Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Election Yom

Israel went to the polls yesterday to select a new Knesset and, by extension, a new Prime Minister. It was somewhat of a foregone conclusion that Ehud Olmert, successor to Ariel Sharon and leader of the centrist Kadima party, would get the prime ministership. The election was a question of 1) who would share the government with Kadima, since there's absolutely no chance in hell a single party can get anywhere near a 60-seat majority in Israel's parliament, and 2) how well the right wing would hold up in the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal.

So let's look at the results (61 needed for a government):

1) Kadima - 28 seats
2) Labor - 20 seats
3) Shas - 13 seats
4) Yisrael Beiteinu - 12 seats
5) Likud - 11 seats
6) Arab parties - 10 seats
7) National Union - 9 seats
8) Pensioners - 7 seats
9) United Torah Judaism - 6 seats
10) Meretz - 4 seats

There are a couple of reasons to be frightened. The first and most obvious is the success of Yisrael Beiteinu, an ultra-nationalist party headed by Moldovan immigrant Avigdor Lieberman (in Israel, much like in the U.S., everyone's an immigrant from somewhere). Lieberman is the Israeli answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen; he wants to redraw Israel's borders to exclude all the Arab citizens of the state. He is openly hostile to the Arab presence in Israel, and there's obviously enough support for his wingnut ideas that he's now a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics. Lieberman would probably support the unilateral withdrawal plan, which will make it tempting for Olmert to include them in his coalition. Such a temptation should be resisted; an avowedly racist presence in the government can only inflame tensions even further.

The second is the good position Shas has left itself in. The ultra-orthodox party will likely join the inevitable Kadima-Labor coalition. They're flexible on the Palestinian issue, but they will probably keep trying to push through their obnoxious bill limiting the Law of Return (which allows all Jews to become Israeli citizens if they so choose). On second thought, though, there is little likelihood of this - Israel knows that it needs U.S. support driven by American Jewry, and that support would vanish were such restrictions placed on the Law of Return.

There are a couple of other conclusions we can draw as well. The first is the increasing influence of social issues on Israeli elections. The surprising showing of the Pensioners' Party (an unheard-of quantity before now) and the resurgence of Labor underscore Israelis' commitment to a strong social safety net. Indeed, the Likud probably lost a lot of support because of its capitalist reforms that didn't go over so well in a socialist-leaning state. Indeed, the ruling coalition might very well be made up of Kadima plus a social coalition of Labor, Shas (who, like most religious Jews, tends toward the economic left), Pensioners, and Meretz, with UTJ (a Shas-like Ashkenazic party) thrown in for good measure.

Also, it proves once and for all the utter futility of the Arab vote going to separate parties. The 18% Arab minority has long clamored for equal rights, but they are shooting themselves in the foot by voting for smaller parties with no influence. The reality of Israeli politics is that no one will form a coalition with the Arab parties. As a result, issues of concern to Israel's Arab citizenry go completely ignored. Now had the Arabs voted as a bloc for one of the other parties, they would be able to stake a claim to some of their legislative goals. In fact, had they cast their support as a bloc to Labor, we'd be talking about Prime Minister Amir Peretz and a Kadima-Labor coalition that wouldn't need the ultra-religious parties or the ultra-nationalists to build a government. As it is, discrimination against Arabs is bound to continue for at least another government.

Furthermore, the Gaza pullout completely shattered the right wing. There are still a lot of rightist voters out there - rightist/nationalist parties claimed 32 seats - but they are split between the varying strategies of YB, Likud, and the National Union party. Meanwhile, the left, while smaller in number (24 seats), mostly coalesced behind Labor, giving it an almost certain spot in the government. So while the right grew in number, the left grew in power... how odd.

And what does this mean for the peace process? Labor's power might push Olmert towards trying a little harder for a negotiated peace, but the consensus right now is that Israel really doesn't have a partner to negotiate with. Talks with Abbas might continue, but thanks to Hamas' parliamentary victory earlier in the year, they probably won't go anywhere. So expect a West Bank withdrawal similar to the Gaza one to take shape later this year and to be carried out mid-2007, and expect the fence to continue being built. Though if that happens and attacks continue (as they are from Gaza), we might see a far-right government by 2010... shudder. This may be a center-left government, but the right is waiting to pounce should it fail to produce peace. Olmert, Abbas, you got one shot. Don't screw it up.

It seems we'll have to wait until after Passover to see who Olmert ultimately puts into the coalition. Labor is pretty much a given - the nationalists won't support his unilateral withdrawal plan, and a Labor-less coalition without the nationalists would be tough to pull off. Should Shas join, that'd make a 61-seat majority, and my money's on Pensioners and Meretz joining too for a nice, solid, 72-seat government.

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