[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

March 24, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

Elections

 

Four days until Election Day and there are still close to 20% of the public that has not decided how they will vote.  In addition to the 20% confused voters, it is estimated that close to 25% of the public won’t even vote.  These numbers are unprecedented in Israeli politics. The media has complained that this has been the most boring, most complacent election campaign in the history of elections in Israel.

 

The political map in Israel has changed almost beyond recognition in the past four months.  During the past few months major changes have occurred that were almost impossible to imagine.  Ariel Sharon has disappeared. Amir Peretz took over the Labour party. Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik deserted Labour for Kadima. Most of the previous leadership of the Likud and most of its membership left for Kadima. The new center party has created a mishmash of left and right personified by Shimon Peres on the left and Tzahi Hanegbi on the right. The Labour Party has moved from being the home of the upper middle class Ashkenazi bourgeois to a real social democratic party representing the original values of the labour movement in its early days. Shinui has been wiped of the political map. Leiberman has emerged as a new and potentially strong political force. The radical right has been decimated. Never before has Israel experienced so many significant changes in the political scene.

 

The creation of Kadima by Ariel Sharon reflected the reality of public opinion in Israel which is much more ready for compromises regarding the borders of the State of Israel than the political make-up of the Knesset has shown in the past years. For many years the public was more ready for compromises on key issues than the elected leaders were. Even a clear majority of Israelis are prepared to make deep concessions regarding the future of Jerusalem and the notion that Jerusalem will be divided between Israel and the Palestinians is readily accepted.

 

The Palestinian elections strengthened the feeling in Israel that there is no Palestinian partner for negotiations and, therefore; the significant appeal regarding unilateral Israeli withdrawals towards setting Israel’s permanent borders without negotiations. But the public is anxious about the possibility of strengthening Hamas as a result of unilateral moves.  Despite that Abu Mazen was elected by a large majority of the public just 15 months ago on a peace agenda, the Israeli public has been convinced by its leadership that Abu Mazen is irrelevant.  Even when Shimon Peres was allowed by Olmert to meet Abu Mazen, the meeting was held in a news blackout, almost in total secrecy, as if there is something that could embarrass Kadima by admitting that a meeting with Abu Mazen took place.

 

The most recent polls have shown a steady decline in the public support for Kadima. The other most dramatic change in the polls has been the rise in support for Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Until a couple of days ago Leiberman had been running a very successful two-speared campaign – one in Russian and one in Hebrew.  His Russian campaign impressed upon the immigrants from the former Soviet Union that he was their man – he was trustworthy and he would deliver on his promises to help them. His sectoral approach was strengthened by his emphasis that he would be a member of the next government after elections and he would have the power to deliver on his campaign promises. 

 

His Hebrew campaign was based on his own racism against Arabs and his knowledge that the majority of Israelis have strong anti-Arab sentiments. Lieberman’s Hebrew plan is based on setting the borders of Israel by withdrawing from large parts of the West Bank and by removing the little triangle from Israel – moving the green line so that the whole area of Wadi Ara and the southern triangle would be in the Palestinian state. In this way, more than 250,000 Arab citizens of Israel would lose their Israeli citizenship.  It doesn’t matter to Lieberman that in the opinion of virtually every lawyer in Israel, the plan would never get through the Israeli High Court.  Lieberman’s two-speared strategy crashed this week when confronted by a trap set by Olmert. Lieberman has come out against Olmert’s unilateral plan called “convergence” – bringing the settlers east of the separation barrier home.  Kadima has been worried about Lieberman’s growing strength and Olmert announced that any party that is opposed to the convergence plan will not be part of the next coalition.   If Lieberman won’t be part of the coalition, how will he deliver on his campaign promises to the Russian speaking population?  Polls have indicated that about 8 seats for Lieberman were coming from the Russian speakers.

 

Amir Peretz has developed in this campaign to be the most impressive politician. Peretz has natural charisma and warmth.  He brought his personal campaign style to all corners of the country.  Peretz hugs, kisses and embraces the people wherever he goes. He sincerely appears to enjoy the campaign trail and despite the fact that the media has been against him and has ridiculed him throughout the campaign, Peretz has proven himself as a real leader who is connected to the grass-roots. Peretz has been courageous in his campaign messages, staying true to the belief in a negotiated process with the Palestinians, Peretz took his campaign to Jericho where he met with Abu Mazen in broad daylight and rededicated himself and the Labour party to the aspiration of negotiated peace with the Palestinians.  While “peace” has not been the main motif of Labour campaign, it is one of the few parties that has continued to hold on to the idea that peace is possible.

 

Meretz too has stayed true to its peace ideology and Yossi Beilen, as leader of Meretz and the Geneva initiative, has been the only Zionist party that has continued to speak about an immediate return to negotiations with the Palestinians. Meretz continues to see Abu Mazen as the partner and almost ignores the reality of a Hamas government in Ramallah and Gaza. Both Olmert and Peretz know that unilateral withdrawals will not bring peace, but Meretz is the only party on the left that unequivocally stated that unilateralism will worsen Israel’s strategic position. Labour also supports a negotiated process but at the same time will give its support to Olmert’s unilateralism.  Understanding that unilateralism has a majority of public support and Abu Mazen has been successfully perceived as irrelevant, questions the relevancy of Meretz in the public’s eye.  Meretz draws its support mainly from young people and trial ballots on Israel’s various campuses have produced huge disproportionate support for Meretz – up to 30 seats in some of the ballots. Regardless of how many seats they get in the elections, Meretz hopes to be in the next coalition. In the interest of peace and liberal democratic values it is important that Meretz and Labour have a strong position vis-à-vis Kadima.

 

Kadima’s campaign in the last days before elections has put a strong emphasis on fighting terrorism.  In one of the latest campaign television adverts, Kadima’s candidates for Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter compete with each other on plans for hitting the Palestinians with a strong arm. Mofaz has proven his campaign rhetoric with policies that have squeezed the Palestinian public into detached cantons throughout the West Bank.  Closures and limitations on movement within the Palestinian territories have increased to a point where all Palestinians sense that they are living in a pressure cooker.

 

Two suicide bombers with explosives were captured this week inside of Israel on their way to kill Israeli citizens. Mofaz was forced to collapse to international pressure, primarily from the United States to reopen the Karni crossing in the face of a rapidly developing humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Israel also unilaterally opened the Kerem Shalom crossing with the hope that it will become the primary crossing between Gaza and Israel. Kerem Shalom is in complete control by Israel and the Palestinians have rejected the use of Kerem Shalom for understandable political reasons.

 

While Hamas has remained committed to the temporary ceasefire, Islamic Jihad and forces identified with Fatah are emerging more and more ready to launch attacks against Israel. The internal Palestinian clashes between Hamas and Fatah will result in more and more Fatah attacks against Israel. Fatah spokespeople have even said that now it is our chance to do to the Hamas what it did to us - let’s see how they deal with an opposition that doesn’t abide by the rules of the game. There is no doubt that continued Israeli pressure on the Palestinian public will result in greater Palestinian solidarity to fight back against Israel.  The chances of another real popular uprising increase with the increased Israeli pressure on Palestinians. Without a strong Labour and Meretz presence in the next government, it seems that the Kadima policy of the “pressure cooker” will only increase.

 

Predictions

 

With so many unknowns in this election campaign, predictions are almost impossible, but because I was one of the few people who correctly predicted the results of the Palestinian elections, I have been requested by many people to take the risk on predicting the outcome of the Israeli elections.  Here goes:

 

Kadima – 35 seats

Labour – 25 seats

Likud – 17 seats

Meretz – 5 seats

Shas – 9 seats

Lieberman – 8 seats

NRP-NU – 8 seats

Yehadut Hatorah  - 5 seats

Arab parties – 8 seats