Israelis went to the polls this week to vote in their fifth election in 10 years. Many people in Israel said it was the most important election in years, but voter apathy was high. Many voters chose to ignore the big issues championed by Israel's large parties and instead voted for smaller parties who back single issues. Israeli voters sent a mixed message to their leaders in this election, and one that will make the task of governing and of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians difficult.
It was not the mandate that Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he wanted. Just days before the vote, Mr. Olmert's Kadima Party was riding high in the polls. Political pundits said Kadima would win 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and be able to dictate its terms to prospective coalition partners.
What emerged was something different. Kadima won only 28 seats, far fewer than 40 seats that the conservative Likud Party won in Israel's last election in 2003, winning just eight more seats than the left-of-center Labor Party, a likely coalition partner.
Asher Arian is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of political science at the City University of New York. He says the Kadima Party, founded last year by Ariel Sharon before he suffered his stroke, has lost its momentum.
"Well, the Kadima Party was a very momentous development and had Sharon been well and seen it through to the election my guess is that the results would be quite different," he said. "As it is, it seems to have fizzled out a little bit too early in the sense that Kadima is too small to be a driving force in Israeli politics for the next four years. Kadima will run the country, but it will be very, very dependent on coalition partners."
That might not be a bad thing says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who runs PASSIA, a Palestinian policy institute based in East Jerusalem. Abdul Hadi says if Kadima can form a coalition with the Labor Party and other parties that support the peace process there might be real progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
"If Olmert will succeed in forming a government with the Labor Party and with other leftists, he will be in a better position to look for the 'road map' peace plan and for negotiations," he said.
Ehud Olmert says he will follow Ariel Sharon's plan to set Israel's final border with the Palestinians. He says he intends to accomplish the task in the next parliamentary term, either by following the internationally-backed road map peace plan or unilaterally if necessary.
Abdul Hadi says Palestinian decision makers he has spoken with say they can do little but wait and see how the Israeli-coalition building develops.
"I am very much concerned about Olmert's agenda, the unilateralism thesis of Mr. Sharon," he admitted. "And some [Palestinians] are saying he will not be able to go ahead with the plan since he needs coalition. Others are saying it will be a real setback to the whole process and we will continue living in the culture of a prison."
Asher Arian of the Israel Democracy Institute says Ehud Olmert's plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank would have been difficult to achieve even if Kadima had won an outright majority. Having to rely on potentially unreliable coalition partners will make the task even more difficult.
"Had he won a commanding majority and had there been a sense that this was indeed a referendum on his plan, and that the referendum had passed, then it would be possible for him to deal with the tens of thousands of settlers," Arian said. "Recall that the Gaza pullout involved about 8,000 Jewish settlers. Now you are talking about 10 times that number and so it is going to be very difficult in terms of money, in terms of confrontation, and in terms of political will to pull this off."
Arian says Mr. Olmert does not have much time to achieve his historic objective. Coalition partners eager for a plum government post might be willing to support a controversial West Bank pullout in the near term, but he says the longer the process takes the more difficult that will become.
The dream of Ariel Sharon to create a new centrist political force in Israeli politics that could set Israel's final border could depend on the cooperation of political parties more interested in raising Israel's minimum wage and improving pension benefits than achieving a lasting settlement between Palestinians and Israelis.