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.
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.
The big loser was Likud, which moved in six months from No. 1 to No. 5. Many party members blame party head Benjamin Netanyahu for the fall, in part because after he challenged Ariel Sharon's leadership last autumn, Mr. Sharon formed Kadima-and soon after had an incapacitating stroke. Had Mr. Netanyahu been more patient, Kadima probably would not exist and Mr. Netanyahu would probably have become prime minister.
But that's all hindsight, and what doomed the favorite of many American evangelicals in this election were the cuts in entitlements that he pushed for as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, plus a general sense-pushed by reporters almost invariably hostile to him-that Mr. Netanyahu is untrustworthy. Sixty percent of Israelis in one poll even said the American-educated leader is "corrupt," although no one offered evidence of that.
Israeli pundits place the Nos. 3, 4, and 5 finishers on the right side of the spectrum. Their combined total of 36 seats could be supplemented by the National Union/National Religious Party's nine seats and the United Torah Judaism Party's six. But that makes only 51, not enough to stop the 62-seat center/left bloc that could be augmented by seven seats won by a special interest group, the Pensioners Party. The American equivalent would be if the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) formed a party and won 25 congressional seats.
But Israel's system, with little separation of power, is more like Britain's than America's: Whoever controls a majority of the 120 legislative seats has executive authority as well. (The Knesset has 120 seats because the Great Assembly instituted by Ezra and Nehemiah nearly 2,500 years ago, following the Babylonian exile, had that many.)
The Israeli and British systems work out differently, though, because in Britain each district elects a member of parliament, but in Israel parties win seats based on their percentage of the national vote. Each party last week presented a prioritized list of its candidates; the 11th person on the Likud list gained a seat, while No. 12 went home and hoped to become a higher draft choice next time.
The multiple party options in the past have brought out high turnouts, but that fascination seems to be fading: Only 63 percent of Israel's 5 million eligible voters turned out last week, down from the previous low of 68 percent. And Mr. Olmert will have to pay a high political price to gain the coalition partners he needs. Labor will demand cabinet positions that most affect social welfare; Arab parties will demand a more pacifistic posture; and the ultra-Orthodox parties will demand more subsidies and preferences.
Whatever the eventual composition of the government, a society weary of dealing with terrorism will have to deal with escapism of various kinds. A generation of young Israelis, according to Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, "watches soap operas on cable" and is "apathetic, simply apathetic." Some 300,000 Israelis act out their apathy by becoming drug users, according to Mr. Olmert.
So the drama continues in Israel, which is smaller than one of America's smallest states, New Hampshire. Only 11 miles separate Arab territory in the West Bank from Tel Aviv on the coast. Israel has little margin for escapism or error.