Options for Israel's Conservatives

The headlines on March 29 were about Kadima and Labor winning 28 and 20 seats, respectively, in Israel’s 120-member Knesset, but conservatives are watching three right-of-center parties that won a total of 36 seats.

Third place (13 seats) went to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, even though former party leader Aryeh Deri went to prison for taking $155,000 in bribes while serving as interior minister.

Shas still did well because the party’s real power is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Pat Robertson of Israel. Last year, he said about Ariel Sharon: "Let God strike him down. … He is torturing the people of Israel. … He will sleep and never wake up." Yosef said Hurricane Katrina "was God’s retribution" for U.S. support for Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip.

Fourth place (12 seats) went to a new party, Yisrael Beitenu, "Israel Our Home." Party leader Avigdor Lieberman appealed particularly to the 750,000 Israelis who emigrated from the crumbling Soviet Union, and his television commercials were simple: Netanyahu, nyet ("no" in Russian); Olmert, nyet; Lieberman, da (yes). Lieberman’s goal is "population exchange," handing the land of at least 150,000 Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian Authority, with Israel in turn annexing its large settlement blocks in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, thus adding 400,000 Jews.

Fifth place (11 seats) went to Likud, the ruling party only six months ago with 38 seats. Likud was in trouble once Ariel Sharon gave up on it and founded Kadima, but what doomed party head Benjamin Netanyahu, the favorite of many American evangelicals, were the cuts in entitlements that he pushed for as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. The resurgence in this election of socialist Labor, plus a strong showing by a new Pensioners Party, indicates that some Israelis will be pushing hard for income redistribution.

On election night, Kadima head Ehud Olmert claimed a mandate for what he hopes is a new path to peace. Instead of waiting for an unlikely negotiated settlement with Israel’s enemies, and instead of maintaining control over the West Bank, he plans to hand over most of it to a Palestinian Authority probably run by Hamas. Israel will then seek safety behind an electronic fence and wall that is already mostly in place.

But Olmert will become prime minister only if he can bring other parties into his coalition — and they will demand a high political price. Labor will push for cabinet positions that allow it to assert more governmental control over the economy. Shas or other ultra-Orthodox parties are likely to offer their votes only if they get chunks of the social service and education budgets, along with tidbits such as control of the Western Wall area and restrictions on Messianic Jews.

How will Israel’s conservative voters react to the big foreign policy deal and all the domestic deals that Olmert will make? Will the ultra-Orthodox, who for the first time have one of their own as mayor of Jerusalem, increase their power? Will Lieberman make good on his plan to win the next election by promoting a "more Jews, fewer Arabs" policy that his critics call racist? Will Likud, which campaigned unsuccessfully for free enterprise and a "Tough on Hamas" foreign policy, make a comeback?

Whatever the eventual composition of the government and its opposition, a society weary of dealing with terrorism will have to deal with escapism of various kinds. A generation of young Israelis, according to Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, "watches soap operas on cable" and is "apathetic, simply apathetic." Some 300,000 Israelis act out their apathy by becoming drug users, according to Olmert.

So this election was not the end of Israel’s drama, just a new act. And remember: Israel is smaller than one of America’s smallest states, New Hampshire. Only 11 miles separate Arab territory in the West Bank from Tel Aviv on the coast. Israel has little margin for escapism or error.