Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg isEditor, www.ngo-monitor.org and Director, Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation Political Studies, Bar Ilan University Ramat Gan, Israel. He serves on the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East www.spme.net
Israelis are about to go the polls for the 6th time in less than 14 years – an unenviable record among the world’s democracies. The high frequency of national elections is surely one of the main reasons for apathy and the number of undecided voters in the pre-election surveys. Other factors include the lack of charismatic candidates in the post-Sharon era, and Kadima’s apparently insurmountable lead.
Nevertheless, these elections are very different than other Israeli elections, at least in the past 20 years. In the previous elections, the main issues were based on ideology – Left vs. Right; Orthodox vs. secular, and so on.
But in these elections pragmatic realism is the main theme, not only in Kadima, but spilling over into Labor and Likud.
Thus no one is talking about negotiations with Hamas or the anarchic Palestinian Authority, and even Yossi Beilin has dropped the illusion of a negotiated peace in the foreseeable future. Emphasizing the theme of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, Olmert and the Kadima leadership have cautiously discussed further disengagement, based on completing the security barrier and the level of Palestinian terror.
The alternatives presented by Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu are based on issues of timing and the extent of the disengagement, but neither presents a fundamentally different approach. As a result, for the first time in 20 years, questions of war and peace are not at the top of the political agenda.
INSTEAD, THE main issue is the political system itself and how the emergence of Kadima is likely to shape Israeli society in both the short and long term.
Will Olmert – a relatively untried politician without a security background – be able to guide Israel through the inevitable crises, whether involving Palestinian terror or Iran’s nuclear program? Will he be better than Ariel Sharon (and most other Israeli leaders) in listening to non-political advisors, thereby avoiding mistakes and crises? Will he be able to work with the other Kadima leaders who abandoned their former political bases under Sharon’s leadership, or will they follow the self-destructive path seen in other parties? What kind of coalition will he form – narrow and rigid, to avoid serious debate, or broad-based and open to different options to deal with the challenges?
In the short time following Sharon’s sudden departure from the political stage Olmert has adopted a low profile, avoiding confrontation and generally speaking in neutral terms. He and Kadima gained some ground as a result of the successful Jericho operation, but this resulted more from luck than wisdom. As the frontrunner with a great deal to lose by drawing too much attention, this was a sensible strategy; but it left all the difficult questions unanswered until after the polls close.
THE RELATIVE quiescence of the election campaign was also due to the muting of the religious-secular divide that was central to the ideological wars of the previous years. In the 2003 elections, Shinui – whose campaign was based almost entirely on an anti-haredi platform -emerged as the third largest party. Now, only three years later, the shattered remnants of Shinui are struggling for survival.
And Shas – Shinui’s archrival and largest haredi group – has shifted its emphasis from narrow religious issues to much wider economic and social themes.
The religious-secular calm is another aspect of the growing centralism and decline of ideology in Israeli politics. Haredi-bashing no longer sells, and leaders from the religious sector are increasingly becoming involved in broad-based politics that are also important to secular Israelis. A number of religious Zionist leaders have joined Kadima, while others are active in Labor and Uzi Dayan’s Tafnit Party.
If the election campaign is indicative of a wider trend, the era of messianic obsession with settlements that began after the 1967 war is ending, and those who use violence to oppose the dismantling of illegal settlements are a dwindling fringe group.
In the place of these divisions the current campaign has focused more on economic and social issues. Candidates from across the political spectrum have pledged to promote policies that will reverse the growing income gap, consistent with the Jewish tradition of social justice. Kadima has endorsed the concept of a negative income tax, and Labor has sought to deflect criticism of Peretz’s record by calling for a guaranteed monthly income.
Even Binyamin Netanyahu has pledged to roll back his free-market economic reforms and restore some welfare payments.
But these pledges are easily dismissed as empty election promises, and are not enough to generate much excitement or confidence. Our archaic system of political lists means that Israelis are stuck voting for a slate of candidates and cannot promote individual competent leaders or punish the corrupt politicians scattered throughout the parties. Kadima’s list was formed in the chaos following Sharon’s stroke, without internal contests or rankand -file input.
As a result these elections, while marking a major departure from the previous five contests, are only the beginning of the transformation of Israeli politics. How this process unfolds depends on the outcome, the coalition formed after the election, and the degree to which the outside world allows Israelis to focus on the main objectives of Zionism and the Jewish renaissance.
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