Israeli Election Debriefing with Ina Friedman

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Ina Friedman

Ina Friedman, senior reporter of the Jerusalem Report and co-author of ‘Murder in the Name of God: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin’, recently spoke with Ameinu over the phone about the Israeli elections.

Disaffection

When I came to New York a few months ago [and spoke at an Ameinu event], I mentioned a poll that came out about Israeli attitudes to politics. The interesting finding was that eighty-seven percent of people polled said that they believed the Knesset did not represent them.

Thus, I think the outcome of this election is very understandable. You have a people hugely disaffected with their political system. Only sixty-three percent of Israelis voted and many of those who did vote were shamed into doing so at the last minute by desperate pleas by the parties.

Many analysts are saying that when they voted they did so without any real conviction and without thinking – without strategizing the event. The result, as it turns out, is somewhat disappointing, especially to people who were hoping to bring more stability to the political system. What we have now is a Knesset that has factionalized and, worse yet, the mainstream parties, which started out as Likud and Labor, but then became Likud, Labor and Kadima – these mainstream parties got a flimsier slice of the pie than ever before.

Also, when I spoke in New York, I spoke about social issues getting a lot of attention. The truth is that in spite of the ascendance of Hamas, which is obviously a worry for Israel, social issues seem to have become the highest priority. The Likud – which was obviously a lost cause anyway, because the Likud committed suicide – and Kadima as well, didn’t appreciate this public move or the climate of feeling that the government had really ignored the people and their needs. In the election campaign, the political parties essentially fought the last war; they talked about only security issues.

That’s one of the many reasons why Kadima didn’t get as high of a vote as the polls originally predicted. Theoretically, Labor should have benefited from this climate of interest in social issues; it benefited Shas and certainly it boosted the new Pensioner’s party and the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is the party of Russian immigrants. There are many Russians who came to Israel at an advanced age without their own resources and essentially became clients of the welfare state. The Russian vote went to a large extent to Lieberman [the head of Yisrael Beiteinu], not Labor or Likud.

Social Revolution

There are many people who were taken with Peretz’s campaign – a return to the social roots, but they didn’t really want Peretz to be prime minister: they weren’t ready yet. They didn’t think he was Knesset material. Besides, Labor has a poor record on social issues – and a history of not really fighting for its politics.

That may be why the Pensioner’s Party got seven seats. Practically all of their leaders came out of the labor movement, as the pension movement has historically been associated with the unions of big industries. Their voters just thought that the promises of the Labor Party were hollow.

Coalition Building

Kadima is weakened. What this bodes for the future is that there will be a very broad coalition. Olmert will start with Labor and the Pensioner’s Party. Then Olmert will have to decide how big he wants to be. He can either pick Shas and United Torah Judaism, which would bring him to 78 seats, or he can trade Shas – a very unreliable coalition partner – for Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. The advantage of having Yisrael Beiteinu is that it would more or less balance out Labor’s and the Pensioner’s expensive demands for quick action on social benefits. Lieberman is a neoconservative. If Olmert were to have Shas, Labor, the Pensioner’s and another ultra-orthodox party in coalition, he would have difficulty controlling the demands they would make on the treasury and the budget.

However, the problem with Lieberman is that if and when Olmert goes ahead with his plan to withdraw from the most of the West Bank, and re-draw the borders – unilaterally pulling the large settlements inside Israel – Lieberman’s party will fold. Olmert will have to find some other way to keep this coalition intact.

The Elusive Jewish Majority

When Meretz got its fifth seat, what it did was it created a Jewish majority in favor of a pullout from the West Bank. This Jewish majority may not seem important to you, but in the workings of Israeli democracy it is actually a very important thing. A lot of people were feeling good about the Meretz seat but unfortunately Labor lost one of its seats and the Jewish majority vanished.

For those who counted this election as a referendum on the withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, which is what Netanyahu was saying it was, this is a serious problem. The right can claim that at the time when the real public opinion poll took place – at the elections – there was a real Jewish majority against pulling out.

Withdrawal

I don’t think withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, or what Olmert calls convergence – that is, we’re “converging” back into Israel – is going to happen for a while. Olmert has pledged to withdraw unilaterally only if negotiations with the Palestinians fail. There’s no sign that negotiations with the Palestinians will even get started, but Olmert has to leave a decent interval before he can claim before the world that he has no partner in peace.

How fast he will move on withdrawal will depend on a number of things, such as how much pressure comes on him from the outside world, especially from Bush and the US. It doesn’t seem to me that the Israel and Palestinian issue is going to be very high on Bush’s agenda. However, if there is a humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Territories because Israel is not interacting at all with Hamas and people really start starving in Gaza, there’s going to be pressure on Israel to deal with Hamas.

The reason it’s hard to look into the future is because the Hamas government is still a work in progress. Lately, they’ve begun making references to a two state solution, then denying they made references to a two state solution, and this may be a deliberate tactic, smoke-and-mirrors. But if their economic situation gets really bad, they may have to yield a bit. Israel is not Hamas’s only enemy; they also have Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah breathing down their neck.

Another issue that will determine how fast Olmert is going to move on the withdrawal is Palestinian violence. Right now we have Qassam rockets falling on Ashkelon. There are strategic facilities in Ashkelon that are very vulnerable. Something really big, like an oil tank, could blow up there and make a lot of noise. On election day, someone from Gaza fired a Kufusha rocket, which is far more damaging than the Qassams. There is also suspicion that many arms are being smuggled into the Gaza strip over the Egyptian border, through tunnels.

Re-settlement

Nobody today is seriously concerned about having a Jewish majority within Israel. What is a concern is how Israel is ever going to pay for relocating 70,000 settlers from the West Bank. The withdrawal from Gaza, which involved re-settling only 8,000 people, cost between eight and ten billion shekels. How is Israel ever going to pay for re-settling 70,000 people from the West Bank and still have money left over for social security benefits and improving education? No one has explained to Israelis how this is going to work.

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