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On the Road Ahead… Danger is Just Around the Bend

May 8, 2006
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The breakaway Kadima party, led by Sharon deputy Ehud Olmert, captured 29 seats in the election, more than any other party. Olmert has stated that the election served as a referendum for his and Kadima’s policies, with a majority of Israelis supporting him. However, with a minimum of 61 seats needed in order to form a ruling coalition, Olmert may have to compromise on many of these platform issues just to piece together a precariously stable coalition. An examination of some of the major issues at hand will give some sense of where Israelis want to go, but not necessarily how they will get there.

It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Former Finance Minister and current Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t an educated economist, such as his colleague across the sea Alan Greenspan, but nonetheless he managed to turn Israel’s economy around within only a short period of time. He oversaw sweeping changes that expanded businesses and moved the economy forward. However, some of the cutbacks in social welfare programs caused a sharp backlash within Israeli society and his support eventually plummeted.

Although many of the reforms that Netanyahu instituted were solid economic measures that boosted Israel’s capitalist economy, the problem is that many Israelis still have a socialist mindset. Sacrifices in the areas of pensions, health care, and unemployment benefits for the sake of a growing business oriented economy were unacceptable to the general public. Because many people were suffering in immediate need, they simply couldn’t afford to wait for the benefits of an expanding economy to trickle down to them and rely instead on the government for help.

In the first half of 2005, there were some 403,000 families living below the poverty line, about 20.5% of the total population in Israel. The number of children living in poverty has increased by half since 1998 to 34.1%. It was perhaps because of these already needy people and the threats they felt from Netanyahu’s economic policies that the Likud fell from 40 to only 12 seats in the Knesset, and parties such as Labor, Mertz, and the Gil Pensioners saw a rise in their numbers.

With the left-center parties now holding a majority of seats in the new Knesset, many of the economic reforms put in motion by Netanyahu may soon be undone. Watch for the emphasis of the Israeli economy to be shifted away from a business economy back to one of expanding social welfare programs. This move may solve much of the immediate need in Israel, but more importantly it will provide a strong public support base for the coalition parties, which they will need as they attempt to address some of the more controversial issues of Israeli society.

We the People…

One of the more ambitious goals of this Knesset is the drafting of a constitution. As of May 3rd, Israel has been a democracy for 58 years, but in place of a constitution, it operates under what are called basic laws, developed over a number of years and covering a wide range of legal areas. The basis for much of the civil rights laws was taken from David Ben Gurion’s speech declaring the State of Israel in May of 1948. Ben Gurion declared that Israel would, “…be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” The challenge that Israeli society and lawmakers face today is how to develop a constitution that guarantees the democratic rights outlined above for every citizen, while also preserving the Jewish character of the state.

Many of the religious parties see a push towards increasing democratization as a threat to traditional Jewish values. According to statistics from October of 2005, Jews make up 76% of the population, Arabs 20%, and other groups 4%. Even though 53% of the Jewish population considers themselves religious, they still remain a minority of the total population of the state of Israel. So how will the Knesset provide for the democratic rights of the majority within a self-defined Jewish state?

One of the hot issues that will test this balance is that of civil marriages, which Kadima, Labor, and some others support. Currently, Jews who wish to be married in Israel must do so in an Orthodox religious ceremony. Although many Israelis are considered Jewish according to the Law of Return, they might not necessarily be considered Jewish by Orthodox rabbinical law, and therefore must either go through a lengthy conversion process or marry abroad. Each year, one in every five Israeli couples chooses to travel overseas for their nuptials because they can’t get married in their own country.

This and other issues that are perceived as an assault on traditional Jewish values may cause any religious parties to leave the governing coalition, possibly upsetting the majority needed in the Knesset to carry forward other programs, such as convergence. The question then becomes, to what degree will Olmert and his coalition partners sacrifice on democratization in any constitution for the sake of maintaining a ruling majority in the Knesset?

Israel Converging in on Itself

All these issues aside, Israeli politics has always centered on only one issue: how to resolve the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations. Parties and individuals aren’t defined as left or right based upon their stance on social issues, but rather on territorial concessions and other “peacemaking” moves. Simply put, the left wants to give away and the right wants to keep, and everything in between is just a matter of to what degree.

Ever since Sharon, formerly the father of the settlement movement, executed his Disengagement Plan in August of 2005, the precedent was set for the destruction of settlements and the removal of Jews from their homes in Eretz Israel. However, the precedent was also set for unilateral Israeli moves in the absence of a partner with which to negotiate. Every party had their own ideas, but the question that the election really answered was if Israelis were ready for more unilateral withdrawals, and if so, just how much should be kept?

According to his Convergence Plan, Olmert will evacuate most, if not all, settlements east of the security fence. He plans to move those settlers into the major settlement blocs, such as Ma’ale Adumim and Gush Etzion, thereby strengthening Israeli claims to those areas. While the Disengagement Plan cost some 8,000 Jewish settlers their homes, convergence may uproot as many as 65,000 Jews and destroy an unknown number of settlements. Israel will retain the Jordan Valley region as a security zone, and the Israel Defense Forces will continue to patrol other areas east of the fence as well. Only the civilians will be withdrawn, not the military, until a Palestinian partner for peace emerges and a final agreement is negotiated. And all of this by 2008.

Olmert had originally said that he wanted to set Israel’s final borders by 2010, but just recently has now said by 2008. He wants to do this while U.S. President George W. Bush is still in office, since the letters of understanding between him and former Prime Minister Sharon would still be in effect. A new president may mean a new U.S. policy, and, given the instability inherent in most Israeli governments, Olmert can’t afford to wait either. Olmert also seeks U.S. help in gaining international support for any unilateral moves he makes towards setting borders, which will be difficult at best to achieve.

Bumpy Road Ahead

The Convergence Plan is the centerpiece of the Kadima-led government. Gaza is not Hebron, Beit El, or Shiloh, and in the wake of the brutal Amona evacuation ordered by Olmert in early February, the potential for violent resistance is likely to be much greater now than ever before. In order to preserve his coalition, Olmert may avoid the potential pitfalls of social issues by moving to immediately initiate his Convergence Plan, only to find that he’s instead stumbled into a minefield. The road ahead towards convergence has been laid at the ballot boxes, but what remains to be seen is just how many bumps will appear in that road and if the Olmert-led government can survive the journey.


We are prepared to compromise; to give up parts of our beloved land of Israel, where we buried our sons and warriors; to give up with great pain, to evacuate Jews who lived there.
Ehud Olmert – Israeli Prime Minister
Kadima Party Leader

Kadima and the left will divide Jerusalem and once you start dividing, you never know where it’s going to end.
Benjamin Netanyahu
Former Finance Minister
Likud Party Leader

Israel will not discuss a peace involving the concession of any piece of territory. The neighboring states donot deserve an inch of Israel’s land.
David Ben Gurion
Israel’s first Prime Minister

By Will King
Israel Mosaic Radio


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