ISRAELI PERSPECTIVES ON THE UPCOMING ELECTIONS
Shlomo Ben-Ami, Naomi Chazan, & Daniel Levy 

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 government.

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 reality.

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.

 Brit Tzedek Resources on the Israeli elections:


SHLOMO BEN-AMI

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 side."

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 did."

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 five years."

"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."

NAOMI CHAZAN

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 serious."

Chazan says that as a result of the Hamas victory, the elections "are essentially a referendum on unilateral withdrawal."

"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 occupation."

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 hope.

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

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 negotiating."

"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 social questions.

"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 the public."

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 unilateralism."

"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 mentality."


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