Commentary and On the Ground Report

The much-anticipated Israeli elections are now behind us, and the parties have begun the work involved in forming a government. Here, Brit Tzedek President Marcia Freedman gives us some insight into the future, and Executive Director Diane Balser and Washington Representative Rob Levy share their impressions on the ground from a recent pre-election trip to Israel.

Israeli politics, much like baseball, can often make you feel lost without a scorecard. (See Election Results.) If you're having a hard time remembering all the ins and outs, Brit Tzedek's A Guide to the Israeli Electoral System explains how the system works. Our A Guide to the Perplexed - Israeli Elections 2006 is a chart describing the political parties in the upcoming Knesset, their current and seats won in the elections, their leadership, and their positions on the peace process.

A Center-Left Government Seems Certain, But What Does It Mean? by Marcia Freedman

Lead up to the Elections -- Meetings with Israeli Political Candidates by Diane Balser and Rob Levy

A Center-Left Government Seems Certain, But What Does It Mean?
by Marcia Freedman

In his victory speech at Kadima headquarters, Israel's Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert called upon Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to enter into final status negotiations. Since Abbas himself very recently called on Israel to begin negotiations after the elections, logic would dictate that the two men will meet once Olmert has presented his new government to the Knesset. If history is any guide, however, the reality may be quite different.

The most pressing and critical decision facing the new government of Israel is whether to seriously pursue direct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority under the auspices of President Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO -- or to once again declare that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side, and pursue the unilateral initiatives that are Kadima's trademark.

The government that is most likely to emerge from coalition negotiations will be a center-left one with a strong commitment to socio-economic issues (Kadima, Labor, Shas, Pensioners--and perhaps Meretz and one or both of the other ultra-Orthodox parties). But where this government will come down on the issue of how to best resolve the conflict with the Palestinians is not yet clear. Olmert had hoped the elections would serve as a referendum giving him a clear mandate for unilateral solutions, but Kadima won only eight seats more than Labor, which campaigned for a negotiated settlement. Moreover, within Kadima there are many former Laborites who also favor a negotiated resolution of the conflict, not least Oslo Accord architect and former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The extent to which those who are on record as favoring a negotiated final status resolution stand firm is likely to determine Israel's future in the Middle East for decades to come.

In this respect and in others, the Israeli elections of 2006 may well prove to be a marker of a new era, not only in Israel politics, but in society as well.

Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that, for the first time in the country's history, none of the candidates for Prime Minister was a general or had an extensive military background. Israel's military and a militarist point of view has so long dominated politics that the distinction between the political and military echelons has gradually eroded -- perhaps this is a sign of some positive change.

Another noteworthy thing about this election is that perhaps for the first time, Israel's socio-economic underclasses (low-income workers, single-parent families, the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled) are now represented clearly by three different political parties all committed to their interests -- Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners. Together they control 1/3 third of the Knesset and should be strongly represented in the new government. Such a clear demand for social justice has not been seen in Israel politics in decades.

Finally, though the downfall of the Likud under Netanyahu and post-Sharon has been greater than anyone anticipated, the big winner on the right is Avigdor Leiberman and his Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party. We must not ignore the fact that the central tenet of Leiberman's platform is his proposal to "transfer" entire Israeli Arab towns and cities to Palestinian sovereignty, in exchange for Israeli sovereignty over a large swathe of the West Bank. The advantage to be gained from such a plan is not territorial, but rather something closer to ethnic cleansing. That a party advocating a policy that is purely racist could become Israel's 4th largest party and a potential coalition partner is certainly significant. Exit polls suggest that two thirds of Yisrael Beitenu voters were Russian immigrants (representing half of the million-strong Russian community in Israel) voting by ethnicity, not ideology -- yet, unavoidably, they also voted for Leiberman's transfer policy. If Leiberman's rise is an indicator of a corresponding rise in racist attitudes within Israel toward the country's Palestinian Arab population (now one in five Israelis), it is a disturbing, even frightening development.

These are the initial results of the "big bang" effected by Ariel Sharon's exit from the Likud and all that ensued. It may well have no effect at all on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though it has opened a very narrow window of opportunity, once again, for a negotiated settlement. But the effects on the Israeli social fabric may in fact be long-lasting.

Lead up to the Elections -- Meetings with Israeli Political Candidates
by Diane Balser, Executive Director and Rob Levy, Washington Representative

From March 14th to the 21st, we had the opportunity to travel throughout Israel and the West Bank, meeting with a variety of Israeli and Palestinian politicians, peace activists, and organizational leaders. Our meetings included candidates from Labor, Kadima, and Meretz, and several PLO officials and advisors.

It was very exciting to be there during the election season, see campaign posters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and speak with the candidates. We saw a wide variety of campaign slogans, from Labor's "Fighting Terror, Defeating Poverty", to the Likud's "A Strong Likud, a Safe Israel", to right-wing attack ads that read simply, "Kadima is Left." The most troubling was the poster of right-wing party, Heirut, that featured a Palestinian woman in hijab and read, "Remove and Compensate the Palestinians." Of course, our favorite was one for Amir Peretz that simply read, "I (heart) mustache." We spoke with candidates from three parties about their perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Sharon/Olmert unilateral withdrawal plan, and the elections themselves.

First, we met with the extraordinary Zvia Greenfeld, who is both ultra-orthodox, and number six on the Meretz list (unfortunately, she won't be sitting in the new Knesset, as Meretz only won 5 seats in the elections). It is highly unusual to have an ultra-orthodox woman so strongly identified with Israel's political left; Zvia sees herself at least in part as drawing on the ethics of the Jewish people in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and maintains a strong vision for a final status negotiation between two states, believing it vital that Israel continue to strive for negotiations in keeping with the Geneva Accords.

We later had a meeting at the Labor Party's poster and flier covered office in Tel Aviv, watching dozens of volunteers working the phones and organizing a campaign rally. We spoke with Hagai Alon, campaign manager for Amir Peretz, and Colette Avital, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. Hagai discussed the importance played by economic and social issues, over and above national and religious issues, during the campaign -- a development evident from the strong vote for Labor and the Pensioner party. Both Hagai and Colette feel unilateral withdrawal can serve as a default position, but would greatly prefer negotiations.

We also had the chance to meet with Kadima's Daniel Ben-David (who, because of his place on the Kadima list, also did not make it into the Knesset). Daniel is an economics professor at Tel Aviv University and has done some fascinating research on the growing gap between rich and poor in Israel. It is his feeling that the country can't afford to wait for peace to fix Israel's social problems, and he supports strong economic reforms in addition to unilateralism.

Our final meetings were in Ramallah on the West Bank, with members of the PLO and the Palestinian Peace Coalition, including Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian architect of and signatory to the Geneva Accords. They gave us a critique of difficulties with the recently ascendant Hamas (the organization's lack of a real agenda) as well as the lack of support from Israel for Abbas and other Palestinian moderates. It was fascinating to meet with the Palestinians who opposed unilateralism and saw Olmert and Hamas as similarly unilateralists. They were very eager to hear about Brit Tzedek.

In the end, we were received very well by everyone. It is clear that our work is respected, encouraged, and appreciated. We left with a renewed sense of the important role Brit Tzedek can play in helping the Israelis and Palestinians achieve a just, durable peace.

Diane Balser, Rob Levy, and Meretz list member Zvia Greenfield in Jerusalem(her assistant sits at her left).
Amir Peretz campaign manager Hagai Alon, Diane Balser, Rob Levy, and Daniel Levy, the Geneva Initiative's Director of Policy, Planning, and International Efforts at Labor campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Diane Balser, Geneva Accord co-carchitect Yasser Abed Rabbo, and Rob Levy in Ramallah at the offices of the Palestinian Peace Coalition

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