Centrists to steer Israel's separation

Now that Israelis and Palestinians have held their elections, one thing is clear: Voters on both sides are as confused as ever about the best way to resolve their decades-old conflict.

Published March 30, 2006

Israelis on Tuesday rejected the once-powerful Likud Party, known for its hard line on Palestinians. But they cast fewer votes than expected for a new centrist party, Kadima, that advocates relinquishing some land to the Palestinians.

Israelis "want an end to the conflict but they're not sure how to end it," says Yossi Mekelberg, an Israeli expert at London's Chatham House. "They move from the extreme right all the way (to the left) and in between, to a party that has no coherent policies."

Meanwhile, Palestinians on Wednesday swore in a new government dominated by Hamas, which has killed dozens of Israelis and calls for destruction of the Jewish state. Many Palestinians, however, insist they still want peace and say they voted for Hamas in January not because they support terrorism but because they needed a change from their corrupt, incompetent leadership.

While some on both sides think Hamas is the only Palestinian group with enough clout to reach a permanent peace agreement, most Israeli analysts say the peace process is dead as long as Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel.

"I'm considered to be very dovish because I always supported establishment of a Palestinian state, major territorial concessions and also the idea of Israelis helping to improve the living conditions of Palestinians," said Abraham Diskin, an expert on Israeli politics.

"But having said all that, peace is not really possible because the Arab side in general and Palestinians in particular - even before the success of Hamas - don't really accept the right of Israel to exist."

After Tuesday's election, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to do an end-run around Hamas by inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace negotiations. If talks failed, Olmert said, Israel would proceed with withdrawals from the West Bank and the setting of permanent borders.

Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, started the process of physically separating Israelis and Palestinians last summer with the pullout of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and a few small areas of the West Bank.

Though Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke in January, the Kadima Party that he founded and which Olmert now heads won enough seats Tuesday to form a fairly strong coalition government with the left-leaning Labor Party.

Tuesday's election "gives retroactive approval for the Gaza disengagement and gives an open check for the next disengagement, this is for sure," said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "Israelis understand this is a viable option even if some of them don't like it."

Critics condemn the plan because Israel would retain three large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, thereby cutting off Arab areas of Jerusalem from the major Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. "Olmert's statement is a clear threat," said Nasser Shaer, Hamas' deputy prime minister. "He has his own plan, and he wants to implement it, whether we accept it or not."

Though controversial, Israel's unilateral moves toward separation have greatly reduced the violence that wracked the region from 2000 to last year. During the height of the Palestinian uprising, Israeli voter s twice turned to Sharon, the tough old general who then led the Likud Party, as the best person to restore security.

That Israelis feel safer today - even as Palestinians feel more beleaguered - was illustrated by Likud's poor showing Tuesday. It won just 11 seats and its current leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is probably at the end of a political career marked by what many saw as crass opportunism.

"Netanyahu needs to go home - the nation can't stand him," read a headline in one Israeli newspaper.

Tuesday's turnout was the lowest ever - 62.3 percent - and many of those who did vote cast their ballots for small, special interest parties, including a new "pensioners" party that advocates more benefits for retirees.

"The Israeli public expressed dissatisfaction with the political system in every way possible," Diskin said. "We had no really charismatic leaders, there were a number of corruption affairs and some ways of behavior just on the edge of corruption."

The low turnout stands in contrast to the recent Palestinian election, when nearly 75 percent of voters went to the polls. Rahat, an expert on electoral politics, says Israelis, like many in the Western world, have become blase about one of their greatest rights.

"It's part of a global trend in democracy that there are fewer people - especially the younger generation - that go and vote. Here in Israel, we had 31 parties to choose from, so everyone could find something that represented them. People in Israel don't appreciate what they have."