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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Kadima Breaks Through, Likud Melts Down

With most of the vote in, the Israeli elections appear to have confirmed the much-expected mandate for Ariel Sharon’s creation, the Kadima Party, to lead the next government, though with fewer Knesset seats than expected. The real shocker, however, was the collapse of Likud under Bibi Netanyahu, who wrested control of the party from Sharon: it will apparently be the fifth-ranking party in the next Knesset, behind Kadima, Labor, the Sephardic party Shas, and the Russian-immigrant dominated Yisreal Beiteinu. Indeed, Likud, the dominant right-wing party in Israel for decades, barely finished ahead of the Pensioner’s Party, a purely domestic- oriented political group that surprised everybody with its straightforward representation of the interests of the elderly.The scattered partisan results, and the remaining uncertainty regarding the imminent negotiations over the shape and size of a Kadima-led governing coalition, make all sorts of interpretations of the election possible, as evidenced by insta-reactions in the Israeli press and the blogosphere. Some will emphasize Kadima’s emergence, and note the vindication of Ariel Sharon, who, as Haaretz’s Robert Rosenberg noted, spent his last night as Prime Minister of Israel in a coma. Others will focus on Labor’s relatively strong showing under its new leader Amir Peretz, an Algerian-born union leader who represents a break with his party’s long identification with an Ashkenazi, kibbutz-centered elite. Still others will send up alarms about the rise of Yisreal Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who could wind up being the leader of the official opposition. And the Pensioner’s Party, whose performance was so unexpected in a country long obsessed with security issues, will get attention as well.But the most compelling analysis I’ve read was actually written yesterday, by The New Republic’s Yossi Klein Halevi, which predicted low turnout and an inconclusive result, and suggested it was “Israel’s saddest election,” based on widespread despair. The “Greater Israel” ideology that once enlivened Likud and other right-wing parties is dead, said Halevi; it’s really an academic question as to whether Sharon was a lot or just slightly ahead of the curve in recognizing that and adjusting his policies accordingly. And just as importantly, the Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections confirmed the experience of the Second Intifada in largely extinguishing the “peace party” in Labor and on the Israeli left generally. Nearly all Israelis, said Halevi, have endorsed Sharon’s “separation strategy,” with the arguments being over time, place and manner of that separation. Even Lieberman’s right-wing party has distinguished itself by arguing for a strictly ethnic-based “separation” in which Jewish settlements would remain in Israel while Israeli Arab enclaves would be ceded to the proto-Palestinian state. Invidious as that idea is, it’s a far cry from “Greater Israel” and a permanent occupation of Palestine as a whole.Halevi’s hypothesis helps explain the historically low turnout in today’s elections (63 percent, which is robust by American standards, but is well below the traditional Israeli benchmark of 80 percent), and also the emergence of domestic-policy-only focused parties like the Pensioners. But he’s right: it’s very sad. Israelis are largely united on a “separation strategy” that every major faction in Palestinian politics rejects, most notably the hyper-rejectionist Hamas, which can’t bring itself to even accept the legitimacy of Israel according to any configuration. Perhaps the most important question about today’s Israeli elections is whether anyone on the Palestinian side recognizes and acts upon the challenge and the opportunity of the new Israeli consensus for a two-state solution, which is becoming a reality beyond all the past rhetoric on both sides.

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