Kadmia, but close

Israel | Low voter turnout pushes an election too close for comfort in a country too small for a margin of error

Issue: "Who's laughing now?," April 8, 2006

Four winners and one loser: On March 28 Israeli voters gave 28 seats in its 120-member legislature, the Knesset, to the incumbent Kadima Party and 20 to Labor, a socialist party. Shas, the largest ultra-Orthodox party, moved up to 13 seats, and a new party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), garnered 12. Likud, the conservative party led by Benjamin Netanyahu that just three years ago won 38 seats and ruled the roost, plummeted to fifth place with only 11.

Behind those five results are five stories. The top headline went to Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon's successor as head of Kadima ("forward" in Hebrew). Mr. Olmert, 60, and a professional politician for over three decades, has waited his whole life for the title that will now be his: prime minister (see "One election, two walls," March 25). Since polls earlier this year had Kadima winning 43 seats, and on March 17 the expectation was still 36 or 37, the lower total gives Mr. Olmert only a shaky hold on power.

Nevertheless, Mr. Olmert claimed a mandate for what he hopes is a new path to peace. Instead of waiting for a negotiated settlement with Israel's enemies, and instead of maintaining control over the West Bank, he plans to hand over most of it to a Palestinian Authority probably run by Hamas. Israel will then seek safety behind an electronic fence and wall that is already mostly in place.

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The second winner is the Labor Party, expected earlier this month to win only 17 seats, but now in a position to seek senior cabinet spots in a coalition government. Labor, which floated the security wall concept years ago, is happy to see its chief foreign policy innovation become official policy. It will now push for more entitlements and governmental control of the economy.

A center-left coalition of Kadima, Labor, the religious left party Meretz (four seats), and three small Arab parties (10 seats) would have a narrow majority of 62 seats. Kadima leaders in the past, though, have said the Arab parties would not be invited into the coalition, so Mr. Olmert may make a deal with ultra-Orthodox parties similar to what some of his predecessors have done: Give them chunks of the social services and education budgets, along with tidbits such as control of the Western Wall area and restrictions on Messianic Jews.

Third place went to Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that has bounced up and down in recent Knesset elections: 17 seats in 1999, 11 in 2003, and 13 this year. Former party leader Aryeh Deri went to prison for taking $155,000 in bribes while serving as Interior Minister, but the party's real power is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who, like some American counterparts, often forgets that he who holds his tongue is wise.

Rabbi Yosef in 2001 complained that Arabs in Jerusalem were "swarming like ants. They should go to hell-and the Messiah will speed them on their way." A year ago he said about Ariel Sharon, "Let God strike him down . . . he is torturing the people of Israel. . . . The Holy One wants us all to return to the Torah, and then he will strike him with one blow and he will die. He will sleep and never wake up." He said Hurricane Katrina "was God's retribution" for U.S. support for Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

The new party on the block, "Israel Our Home," grabbed fourth place; its base is 750,000 Russian-speaking Israelis. Party leader Avigdor Lieberman was among the many who moved to Israel from the crumbling Soviet Union, and his television commercials were simple: Netanyahu, nyet ["no" in Russian]; Olmert, nyet; Lieberman, da [yes].

Mr. Lieberman gained support by favoring the electronic fence but also talking tough: "We need to say ahead of time that if Hamas carries out an attack, no site associated with Hamas will remain standing. Every factory, every headquarters, every base, every office of theirs, we just wipe them out." More controversial in Israel is his plan to wipe out the citizenship of at least 150,000 Israeli Arabs and transfer the land they live on to the Palestinian Authority, with Israel in turn annexing its large settlement blocks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thus adding 400,000 Jews.

Mr. Lieberman pushed for this "population exchange" by saying that race and ethnicity trump geography. The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz flatly called this racism, but others called it Israel's wave of the future, and Mr. Lieberman forecast that he will be prime minister after Israel's next election.


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