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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 / March 28, 2006


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.

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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.

"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.