April 6, 2006
by Meyrav Wurmser
Israel's recent elections occurred in the context of significant, even monumental, questions facing the Jewish nation. Israel faces grave threats from Hamas's ascent, al Qaeda's possible entry into the Palestinian territories, the large-scale buildup of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the rise of an imminently nuclear, apocalyptic Iranian regime. In the face of all of that, the central item on Israel's national agenda is unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in order to establish the country's final borders.
Coverage of the elections has almost universally suggested that Israelis overwhelmingly support further disengagements from the Palestinians. The Kadima victory has been touted as a vindication "convergence," Kadima's new title for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from large areas of the West Bank. But a closer look at the election results suggests a far more complex picture. Not all Israelis—not even a significant majority—support such a policy. And this could pose quite a challenge for Olmert's soon-to-be-formed government.
The new Kadima ("Forward") party, winner of the Israeli elections, was established a mere four months ago by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, shortly before his incapacitating stroke. Sharon left his own Likud party in order to temper internal opposition generated by his unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a move that broke with Likud's traditional stance. When Sharon fell ill, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was called upon to take charge of the fledgling party, and he rapidly became the country's frontrunner in the March elections that resulted.
Riding on Sharon's overwhelming popularity, Kadima was predicted by most polls to win an enormous victory—between 36 and 45 out of 120 Knesset seats—as recently as last week. Certain of his party's triumph, Olmert did something atypical of Israeli candidates: he spelled out his post-elections political plan. He told a variety of newspapers that he intends to withdraw unilaterally from large parts of the West Bank and to evacuate about 80,000 settlers from their homes. Even Prime Minister Sharon, who gained the Israeli people's unwavering trust, did not spell out his plan to disengage from Gaza prior to the last elections, fearing that such a move would cost him votes. Olmert, on the other hand, was so certain that the majority of Israelis had moved to the center-left, in support of unilateral disengagement, that he did not feel the need to keep his plans to himself until after the elections.
But Olmert's confidence was premature. Instead of gaining the hoped-for 36-45 seats, Kadima won the elections with only 29. This result was disappointing to many in Kadima if only because they hoped the party would have more positions to hand out. But the results are most disappointing to the advocates of unilateral withdrawal.
The challenge now facing Ehud Olmert is how to build a broad coalition that will support this withdrawal. His natural allies include the Labor party, with twenty mandates, the Pensioners, with seven mandates, and the secular ultra-left Meretz party, with five. Although this does amount to 61 seats, the thin majority would leave such a government tremendously vulnerable to instability. Should the coalition survive and vote in favor of unilateral withdrawal, critics would surely claim it illegitimate and non-representative of the views of a very large minority.
To secure a more stable coalition, Olmert will have to turn to the large religious Shas party, which gained 12 mandates, or to the Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beitainu, which secured 11 mandates in the elections. If those two parties joined the coalition, Olmert could preside over a broad coalition of up to 84 mandates. Although it now seems likely that one or both will become members of the ruling coalition, this kind of a coalition would last only until Olmert launches his withdrawal plan. Shas's leaders, as well as the majority of its voters, strongly oppose unilateral withdrawals. In fact, in his victory speech following the elections, Shas's leader Eli Yishai emphasized, with tears in his eyes, his opposition to such border changes. Likewise, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitainu said as late as a week before the elections that his party, which advocates territorial exchanges with the Palestinians in order to maintain a clear Jewish majority in Israel, will oppose Olmert's unilateral withdrawals.
Although many Israel observers in Washington interpret Kadima's election as a mandate for unilateral withdrawals, the fact is that there is not a strong, reliable Zionist majority to support such a move. Olmert could rely on the support of one or more of the Communist or Arab parties (with a total of nine seats), which oppose Israel's existence as a Jewish nation, to carry out withdrawals. But opponents, including the settlers' Ichud Leumi (National Union) party, the secular right-wing parties, and the religious block (which together total 50 Knesset seats) would likely argue that this undermines the legitimacy of the withdrawal. No matter how wide a temporary coalition Olmert will be able to establish, his ability to maneuver and carry out his political plan will face strong opposition. The disengagement plan may just disengage the flimsy coalition.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.