Just focusing on the mandate given to Israeli incumbent Ehud Olmert and his Kadima party for a new peace plan doesn't do justice to the inside story of Tuesday's Israeli election. As a result of this week's vote, the country's political map has been dramatically reshaped: To varying degrees, the parties, their respective leaders and their agendas are all new -- and this happened in an election marked by the lowest voter turnout in Israel's history.
With only 63 per cent of eligible voters going to the polls, Israel, it seems, has experienced its own crisis of democracy as many frustrated, confused and cynical Israeli voters stayed home. They were fed up with police investigations of several parliamentarians for financial wrongdoings (including convictions of Ariel Sharon's son, Omri and Likud's Naomi Blumenthal); they were confused by the creation last November of a new party, Kadima, by a strong leader they trusted, Ariel Sharon, who disappeared into a stroke-induced coma two months later; and they were infected with what media analysts call "video-malaise" -- exposure to national media more cynical about politics than ever in the past. In political terms, this all added up to "low political efficacy" -- the belief by citizens that they can do little to influence politics and policy.
In this campaign's waning days, Israeli leaders focused on getting people out to vote almost as much as on their distinctive messages. And, in a bizarre twist of political vagaries, many young voters who cast protest ballots cast them for a virtually unknown, single-issue party, the Pensioners, whose seven Knesset seats now make them an important swing party in forthcoming coalition negotiations.
But the numbers tell more. While granting Mr. Olmert a mandate to continue Mr. Sharon's path in disengaging from territories occupied since 1967, Israeli voters soundly rejected the Sharon government's Thatcherite economic policies. (Former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party was fatally weakened this week, was the architect of draconian cuts to Israelis' social security blanket.) This represents a significant victory for new Labour Party leader Amir Peretz, whose insistence on keeping the plight of Israel's disadvantaged a central plank of his campaign forced all parties (even Mr. Netanyahu's) to adjust their messages and promise to partially restore slashed welfare benefits. Thanks to Mr. Peretz's European-style social-democratic agenda, Labour successfully reversed its decline since Yitzhak Rabin's election in 1992 by siphoning votes away from Likud, Kadima and some religious parties.
Taken together, the narrow gap between Labour's 20 seats and Kadima's 28, and the Pensioners' strong showing (due partly to traditional Labour voters who dislike Mr. Peretz's populist style but support his social policy platform) represent a strong social vote that can't be ignored.
In coalition talks, Mr. Olmert will be compelled to moderate the neo-liberal agenda he supported as a senior minister in Mr. Sharon's government.
What's the new Israeli government's policy on the Palestinian issue? With 69 of the legislature's 120 seats going to centre-left parties and 51 to the religious-right bloc, the Knesset now reflects widespread public recognition that pulling out of the West Bank is in Israel's best interest.
But the Israeli peace camp isn't celebrating. Israeli voters have endorsed the concept of giving up territory -- but not negotiations with their Palestinian neighbours as the way to get there. The lukewarm support Mr. Olmert received (largely reflecting voters' historic skepticism about his leadership capabilities) means that with only 48 seats for Kadima and Labour combined, the Prime Minister will have to add several parties to form a stable coalition government. Not all of these will be equally committed to large-scale withdrawal from settlements and land. As a result, pressure from the dovish Mr. Peretz may be compromised by commitments to other partners on critical issues such as the pace of withdrawal or even the calling of a referendum on future steps.
But the problem goes deeper. Thinking that final borders can be determined by one side in a two-sided conflict remains the fatal flaw in the unilateralist approach. In an eloquent victory speech on Tuesday night, Mr. Olmert left no doubt about his intent to carve out not just new borders for his country, but a new relationship with its Palestinian neighbours. But the Prime Minister can't have it both ways: His predecessor, Ariel Sharon, also repeatedly called on Palestinians to follow Israel's lead in compromising, but then pulled out of Gaza in a way that weakened Palestinian moderates and bolstered rejectionists. If he's sincere, Mr. Olmert will need to ensure that unilateral steps don't destroy the chances of negotiations with Palestinians in the future. He may also want to heed experienced Israeli voices who argue that cautious engagement with Hamas represents an opportunity to moderate that group's historic opposition to a negotiated settlement.
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