From an American perspective, last Tuesday’s Israeli election contained elements of the bizarre. Israel borders a territory that has just been taken over by a terrorist organization sworn to destroy it. A state whose nuclear weapons ambitions are being considered by the Security Council has threatened Israel with extinction. And yet at election time, interest in Israel’s leadership decreased, and some parties were rewarded for their focus on social and economic issues. Voter turnout was 62 percent — dramatically low for Israel, whose elections usually boast a turnout of over 70 percent.
These results may seem surprising to some observers. In the Washington Post, pollster Stanley Greenberg compared the Israeli election’s apparent focus on economic issues to a hypothetical American election centered on prescription drugs following an al-Qaida victory in Mexico.
Hamas’ electoral success poses such a threat to Israel. For the first time in decades, the Palestinian leadership is unambiguous about its intentions. Article Seven of the Hamas charter reads, in part, “The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Israelis understand that negotiating with an entity that refuses to recognize its right to exist is a contradictory, dangerous enterprise. Neither, however, do most wish to control the entire West Bank for the indefinite future. The middle-of-the-road option appears to be unilateral disengagement, carried out by Sharon in Gaza last summer, and Olmert’s similar withdrawal plan for much of the West Bank.
But this apparent consensus view conceals divisive questions. How much land should the Israelis leave unilaterally, when they know that the following day a terrorist organization will take it over? Factual considerations (the shortest distance between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank is nine miles) suggest there ought to be an overriding Israeli concern with ensuring defensible borders. Further unilateral withdrawal unfortunately signifies both the hopelessness of negotiations with this Palestinian government and the appearance of one-sided compromise.
Another important issue facing the Israeli people at the polls was the Iranian nuclear program. No Zionist government will compromise the existence of the state. Israeli policy towards the Iranians is not expected to differ among the mainstream electoral choices. However, it will be very difficult for Israel to do anything concrete about Iranian nuclear aspirations without the tacit or open support of the United States. China and Russia, which both have interests in Iranian oil, have mired U.S. efforts at the United Nations to slow the Iranian nuclear program. Israel may soon face the issue of whether to attempt to stall or thwart Iranian ambitions over the opposition of the vast majority of the world’s states.
How, then, did Israelis respond to these issues at the polls? Kadima, the self-proclaimed centrist party formed by Ariel Sharon and led by Ehud Olmert after Sharon’s stroke, ran largely on a platform of further unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank similar to the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. It received 28 seats in the 120-member parliament. (Bear in mind that no party has ever won more than 40 seats in any Israeli election.) The center-left Labor party, led by former union chief and Sephardic Jew Amir Peretz, returned to its socialist roots and won a substantial 20 seats. Likud, the center-right party that Ariel Sharon abandoned, led by ex-finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, won only 11 seats. The Arab parties took 10 seats.
These results have been partially explained as a manifestation of the Israeli worry that American-style capitalism has widened the gap between rich and poor to an intolerable extent. In particular, the decimation of Likud has been attributed partly to a repudiation of Netanyahu’s free market policies, exemplified by the success of populist third parties such as the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, headed by Moldovan immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, and Rafi Eitan’s Pensioner’s Party. Right-wing opposition to the foreign policy of Kadima and Labor was split largely along an ethnic, economic and social divide.
Voting on “bread and butter” issues is understandable for many. But casting the election as the result of an Israeli decision to downplay security issues does not reflect the crucial divisions among Israeli political parties and the real choices that lie ahead. Let us hope, then, that the perception of last week’s election as an “it’s the economy, stupid,” vote will not paper over real divisions within Israeli society about how to proceed without a viable peace partner. Israeli “disengagement” was never intended to refer to an absence of vigorous debate, and only a reinvigorated electorate fully cognizant of the options and their consequences can hope to make the right decisions in the future.
Rachel Bayefsky-Anand is a freshman in Morse College. Michael Pomeranz is a freshman in Silliman College. Both are members of Yale Friends of Israel.