The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution held a policy briefing to analyze the results of the March 28, 2006 elections to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center who has served twice as Ambassador to Israel, moderated a discussion with Nahum Barnea and Yaron Deckel, two of Israel’s leading political commentators who had just arrived from Israel after observing the elections.
Nahum Barnea, the Saban Center’s first Kreiz Visiting Fellow and Senior Political Columnist for Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest circulation daily newspaper, opened the briefing by saying that it will take time to determine whether the results of the election represent a long-term shift of voters to the political left, or if the results are a one-time phenomenon.
Barnea argued that the formation of the new Kadima Party was a direct result of the Labor Party’s primary elections in November 2005 in which Amir Peretz defeated the veteran politician Shimon Peres. Had Peres won the primary, Barnea argued, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would have delayed his departure from the Likud Party and his subsequent formation of the Kadima Party. The reason for this is that following Peretz’s victory, he withdrew the Labor Party from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s governing coalition in November 2005, thereby forcing Sharon’s hand. The Israeli Prime Minister had to take steps to solidify his political position sooner than he might have expected.
Barnea said that Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister who had replaced the incapacitated Ariel Sharon as head of the Kadima Party, is not personally popular among Israelis. Up until the elections, many Israelis viewed Olmert as a temporary Kadima Party leader, believing that Sharon would emerge from his coma. Olmert, Barnea argued, was aware that his personality would not win him the election and so therefore implemented a goal-oriented strategy throughout the campaign. While Sharon was leader of Kadima, the party relied on his strong personality to attract support. Since Olmert lacked this “cult of personality,” he articulated specific policies and goals during the campaign to attract voters.
Sharon’s main achievement was Israel’s successful disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Olmert took this policy to the next level, advancing the idea of “convergence”—which involves disengaging from most of the West Bank and allowing Israeli settlers to relocate to those areas of the West Bank that Israel will not cede to the Palestinians. Barnea argued that by articulating this policy, Olmert created a campaign strategy that was vastly different from what Sharon would have pursued and that also moved Kadima to the left of the political spectrum. Sharon, Barnea argued, would never have championed disengagement from the West Bank on the eve of elections.
Despite Olmert’s campaign theme of disengaging from the West Bank, the real issue in the elections was domestic affairs. Peretz led a successful Labor Party campaign that championed social issues, such as raising the minimum wage. The Labor leader was able thereby to draw large numbers of supporters to the polls who punished Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu for cutting social programs when he was Minister of Finance in Ariel Sharon’s coalition government.
Following Barnea’s comments, Yaron Deckel, Washington Bureau Chief for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, gave his analysis of the election. Deckel said that the biggest surprise of the elections was the emergence of the Pensioners’ Party, which won seven seats. Many people voted for the party despite the fact that they had not examined the Pensioners’ platform.
Deckel said that the government’s new cabinet will likely be led by Olmert, Peretz, and Tzipi Livni, currently the foreign minister and a popular figure in Israel. The challenge, Deckel argued, will be for Peretz to solidify his image as a leader. At the same time, Peretz will likely use the opportunity of being in government to prepare himself to be Prime Minister. According to Deckel, because Peretz has no military experience he is pushing to establish his military credentials by becoming Minister of Defense. However, Olmert will likely appoint a Minister without Portfolio, possibly Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, to work with Peretz at the Ministry of Defense.
Deckel believes that one of Olmert’s biggest challenges will be dealing with social issues. Despite the fact that Olmert’s priority is implementing a plan for disengagement from the West Bank, the public, and Peretz (his likely coalition partner) will demand that the government address domestic issues. Deckel noted that Peretz’s campaign was successful because many Israelis view disengagement as a given. For this reason, Peretz had the opportunity to discuss domestic issues, while many voters still assumed he supported disengagement.
However, Deckel argued that formulating a disengagement plan may also pose a challenge to Olmert. The success of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip was largely based on the fact that the public implicitly trusted Sharon. The fact that the public views Olmert as more a manager than a leader, and the fact that Hamas controls the Palestinian Authority, may jeopardize the disengagement. In addition, Deckel noted that if Olmert begins to disengage Israel from the West Bank, any religious party that is in his coalition may drop out. If this were to happen, there would be no majority of Jewish parties in the government supporting the disengagement (a coalition of Kadima, Labor, Pensioners’, and the left-wing Meretz Party would have 60 seats).
Saban Center Director Martin Indyk analyzed the implications of the election results for U.S. policy in region. Indyk argued that the Bush Administration was quietly hoping that left-of-center parties would win the elections because only leftist parties support disengagement. With unrest in Iraq and tension with Iran, the Bush Administration is looking to gain a policy victory in the Middle East.
Indyk noted that the Bush Administration will face a challenge when Olmert comes to Washington, DC to meet with President Bush. Olmert has an electoral mandate to disengage from the West Bank, but he still needs to build public support and trust. For this reason, Olmert will look to “receive” something from President Bush as a reward for pressing for disengagement.
Indyk argued that one of the biggest differences between Olmert and Sharon is the fact that Olmert may be willing to give up portions of Jerusalem whereas Sharon would not have agreed to do so. As a former mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert understands that it is not in Israel’s demographic interest to control the whole city. Nonetheless, Indyk argued that Olmert will only give up portions of Jerusalem or the West Bank in return for something. Olmert may press for the United States to say that Israel’s disengagement fulfills the terms of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 242 (1967). Barnea disagreed with Indyk, arguing that the United States would not say that such a disengagement program complies with UNSCR 242 (1967) because the text implies an agreed-upon settlement to the conflict. Indyk said that Olmert will likely tell the Bush Administration that the extent of the disengagement will depend upon the extent to which the United States acknowledges the disengagement complies with the terms of UNSCR 242 (1967).
Results of Elections for Israel’s 17th Knesset
March 28, 2006
Party Number of seats
Yisrael Beiteinu 11
National Union-NRP 9
Pensioners’ Party 7
United Torah Judaism 6
Source: Press reports.