Israel in Transition

Today, I’m going to do something a bit different and turn the Gizz-ette over to a colleague — Patrick Casey, who has been doing an outstanding job as intern, clerk, and aspiring correspondent during his few weeks with HUMAN EVENTS. Following the recent internationally watched Israeli elections, Patrick attended a luncheon and briefing by the Washington-based Israel Project. His coverage of the analysis by the acting prime minister’s brother is both enlightening and insightful; please take a look at it, along with Patrick’s own observations. I would be happy to learn what you think of it as well…

"A reflection of a society in transition."

This is the way Dr. Yossi Olmert, brother of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, views the Israeli elections that took place March 28. At a news conference hosted by the Israel Project, an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and public about Israel, Dr. Olmert spoke about the results of the election, what they mean for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations and also what they say about the attitude of the Israeli public.

Israel’s is a multi-party electoral system that divides its 120 parliamentary seats out proportionately to each party that receives at least 2% of the votes cast. The public votes only for parties, not specific candidates — though each party prepares a ranked list showing whom will likely be sent to the Knesset (parliament), with the highest person on the list being the party leader. The leader of the party which receives the most seats becomes prime minister.

The results of the 2006 Israeli election saw the new centrist party Kadima winning a 29-seat plurality. The Labour party, which ran on a social and economic platform, won 20 seats. The hawkish Likud party won just 12, an ominous drop from its former 40-seat majority. The Shas, a Sephardi religious party, also won 12 seats. The Yisrael Beytenu party, which mainly represents Jews who have emigrated from the former Soviet Union, made an impressive showing, picking up another 8 seats to give it a total of 11.

By historical standards, Kadima’s 29-seat-majority is by no means a commanding one. It is nevertheless a resounding victory. Kadima was formed in November 2005 when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke away from his Likud Party. By most accounts, it’s the first time anywhere in the world that a sitting head of government has formed a new political party. After Sharon’s stroke-induced coma, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took over the party leadership.

"We want to move on from the status quo, and the Palestinians must also move on." This is Kadima’s mission, as echoed by Dr. Olmert. Kadima offers a "dynamic new solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian equation. The plan, as laid out by Sharon, means leaving occupied territories in the West Bank, unilaterally if necessary, and supporting the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state while securing Israel’s border.

To fully appreciate the weight of this plan, one must understand the ideology of those who have painfully come to its thesis. "You need to believe in the depth of feeling [we hold] that we have the right … but for the attainment of peace we must give up [that] right. We do not share the vision that this is not ours — we believe it is ours — but we must give it up for peace" declared Dr. Olmert.

After almost 40 years of occupying land they believe is theirs by divine right, a ruling party in Israel has come to the conclusion that peace requires giving it up, and has set out with sincere efforts to do so.

But will this lead to peace? Will Israel and Palestine as two sovereign nations be able to co-exist?

The notion that Palestinians who have been calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state will suddenly change their tune when Israel moves out of a sovereign Palestine (without having given them any seat at any negotiating table) or that an unambiguous border will offer better protection is, frankly, a case of: We’ve tried everything else. The chaotic reality that has become the post-Israel Gaza strip would seemingly be sufficient evidence to support the grumble that Kadima’s grand design won’t solve much. As terrorists have converted Gaza into a veritable launch pad once again, the anticipated security that disengagement from the West Bank can offer should be measured cautiously. If Israel is to retreat, it must do so behind a bulwark, not a mere border. Israel must finish the controversial “Separation Wall”; which has become its most effective, and symbolic, answer to terrorism.

Now that Hamas — which has been quite unabashed about its terrorist identity in the past — is the legitimately elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, there is no substantive evidence that the Palestinians or their leaders are desirous of a peace agreement (never mind whether or not reasonable Palestinians would be able to reign in their bellicose brothers if they had the opportunity). Israel has emphatically and consistently it will not negotiate with a terrorist government. Presently, it looks as though a unilateral move is inevitable and peace a limited possibility.

At the same time though, Israel will be ensuring that it remains a democratic and a Jewish state, for the withdrawal is as much a recognition of demography as it is an attempt at security. With Palestinian birthrates outstripping that of Israel, the Jews would soon become a minority in their own country were they to hold on to the occupied territory. Emptying certain settlements and leaving the West Bank is a demographic necessity.

2010 is the projected time frame to earnestly finish what was so unctuously started at Oslo in 1993. Israel showed it has decided to move on from the status quo and choose a new vantage point, from which — it is hoped — to catch a glimpse of a peaceful horizon. The onus is on the Palestinians to do the same in the next four years.

Although last month’s results ultimately give a mandate to Prime Minister Olmert to continue on with his vision of an unoccupied Palestinian state with secure Israeli borders, it should be noted that, at 63%, the voter turnout was actually the lowest in Israel’s history. To Dr. Olmert, the turnout is indicative of what he calls a trend toward normalization in the attitudes and outlook of his country’s society. In the face of the odious Hamas winning the Palestinian elections, conventional wisdom, as Dr. Olmert pointed out, would have led one to place election bets back on Likud. The fact that Israelis did not turn out in droves to fight fire with fire and side with the hawks is perhaps the most overlooked signal of the elections; it is a reflection of a society in transition.

The perpetual state of existential uncertainty Israel has had to live with since its birth was always reflected in the sense of urgency that surrounded its politics. It is not a bad sign, but a "good development" as Dr. Olmert says, that Israelis are taking a more "mundane" approach to their country’s elections. It shows a sense of security and satisfaction that western democracies too often take for granted when they complain about how few of their citizens exercise their right to vote.

If a person stays home on Election Day, it is assumed they are either boycotting or are indifferent. Supposing the former was not a cause, in order to be indifferent one must first be comfortable. For a people who have lived among enemies so long, that is of no small significance.