To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - April 3, 2006

Q. ...significant ramifications of last week's Knesset elections? Q. Why did so many not vote? Q. The Arab League held its annual summit in Khartoum last week...?

Q. What are the most significant ramifications of last week's Knesset elections?

A. The March 28 elections set a number of significant milestones for Israeli politics.

Perhaps most important, for the first time in memory the public gave a clear mandate to the left and center to dismantle settlements and roll back the occupation. Kadima, Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties won 64 mandates. The seven new Retiree Party MKs are all on the center and left as well, and even Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (12) favors territorial compromise. While many of these MKs do not believe a negotiated two state solution is possible right now, Ehud Olmert should have no difficulty putting together a coalition that officially favors withdrawal in some form.

Nevertheless, Olmert will not necessarily have an easy time pushing his consolidation/disengagement plan through the Knesset or even through his own coalition. Kadima's 29 seats are not enough to guarantee a stable coalition, nor can we be certain that all of Kadima's MKs will support Olmert on this issue (Tzachi Hanegbi? A disgruntled Shaul Mofaz if he does not remain minister of defense?).

Moreover, the elections produced an unusually large coalition of parties with a welfare state economic platform--a clear reaction to the market economy policies of the previous government where Netanyahu served as finance minister and Olmert minister of trade and industry and impoverishment and income gaps skyrocketed. Labor, Shas and the seven retirees will all push for radical budgetary revisions regarding everything from national pensions to minimum wage and benefits for large families; these could easily pit them against Olmert within the coalition. Labor's size relative to Kadima guarantees it considerable clout in pushing for its economic platform, unless Amir Peretz can be bought off with a major portfolio such as defense, which he could conceivably be tempted to take up in the hope of building up his leadership profile looking to the next election.

Peretz, incidentally, succeeded dramatically in making Labor relevant again to Israel's eastern Jewish proletariat. In development towns like Dimona, for example, it nearly doubled its voting percentage. But Labor lost some of its traditional Ashkenazic middle class voters to Kadima and the Retirees Party. Still, by avoiding an electoral disaster and holding onto 20 mandates, Peretz appears to have placed his leadership position beyond challenge, at least for the moment. If he can now tempt Meretz with its lackluster five mandates to unite with Labor, he could head a party nearly as large as Kadima, able to demand virtual parity within the coalition.

Apropos the retirees, their dramatic achievement demonstrated two aspects of the Israeli democratic reality that many political observers and pollsters ignored during the campaign. One is that the electoral system, divisive and fragmenting as it is, also provides an ideal political stage for a determined group of fairly average citizens--by no means political elites--who seek redress for a grievance. Pensioners were particularly hard hit by Netanyahu's policies, and the system enabled them to fight back. Second, various sectors of the population rely on means of communication that are not on the radar screen of the opinion polls, which use listed phone numbers to gather information on voter preferences. The many young people who voted for the retirees as a kind of protest vote use cell phones and the internet; the pensioners are organized in clubs and unions. Thus did fully seven mandates evade the most learned predictions regarding the outcome of this election.

(Retirees Party leader Rafi Eitan, an octogenarian soon to be a minister, will not be on the US Jewish election circuit, incidentally. A former senior intelligence official, he was the main villain in the Pollard affair 20 years ago, and is persona non grata in the US.)

Only the retirees and Yisrael Beiteinu registered significant gains in these elections. The biggest loser is Shinui, which went from 15 MKs to zero in one election as religious-secular issues lost their appeal to a public preoccupied with the Palestinian issue and economic hardships. The fragmentation of votes and parties is reminiscent of the divisive effect of the separate vote for prime minister that was used briefly during the second half of the 1990s, when voters felt free to apply their second vote, for the Knesset, to their favorite sectorial party. The strategic consequence, as noted above, will be Olmert's difficulty in keeping a coalition together over an extended period of time. This means that the next election will almost certainly take place within less than four years, whether or not Olmert puts his disengagement plan into high gear.

Of all the losers in this election, the Likud lost the most. The "rebels" who forced Ariel Sharon to bolt and form a new party are barely represented among Likud's 12 lonely MKs. Doctrinal, non-compromising opposition to withdrawal and disengagement has been reduced to barely 20 MKs. Binyamin Netanyahu, who looked ridiculous resigning and leaving politics after his loss to Ehud Barak in 1999, now looks ridiculous hanging onto power after such a debacle.

Q. Why did so many Israelis not vote in these elections?

A. If early elections and fragmented legislatures have become the pattern, they are beginning to have a negative effect on the willingness of the electorate to play the game. These elections featured the lowest voting percentage, under 63 percent, in Israel's history. For the first time, one ran into "non-voters" at every corner. The reasons they offered for abstaining were numerous; all reflected a sense of disenfranchisement.

The young felt that no one represents them; many voted for the retirees as a kind of protest joke. Some 17 percent of voters told a Yediot Aharonot poll that "all the politicians are corrupt" and 11 percent claimed the politicians "only look out for themselves". Some in the Arab community were convinced the entire system is against them (when in fact it is fragmentation within their own sector that denies the Arabs coherent representation and parliamentary influence). Displaced settlers from the Gaza Strip led a boycott movement to protest their powerlessness. Some new immigrants felt unqualified to make a choice. And no fewer than half a million out of five million eligible voters were abroad, including some who took advantage of election day (when offices and businesses are closed) for a long weekend in Europe or Turkey.

Finally, some Israelis may simply be turning complacent and disinterested like their counterparts in western democracies. The percentage of voters has been dropping steadily since 1949. In this regard, it is entirely possible that even a better voting system--one that allows for local constituency representation and produces larger and more stable parties and Knesset factions--would not make a difference. But it is worth a try.

Q. The Arab League held its annual summit in Khartoum last week in the midst of crises in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere, and appears to have done nothing about them. Is complacency the rule there too?

A. Deep malaise is probably a better description, insofar as the entire Arab collective system appears not to be working. Fully ten out of 22 Arab leaders, including Egypt's Mubarrak and Saudi Arabia's Abdullah, failed to show up in Khartoum, which hosted its first summit since 1967 when the Arabs produced the famous three 'noes' after the Six-Day War: no to peace with Israel, no to negotiations and no to recognition.

This time in Khartoum, the Arab leaders willingly avoided addressing growing chaos and Iranian influence in Iraq, where the League and most Arab countries still do not have embassies and Arab influence is marginalized. They refused to intervene in Sudan's own private genocide in Darfur (or to invite the international community to intervene), and neglected to rebuff Syria's prolonged interference in neighboring Lebanon. And they sat on the fence regarding the advent to power of Hamas in Palestine, refusing to augment its official aid of $55 million a month, which most Arab states don't pay anyway.

The entire summit lasted a single day. It was notable for having to address dual representation from a growing number of internally-conflicted states: Lebanon was represented by its pro-Syrian president alongside its anti-Syrian prime minister. Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas (Fateh) managed to appear without his Hamas prime minister only because Ismail Haniyeh was being sworn in that very day. An Iraqi representation squabble was settled through the absence of both the president and the prime minister.

The Khartoum summit did reiterate its support for the Arab peace initiative passed in its 2002 Beirut summit, a remarkably liberal document, redefining it as a kind of litmus test for Hamas if it wants to receive a larger aid portion from Saudi Arabia and the emirates. That would require Hamas to recognize Israel, however, and this is not likely to happen. In any case the Saudis, aware of the limitations of the League summit and its initiatives, pointedly declined to host next year's summit.

Neither Israel nor the United States need shed a tear over the virtual demise of the Arab summit institution. By and large the Arab League has leaned toward an anti-Israel and anti-peace agenda. Egypt's membership was suspended for years after it made peace with Israel. Even the 2002 peace initiative, which calls for comprehensive peace and security arrangements with Israel based on the 1967 lines and prescribes an agreed solution to the refugee/right of return issue based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1949 (and should have been welcomed at the time by the Sharon government), was never followed up by the League. Indeed, it was followed at the same 2002 session in Beirut by no fewer than four unanimous resolutions reaffirming the Arab interpretation of 194--comprehensive return of all refugees to Israel.

Still, the problem is not with the League so much as it is with its constituent members, the Arab states, which overwhelmingly feature non-representative regimes, huge corruption and human rights problems, and a growing popular Islamist sentiment.