Israelis go to the polls on March 28 to choose their
country's 17th parliament. These elections come after months of
truly unprecedented upheaval: the Gaza disengagement; the
creation of the new Kadima Party by Likud founder Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon; the defeat of Oslo Accord architect Shimon Peres
in Labor Party primaries by Histadrut (Israel's General
Federation of Labor) head Amir Peretz; Peres' subsequent
defection from the party he helped found for Sharon's Kadima
list; Sharon's stroke and then coma -- each of these alone would
have had an enormous impact on the shape of Israel's next
Then in late January, Hamas won a surprising victory in
the Palestinian elections. From that point forward, everything
in Israeli politics has taken on a new weight, as the country
and its leaders attempt to grapple with the new
In order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the
upcoming elections and their possible outcome, Brit Tzedek spoke
with a variety of prominent Israelis who have long made
achieving peace with the Palestinians a priority. We hope that
these conversations will help clarify both the lead-up to the
elections, and the significance they may yet have.
Former foreign minister Shlomo
Ben-Ami was deeply involved in the Barak government's
negotiations with the Palestinian Authority at Camp David, and
led the Israeli team at the 2001 Taba talks. As Israel
approaches these elections, he expresses frustration over the
campaign to date, and concern about what will happen next.
"I think that the Hamas victory has lowered the electoral
system to the point where, within the mainstream, there's no
argument," he says. "It's the most boring campaign Israel has
seen in years."
"On the margins, all kinds of people are saying all kinds of
things, but among the mainstream parties, no one is talking
about negotiations with Hamas, they're already talking about the
coalition." There aren't any original ideas out there, everyone
is talking about unilateral withdrawal."
Ben Ami shares the widely held assumption that Kadima will be
the big winner, and sees Ehud Olmert hoping to form a government
with Labor and Shas -- but cautions: "we have to wait and see
what actual outcome is."
Kadima's strength lies in two areas, he believes: Sharon's
lingering appeal as a leader, in spite of his complete removal
from the scene, and the fact that the party "has found a
formula" that resonates with the Israeli public. "Kadima is
saying that we'll determine our own fate, we'll draw our own
borders.... It's not important what Hamas says," Ben Ami
explains, "but what Bush says."
And yet, he says with evident worry, "if we determine our own
borders, who will recognize them?"
Ben Ami's biggest concern regarding the apparent consensus
surrounding the idea of a Gaza-like pullout from the West Bank
is its feasibility. "It's not realistic," he says. "How are they
going to withdraw? Without any coordination with Hamas? That
would mean war, it would be a prologue to the third intifada."
Further, he points out, the settlement project on the West Bank
is a much more complicated issue. "It's not like Gaza, with
recognized borders, and a handful of settlements."
"Once again," he says, unmistakable concern in his voice,
"Israel is negotiating with itself, and not with the other
He doesn't believe that Hamas is likely to recognize Israel
in the manner the Bush Administration and Israeli government are
demanding, but feels confident that they will do so "like the
PLO did, as a quid pro quo. They certainly won't do it in
response to financial threats. It would finish them, if they
Interestingly, however, Ben Ami is not particularly
interested in an official Hamas policy change: "Let them not
recognize [us]," he says. "But let them agree to [be responsible
for] the territories, and see to it that things stay quiet for
"Hamas as a movement is much more pragmatic than people
think," he goes on. "Let's reach an agreement with the people
who have the power to torpedo it."
Former member of Knesset
and Professor of Political Science Naomi Chazan is a veteran of
Israel's political landscape. From her vantage point, the
Palestinian elections had at least one felicitous effect on
Israeli politics: "It's forced everyone to clarify their
positions," she says. "I think it's good. I think elections are
about choices, and if you're muffling the choices, then it's not
Chazan says that as a result of the Hamas victory, the
elections "are essentially a referendum on unilateral
"For the right," she goes on, "it confirmed that nothing can
be done.... For the center, it confirmed that negotiations are
impossible, and that [Israel] has to stick with unilateral
disengagement. For the left, it made negotiations less credible,
more of a problem."
As has been the case almost exclusively since the 1973 Yom
Kippur War, the electorate is focused almost entirely on the
conflict itself. "These elections are first and foremost about
the future boundaries of Israel, and anything else is
secondary," Chazan says. "Not that [social issues] are less
important -- it's just always been this way."
"The Labor Party is trying to change the electoral agenda,
but hasn't succeeded.... If you really want to deal with the
social issues, you're going to have to deal with the
By and large, Chazan says, the experience with the withdrawal
from Gaza confirmed for most Israelis whatever position they had
held prior to the pullout -- with the possible exception, she
says carefully, of the settlers and their supporters. "[They]
have dominated the political scene since the 70s," she says,
"and now they appear to be shifted to the margins."
While in the past, Hamas violence has often been the reason
many voted for Likud, Chazan doesn't think Hamas's ascent to
power will have a similar impact. "What [Likud] is offering is
not what people want," she says. The difference, she believes,
is that on the left and in the center, what is on offer is
Given the bad blood -- both personal and political -- between
the two parties, Chazan doesn't see a coalition forming between
the elections' most likely victor, Kadima, and Likud. "I think
their preference is for Labor," she says, and possibly an
ultra-Orthodox party to round out their numbers. "If they were
to form a coalition with Likud," Chazan says simply, "[Kadima
head Ehud] Olmert wouldn't be able to do anything."
In terms of how a Kadima-led Israel might interact with a
Hamas-led PA, Chazan says she doesn't see such interaction
happening at all. "Which I think is a mistake," she adds, "but
that's neither here nor there."
As for the possibility of actual negotiations under Kadima,
Chazan sounds a slightly more optimistic note. "Eventually," she
says, "it's going to have to happen. Whether I can see it in the
immediate future, though, it's doubtful."
Daniel Levy was the lead Israeli
drafter of the Geneva Initiative and currently directs policy
planning and international efforts at the Geneva Campaign
Headquarters in Tel Aviv. From the standpoint of someone deeply
involved with the effort to achieve a negotiated two-state
solution to the conflict, Levy sees the broadly-embraced notion
of unilateralism in response to Hamas as a crucial stumbling
block in Israeli politics.
"The Gaza withdrawal had a negative impact on the Palestinian
Authority and Fatah," he says. "The argument of [Palestinian]
moderates who oppose violence? lost its final traction when
Israel left Gaza unilaterally and not as a result of any
"I think that unwisely, the center-left has not really tried
to tackle this whole policy debate in the campaign," he goes on.
Rather, Labor's campaign has largely soft-peddled the issue of
negotiations, focusing on talking with Mahmoud Abbas and then
attempting -- without much success -- to direct the debate to
"The truth of it is, though, that it's not lunacy that
Israelis don't prioritize socioeconomic issues," Levy says. "The
conflict casts a shadow over everything."
On the right, he reports that the response to the Hamas
victory has been fairly single-minded: "The right wing has used
it for a very aggressive campaign, a lot of scare mongering by
the Likud. It's been an exercise in trying to instill fear into
Yet for all that, it's fairly clear that the newly-formed
Kadima will be the election's big winner, a fact many have
interpreted as indicative of a massive shift in Israeli opinion.
Levy points to an interesting fact about voter preferences,
however: "If you look at the polls and do the math, if you take
what Likud and Shinui got in the last election, and then look at
[poll numbers for] Kadima and Likud, you've got exactly the same
number." It's not so much that Israel as a whole has been
attracted to the new party, but that "within the center-right,
the public has moved more to the center."
Coming back to the idea of unilateral action, Levy believes
that any Kadima-led government will find itself struggling if it
should make real effort to disregard the Palestinian Authority.
"I think they'll soon come up against the limitations of
"Just this week, we've got the bird flu! Birds don't really
care that much if you're not talking to Hamas."
"We'll be making a terrible mistake if we allow this debate
to be about destruction, destruction of settlements, and
demographics, about keeping a Jewish majority," Levy says with
obvious passion. "It should be about building -- it's not just
about not investing [in the territories] anymore, but about
investing back home."
"It's not just about dismantling the infrastructure of the
occupation, but also about dismantling the