Politics & Policy

Apathy & Inconclusiveness

Election Day in Israel.

For Israel, this could have been a new dawn. Though not, admittedly, of the Age of Aquarius.

By 2006, voters had grown tired of the two visions that for decades vied for dominance in Israel, and the parties that embodied them. The Peace Now vision lay moribund, since the Intifada broke the Oslo illusion, and managed to survive only thanks to the often unwelcome and unwise interference of the international community. And the Greater Israel vision had become a pipe dream, in the face of the unbearable price of keeping millions of unwilling Palestinians under Israeli rule. Before long, Israelis understood, an international community with little patience for Jewish rights and little understanding for Jewish concerns would have forced Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines and face civil war or keep the post-1967 lines and become a Jewish minority in an Arab state set in its stead.

Today Israel could have woken up to a new political reality. Instead, it chose the old confused and checkered landscape of twelve parties, and no clear mandate. There are winners and losers of course. Israel Beteinu, with 12 projected seats, has humbled Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. And with a combined force of 32 seats, the nationalist camp and its vision of a Greater Israel is forever lost. Labour’s Amir Peretz claims to be a winner, and demands already the finance and the education ministries. But his only strength is Ehud Olmert’s weakness: After all, Labour won 19 seats last time around and 20 this time. It held its ground no doubt, unlike Likud, but with its Meretz ally down to four seats and the Arab parties beyond the pale of consensus, the Left’s victory would not cause envy even to Pyrrhus. Olmert controls 28 seats, a far cry from what the polls suggested and his supporters hoped. It will not be easy to form a government that can both last and make fateful, controversial decisions without sparring a coalition meltdown or sowing the seeds of civil war.

The real losers are the Israelis and judging by their apathy, they probably deserve it: By not voting, they brought it upon themselves. Like their fallen hero, Ariel Sharon, who is in a deep coma in a hospital, they sleepwalked through an election where they had a chance to shape their destiny but instead gave their new and untested leaders an inconclusive verdict.

Still, a clear message emerged from this vote. Israelis are ready to partition the land, though they cannot trust the Palestinian give-and-take.

History offers its ironies, and it is remarkable that on the day Israelis voted to seal their willingness to endorse the partition of the land, a Hamas government won an easy majority in the Palestinian parliament and renewed its militant vision. While Israelis are prepared to endorse a two-state solution, Palestinians, through their Hamas-led Palestinian entity, are ready for a final solution only.

The new dawn therefore was not about making peace with old enemies. It was about seeking an ideal point of equilibrium on the map that could help Israel redeploy to defensible boundaries ahead of the long war of attrition with the Arab world and the Palestinians, while ensuring that this new line would be met with national consensus, not with the kind of deep division and national trauma that the Oslo accords caused.

The Kadima Gamble

When Ariel Sharon established Kadima in November 2005, he knew that a tectonic shift had occurred in Israeli public opinion. Israelis were prepared to make “painful concessions” and were willing to trust his judgment on their nature and extent. But they could not be led to believe, after five years of Palestinian terror, that their enemies were prepared to recognize, once and for all, Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign Jewish state. He toiled for three long years, trying to persuade his Likud party that a journey to the center was necessary if the party wished to survive. Its victory in 2003 after all had been thanks to Sharon and his newly invented image of a centrist statesman. His party thought otherwise: It felt that disengaging from the territories would only enhance terror’s capabilities and relinquishing historic Jewish rights in exchange for nothing would only reward violence and embolden its advocates. That’s why Sharon parted from Likud, though that is not why Likud lost the elections.

Sharon’s new political gamble, at 77, signaled a new season of Israeli politics and a chance for the public to turn the tables both on Likud and Labour, once and for all. With a charismatic leader at its helm–a farmer-warrior, a visionary and a man who embodied, for better or worse, the Zionist century of the Jewish people–Kadima could have been the new dawn, a new political chapter in Israel’s history, leading the country into the uncharted waters of the Islamist decade under the guidance of a seasoned leader, who could be both ruthless and prudent, and knew when was the right time for the former and not the latter.

But history, politics and biology rarely intersect. Ten minutes to midnight, Sharon walked out on history, and left a party whose very raison-d’etre was Sharon himself, without its greatest asset and the last gift the founding generation could offer to Israel–a vision and a hope where no vision was left and no hope had survived.

Now Kadima, a political project in its infancy, had to follow in the footsteps of Sharon without knowing what Sharon would do, with Hamas in power and the Iranian threat at Israel’s doorstep. Perhaps even Sharon himself did not know what demons he had awakened, what opportunities he had created, when he left Gaza to Hamas, and what steps he should next take. What we know now is that once Sharon left Kadima, the Israeli public lost its appetite for change.

Asked last week about what he considered a success for Kadima, Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, said in an interview to the Israeli Internet daily, Y-net, that less than 36 seats would be ‘a disappointment’. On election night, he got barely 28.

Kadima was quick to claim victory, and Olmert was just as quick to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. All the right messages were heard on election night: there is a left-of-center majority, Olmert has all the coalition options in the world; it is possible to form a stable and broad coalition with 70-80 Knesset members supporting it.

Katyusha’s Election-Day Message

But Olmert would do well to pause and think. Only 63.2 percent of Israel’s voters bothered to show up on a day when fateful decisions should have drawn the entire country to the ballot booth. Many who did bother to turn up, preferred the Pensioners’ list–winners of an astonishing 7 seats according to preliminary results–to Olmert and his talented team. At 28 seats, his party can hardly claim a blank check for its vision. And Israel’s coalitions have never been both broad and stable, unless their policy is no policy at all. In the last 20 years, only two leaders were gifted with the political power to change the map: One was Rabin, who in 1992 controlled 44 seats in the Knesset and could form a narrow leftist coalition and sign the Oslo accords. But with a narrow majority in parliament and a nation divided, he paid the ultimate price for pushing a vision that lacked Israel’s consensus and left the nation traumatized and ultimately exposed to its enemies’ vicious rage. The other one was Sharon, who in 2003, strong of his 40 Likud seats, could clubber the Palestinians on the headfirst and his former political allies on the right later. In between, there were two youthful prime ministers who controlled a number of seats similar to what Olmert has today, who formed broad coalitions, and whose ability to govern and deliver was quickly shipwrecked by the strict arithmetical logic of Israel’s fragmented political landscape.

Olmert wants to redraw Israel’s boundaries today. He will have to avoid the nightmarish scenario of a civil war that a narrow center-left coalition would no doubt usher in and will have to negotiate the consensus with the right. That, even in ideal conditions, would take longer than the time it took Rabin’s far more stable coalition to sign Oslo and it would cost infinitely more than the Disengagement did: this time, it would evict tens of thousands of settlers from their homes, and it is the heartland of Biblical Israel that they would be asked to abandon for an uncertain future.

But conditions are not ideal. While Israelis were busy voting (or not voting), a Katyusha rocket landed in southern Israel, killing two Beduin shepherds. No doubt, now commentators will bend over backward to say that it was not Hamas, but some “militant” group that “rejects” the “peace process.” Whoever pulled the trigger, Gaza today is closer to Tel Aviv than ever before. And the presence of much more efficient, elusive, and sophisticated weaponry in Gaza seven months only after the disengagement shows how frail and fragile the Kadima vision was, how unreliable the international community who should be monitoring the borders is, and how ineffectual (not to say worse) are the Egyptians in Sinai when it comes to weapons’ smuggling into Gaza. And that withdrawal does not a peace make.

With Israel now encircled by Iran’s proxies and Islamist fanatics, the last thing the country needed was an inconclusive result. It got just that. It will reap the whirlwinds of its apathy.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University.


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