Israeli voters turn to new issues, parties

The Palestinian conflict was not the only concern in Tuesday's election.

Asked for their votes at a turning point in their history, Israelis were deeply divided. A slim majority chose parties keen to make dramatic steps toward solving the conflict with the Palestinians, be it through negotiations or unilateral moves to reshape Israel's borders.

But creating some unexpected power realignments that will reshape the country's political scene for years to come, nearly half of those who voted chose smaller, special-interest parties whose agendas were not primarily focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The results show that the elections were not about disengagement, because if you look at the support for the three major parties that purport to represent the general interest - Kadima, Labor, and Likud - they got only half the vote," say Ofer Shelach, a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth.

Most of the other parties, while holding some views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gleaned votes for other reasons, mostly on the basis of socio- economic, religious, or ethnic interests.

Israel's right, much of it opposed to concessions to Palestinian statehood aspirations, has experienced a stunning reversal of fortune. The once-mighty Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, won just 11 seats.

Israel Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home), a far more nationalist party with a base among Russian immigrants, leapt into the country's No. 4 spot, all but anointing its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as the new frontman of the Israeli Right. Next is Shas party with just one more seat in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It was the choice among many religious Israelis of Sephardic - or Middle Eastern - origin.

The numbers are expected to add up to a center-left coalition, a sort of collage dominated by the two biggest parties in the picture: Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon, and the left-wing Labor Party, who brought Israel into the Oslo process with the Palestinians.

Frustrations over ongoing socioeconomic problems allowed for the surprise success of the "Pensioners' Party," which promises to advance the interest of retirees who face an uncertain future in a country still struggling for a balance between social-democratic ideals and market-driven reforms.

"This election was billed as a referendum on disengagement, but it really wasn't, and it's difficult to get a reading on what these results mean," says Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "We don't really know where Shas stands, where the Pensioners stand," on the question of making additional pullouts from the occupied West Bank.

Amid this splintering of power, the constant at the center is Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mr. Olmert, who took over as Kadima party leader after Mr. Sharon's stroke in January, will now be premier despite having won less than a quarter of the vote.

Under him, the party had hoped to take close to 40 of the 120 seats, but must settle on 28. The smaller-than-expected number is viewed as a mark of the tepid support he has from the public, and an indication of the difficult job that lies ahead for him.

In a victory speech, Olmert made an appeal to the Palestinians that was statesmanlike in quality, and which seemed to run counter to some of the assumptions made about Kadima's do-it-yourself, unilateralist approach to the conflict.

"There is no substitute for a peace agreement. There is no more stable peace than one with a peace agreement," said Olmert, specifically citing the Bush administration's road map as a primary means to reaching an end to the conflict. He called on the Palestinians to be realistic, and like Israel, consider forfeiting land they cherish.

"For thousands of years, we have dreamed in our hearts of a Greater Israel, and such a country will always remain our dream in our hearts," Olmert said. "But out of a recognition of reality we are prepared to make compromises, we are prepared to turn our backs on these areas, and to painfully pull out our residents from settlements."

Olmert's speech seemed an apparent opening to talk with the Palestinian Authority (PA), even one led by Hamas. Israel, the US, and other Western allies have declined to deal with Hamas because they view it as a terrorist group, and because it does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

Many analysts here, however, say that the chances of a resumption of negotiations are extremely slim, making unilateral moves far more likely. But such major moves to pull unilaterally out of settlements beyond Israel's West Bank barrier are not expected to be made for at least a year, says Mr. Shelach, the columnist.

"Right now, Olmert is going to try to put the ball in the Palestinian court and see how things work out between [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas," he says. "Unless the security situation deteriorates, both sides of the conflict and the international community will wait it out."

Part of the suspense in this election drama, he adds, is whether most Israelis actually voted on the questions of the conflict with the Palestinians. Probably half voted on internal questions - economic problems or narrower, special interests.

One common thread among the "other half," as it were, is a backlash against the economic cuts made by Mr. Netanyahu while he was finance minister under Sharon.

The Pension Party wants a better national retirement plan - support payments were cut by about 30 percent during Netanyahu's reforms. Shas will push for the restoration of a per-child support check from the state.

"The real complication is that it's difficult to get a common denominator on economic issues," says Mr. Heller.

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