Palestinians when we set our borders," he says. "The idea that we will permanently sit there and wait for things to improve is something that Israelis no longer believe."

Sharon conceived of Kadima as the political home of the new pragmatism after despairing of Likud. When Sharon fell into a coma in January, many predicted the party's demise. But when Ehud Olmert emerged from Sharon's shadow two weeks ago to promise a new West Bank withdrawal, it was a sign that the party could go it alone.

"The Kadima party's goal is to determine the borders of Israel. This was never the goal of either the right or the left," says Tzachi Hanegbi, a Kadima member who defected from Likud.

"If you asked me if Kadima would stay powerful after Sharon stepped down the way he did, I would have said 'no way.' It proved that people's support was not only personal. People want hope. Kadima offers hope that is not an illusion, but more reasonable, limited, and cautious."

But even as Kadima seems headed for an unprecedented political feat, critics warn that the standard-bearer of unilateralism is little more than a grab bag of opportunist politicians that will ultimately unravel.

"Kadima's cover looks nice. They've put everything in the cake. And everyone believes it will be good," says Avshalom Vilan, a founder of "Peace Now" and a candidate of the ultra-dovish Meretz party who hopes to join Kadima's coalition. "Politics is not a cake. In the long run, the cake that you can have everything in can't work."

Israel to elect new leadership

Thirty-one parties are competing Tuesday in Israel's 120-member parliamentary election. Polls indicate that Kadima, founded last November by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, will be the biggest party, capturing about one-third of the seats.

Kadima (centrist)

Party Leader*: Ehud Olmert, Acting prime minister, former Jerusalem mayor

Borders: Proposes withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank while retaining major Jewish settlement blocs there and in east Jerusalem

Hamas: Froze transfer of millions of tax rebates to Palestinian Authority after Hamas victory; has held off on more drastic measures

Economy: Pledges to narrow social and economic gaps

Labor (left wing)

Party Leader*: Amir Peretz, Populist ex-union leader

Borders: Proposes withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank while retaining major Jewish settlement blocs there and in east Jerusalem

Hamas: Supports economic sanc-tions; warns of actions that would plunge Palestinians into poverty; could resume talks with Palestinian Presi-dent Mahmoud Abbas

Economy: Wants to increase the minimum wage and restore some of the welfare payments cut by the outgoing government

Likud (right wing)

Party Leader*: Benjamin Netanyahu, Former prime minister

Borders: Willing to make some territorial concessions, but only after Pal-estinians halt violence and militant groups are disarmed; opposed Gaza pullout; wants to keep large chunks of the West Bank

Hamas: Calls for stiffer sanctions; says Olmert's response has been weak and confused

Economy: As former finance minister, Netanyahu cut budgets and stipends to the poor

* Party leader is also the candidate for prime minister

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