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Israel's Knesset Elections


Israelis go to the polls next Tuesday to elect a new parliament. The emergence of a new centrist party, Kadima, has made the dynamics of this election different than those in the past.

For decades, Israeli politics was dominated by leaders such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who were tested by conflict and responded to it with force. Israel was governed by coalitions led by two main political parties - - Labor on the left, and Likud on the right. The landscape is quite different in 2006. A brain hemorrhage has likely ended Ariel Sharon's political career, and there are no other towering so-called "security figures" to draw voter support to a particular party.

A New Party Vies for Votes

Just as significant, there is a new, and centrist, political party - - Kadima - - formed last year by Mr. Sharon when he left Likud. It's now led by another former Likud member, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Kadima is leading the opinion polls going into next week's elections. Analyst Ariel Cohen at The Heritage Foundation in Washington says that party is tapping into powerful political undercurrents. "There are two words that explain the Kadima phenomenon - - Sharon and shalom. 'Sharon' is Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister, and 'shalom' - - peace - - is what the absolute majority of Israelis have wanted for the last 60 years," says Cohen.

Israeli Saadia Touval, a conflict management analyst at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says Likud and Kadima disagree on a central aspect of Israeli policy. "The main difference between Likud and Kadima, the party of the acting prime minister, is that Likud says 'Israel should keep all of the territories it holds now,' whereas the acting prime minister says 'Israel should withdraw from most of the West Bank,'" says Touval.

Olmert Seeks "Security Credentials"

In a move seen by many analysts as an attempt to establish his "security credentials" with Israeli voters, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently sent Israeli troops into the West Bank town of Jericho to enter a Palestinian prison holding six men wanted by Israel for crimes including the murder of a cabinet minister.

Clayton Swisher, with the Middle East Institute in Washington, says Mr. Olmert may have achieved his objective, but says he worries about the consequences. "There's a so-called 'Jericho effect' showing that 60 percent of Israelis, roughly, believe the operation was necessary. I think it is going to give Kadima a boost. But what is going to be the Palestinian response? The visual imagery of this has the Territories in an uproar," says Swisher and adds that if there is Palestinian violence before the election in response to the Jericho operation, it may sway more Israeli voters toward Likud.

Palestinian Politics Influence the Israeli Election

Recent Palestinian elections have impacted the upcoming Israeli balloting. In late January, Palestinian voters brought Hamas into power, a faction that refuses to recognize Israel and calls for its destruction.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Phillip Wilcox, now with the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, says Likud benefits from the Hamas victory. "It strengthens the right wing in Israel," says Wilcox. "It tends to confirm the popular view that there is no Palestinian partner, and that therefore Israel is justified, indeed obliged, to act unilaterally to protect its security."

But Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior analyst David Makovsky says voter perceptions of Likud's leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dampen possible Hamas-related gains for that party.

"Netanyahu has got a lot of baggage. People are still upset with him in terms of his premiership in the late 1990s, and his austerity cuts as Finance Minister hurt a lot of the low-income voters who traditionally voted for Likud. So he has not been able to really capitalize on the Hamas victory," says Makovsky.

Israel's Labor Party has been headed by Amir Peretz since late last year. While Labor has enjoyed electoral victories in the past, Heritage Foundation analyst Ariel Cohen says the party now seems to have moved itself out of the political mainstream.

"Peretz's advocacy of a welfare state does not resonate with the Israeli middle class or with the secular, European Ashkenazi community. His base essentially is poor North African or Asian origin Jews, the working class. I don't think there's enough of them to give him victory," says Ariel Cohen.

Israel: Government by Coalitions

While Kadima is expected to get the greatest number of votes, and as a result, the most seats in parliament, no single party has ever won a clear majority and outright control of Israel's government. That has meant building coalitions comprised of sometimes markedly diverse interests and objectives.

Middle East Institute analyst Clayton Swisher says that poses a challenge for Kadima, "They're going to have to form a government that is inclusive. If they want to advance the peace process, it will include Labor. But there are also lesser parties that are going to be very influential, whether it be Shas, the religious party, the N.R.P. [National Religious Party] or Meretz on the left. It's very complicated for any prime minister to assemble a government, which is why Olmert is hoping to have a big showing and secure as many seats as possible."

Many analysts predict that out of the 120 seats in the Knesset, or parliament, Kadima will take between 36 and 40. Labor and Likud are expected to take perhaps a dozen seats apiece, while Israel Is Our Home, a socially conservative party of Russian immigrants, may take another 10.

But, as has been pointed out before, there is always the possibility that a significant event such as a major Israeli military operation or Palestinian attack may change the dynamics of this election and the mood of the Israeli electorate. Most analysts say that when it comes to Israeli politics, nothing is certain until the votes are counted.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.
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