Who won the Israeli election? The Pensioners' Party, an organization that in previous elections was one of the chronic also rans. It had competed against parties concerned with improving the lives of taxi drivers, protesters against bank charges, protestors against the poor deal given fathers in divorces, and smokers of marijuana. A pensioners' party had never made it into the Knesset. Yesterday's results give the party seven seats.
It will take a while for a larger pension to show up in my bank account. So the more immediate question is, What happened?
Commentators are scratching their heads to explain the party’s success, and to predict how its unknown new old MKs will vote on issues not associated with benefits for pensioners. Among the explanations was that the election was boring, or did not attract much enthusiasm from voters alienated from “politicians” who offer only empty promises. The contest generated a smaller turnout than any previous Israeli election. Polls showed a higher incidence of undecided voters than in previous elections. Numerous voters of all ages may have chosen the Pensioners as a protest vote after it became clear that it might win enough votes to gain a Knesset representation.
Established parties did not do well. Likud was the big loser, dropping to be the fifth largest party in the new Knesset. It and its predecessors had been the leading right wing party since the 1950s. Now it finds itself with fewer seats than a right wing secular party supported by Russian immigrants, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS, as well as Kadima and Labor. The most popular explanation for Likud's loss is Netanyahu’s policy as finance minister to cut welfare payments. That caused his party to lose big in poor towns and urban neighborhoods where low-income, but highly nationalistic Jews from Arab countries had been one of the party’s key constituencies. Netanyahu's shrill insistence on holding a great deal of territory in the West Bank may have alienated some voters who saw it as anachronistic, and frustrating any solution for the problem with the Palestinians. There was also the problem of Netanyahu's personality. He is widely viewed as too slick, inclined to exaggerate his accomplishments and unreliable beyond what is usual for egoistic and slippery politicians.
Kadima will be the largest party, and Ehud Olmert will be invited by the president to become prime minister and form a government. However, Kadima gradually slipped from a prospect of 44 seats soon after its founder Ariel Sharon suffered his stroke, to the 28 seats that it actually won. Olmert made several mistakes in his campaign. One was not his fault. He is not the baby-kissing type, and never got out to the crowds in order to arouse personal support from the masses. He also proclaimed that it was clear he would win the election, and may thereby have reduced the incentive of supporters to work hard at getting likely voters to the polls. And perhaps most important, he did not work hard enough to build an organization for his new party. He set a goal of enlisting 100,000 formal members, but only managed to get 10,000. Without local branches capable of hanging signs and getting voters to the polls, he had to rely too much on the image of Ariel Sharon. Sharon has been in a coma since January. He will not be capable of working his political magic for the sake of Kadima or anyone else.
Putting together a coalition to realize Olmert's promise of defining Israel's boundaries will not be easy. Kadima is not large enough to dictate the distribution of ministries or the nature of government policy to its potential partners. There is also a small mystery and a big mystery waiting to be resolved. The small mystery is the nature of the Pensioners' Party. Its size makes it an likely partner in the coalition, but aside from benefits for the aged no one has any idea what policies its Knesset members are likely to support. The big mystery is the new Palestinian government of Hamas. Despite a few pleasant words suggesting peaceful coexistence, it usually sounds like a party still committed to Israel's destruction. Kadima is not big enough for Olmert to insist on his view of Israel's borders among coalition partners and to implement the messy task of removing perhaps 60,000 Jews living on the other side of those borders. Having Labor in the government may facilitate disengagement, but it will make it difficult to take strong military actions against a Hamas-led Palestine that turns more violent. Just last night a katusha rocket landed near Ashkelon from Gaza. That is a significant escalation from the more primitive home made rockets sent against Israel until now. Also this morning, we are reading that avian flu has spread from the south to a kibbutz near Jerusalem. The immediate result will be tough on the birds that must be culled. The larger meaning is to remind us of numerous problems on the agenda, and what may continue to be the chronic Israeli problem of a government with numerous parties whose disagreements get in the way of decisive action.
The almost final results are:
Kadima 28 seats
Israel Out Home (Avigdor Lieberman) 12
National Religious Party/National Unity 9
Torah Judaism 6
New party 3
Balad (Azmi Bishara) 3
United Arab List 4
It is common to describe economics is the dismal science, insofar as it focuses on resources, that are always less than required to meet all desires.
Politics, in contrast, is the happy science, marked by individuals with overblown egos promising to meet all the wants in order to garner support.
Israel's proportional representation provides an ideal stage for the display of the happy science. Almost all of the two dozen or so parties running for seats in the Knesset display the wants of the nation. Virtually none take into account limited resources. Economists are left at home, or required to put their training on the shelf before being allowed to speak for a party.
The World Bank counts Israel among the world's richest economies. Fine. But it is at the lower end of the list, above only Greece and Portugal. Israel's politicians hear about the programs on offer in northwestern Europe, and demand those for Israel. But Israel is poorer. And Israel's limited resources support security forces several times more expensive than those of wealthy European countries that rely on others to look after their defense.
The one party that is prominent in emphasizing sacrifice is the party likely to lead the government. Kadima is selling the idea of removing some Jewish settlements from the West Bank. That, and the less than charismatic personality of its leading figure, may explain its slide in the polls since Ariel Sharon exited politics and enjoyed a couple of weeks of being sanctified by media that ignored all the sins that had been emphasized until then. It is in the Jewish tradition to praise the dead. One does not hear criticism during memorial visits, and seldom even a bit of humor about the dearly departed. Bastards turn into saints at their death. Sharon has not died. One day he may wake up from his coma to read what stood as his obituaries. It is doubtful that he will be able to do more than that.
The promises of other parties are more suitable to political theater than to any serious discussion of policy analysis. The leading candidate of the Labor Party, Amir Peretz, has been true to his Labor Federation roots by emphasizing the need to raise the minimum wage. He has not commented on an analysis that appeared in Ha'aretz that showed Israel's minimum wage is already about the highest in the world, in relation to a per capita measure of overall economic resources.
The leader of Likud, Benyamin Netanyahu, admits that he may have angered voters by his policy as finance minister to reduce payments to the aged, poor, and large families. Now he promises to backtrack, and solve the social problems he caused. He also claims that the economic progress due to his policy provides the resources for dealing with the needy. He does not consider that the recent increase in Israel's economic well being might have something to do with an international economic recovery affecting countries that buy what Israel sells, and whose investors send money to Israeli industries.
Except for Likud, right wing nationalist and religious parties are doing well in the polls. Moreover, their supporters are angry about withdrawal from Gaza, intense, and likely to turn out in high numbers. Voters who are secular and inclined to the center are demonstrating a higher than usual disinterest in the election. Many are answering that they have not made up their minds. The implications of all this is that Olmert will have trouble enacting and/or implementing a policy of further withdrawals from Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Beyond the major and middle-sized parties, one can find a great lack of restraint in what parties offer their potential voters. You can probably guess what the Pensioners' Party is offering the voters. Israel like other western countries has a large and growing proportion of us old folks. Some are truly poor, especially immigrants who did not work here long enough to build up entitlements, and must rely on the minimum payments that do not allow them to live without help from younger family members or soup kitchens that feed them hot meals. Many of the aged who are better off would enjoy an increase in their National Insurance payments. One poll indicates that the Pensioners' Party might, for the first time, win enough votes for two members, which is the minimum for entering the Knesset. Some polls show it capable of winning three or even four seats.
A Green Leaf party has returned once again. It is trying for its first successful campaign by expanding its basic demand of legalizing marijuana for recreational and medical purposes. It also demands greater rights for homosexuals and lesbians, including single sex marriages. A clever ad campaign has attracted attention, and brought the party to the verge of getting into the Knesset.
A Green Party demands environmental protection at least as good as the best in the world. Israelis, alas, are more interested in issues of security and basic well-being. The Greens do not look like they will make it to the Knesset.
There are several extreme right wing parties and religious parties trying to get traction by campaigning to transfer Arabs to one place or another, and against the imperfections of more established religious and nationalist parties. An Ethiopian Party is somewhere out there, not seeming to make much of an impression. What had been a successful, middle size anti-religious party has split into two due to personality squabbles, and neither of the factions is showing enough support to enter the Knesset. A retired general has not made a dent by emphasizing corruption, due perhaps to his poor ad campaign and his refusal to align with other small parties that had offered him a place on their list. A group of Arab parties will get their usual 10 or so seats. Most likely they will spend the next few years reciting their usual criticisms of whatever the Jewish government is doing. I have not noticed a taxi drivers' party in this year's competition. Perhaps it coalesced with something else below my radar screen.
My favorite candidate for the most bizarre is a party that combines a concern to find the true killer of Yitzhak Rabin with a strident anti-feminism. Its ads criticize women and the left, and emphasize the poor shake given fathers in divorce and child custody. No one has explained to me the connection between its view of the assassination and its other demands. Anger is the most prominent feature of the few media spots available to it as a new party without Knesset members, and it has not made a dent in the polls.
We will know the results late Tuesday night or early the next day. Then the story will only be half over. It will be another month or two before the winner can announce the make up of a governing coalition.
Among the issues roiling the commentators is a paper written by political scientists at Harvard and the University of Chicago. They assert that an excessive concern for Israel has distorted American foreign policy. The Christian Science Monitor headlines a report about the paper and responses to it: http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0321/dailyUpdate.html
The CSM is not one of Israel's great friends, but the article is fair in showing that critics see the paper is yet another version of "the Jews are ruling the world," or "the Jewish lobby has too much influence on American policy." We also see in the CSM article that Americans and Israelis-- Jews and non-Jews-- argue among themselves about what is good for Israel, and that one American Jew who went too far in his enthusiasm for Israel (Jonathan Pollard) is still trying to extract himself from a federal prison after serving more than 20 years for spying. It is also apparent that "American national interest" is a broad and fuzzy concept, not so readily monopolized by any one set of advocates. American support for Israel sits alongside American support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan, and other far flung spots that get help from the United States without doing everything desired by the American White House, Congress, prominent American interest groups, or commentators.
The pursuit of multiple goals comes with the territory of being the world's greatest power. Students should learn in an Introduction to Political Science that the definition of "national interest" is an evasive and frustrating task. The US government does things that bother lots of Americans while they delight other Americans, like agreeing to a policy of free trade and the import of consumer goods from low-wage countries that cost many Americans their jobs; and the opposition to policies to deal with global warming and the preservation of gas prices low enough to power all those SUVs.
The influence network between any one country and the United States is not likely to be a simple case of one-directional flow. Jews are among those who have influenced American policy, and Americans are among those who have influenced Israel. Israeli officials have bent to American demands with respect to Palestinians. It is impossible to determine just how much of Israel's concern for Palestinian civilians comes from Israelis' own morality, and how much comes from pressures originating with American officials, those of other governments, and international organizations. Just yesterday Israel agreed to the American ambassador's pressure to open a border crossing with Gaza for the movement of foodstuffs (Gaza had run out of flour) despite a concern for Palestinian violence targeted at the border crossing. The movement of trucks passed without incident, but at the same time a Palestinian intent on suicide was seized with a 12 pound explosive on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This is a tough neighborhood. Israeli intelligence has developed to a high degree of sophistication, but it does not always know for sure who will do what, where.
Jews were among those who promoted the American war in Iraq, but they were not alone in their advocacy, and they did not control the key positions that made the decisions. Israelis were prominent among the publics that supported the American initiative. But neither American Jews nor Israeli Jews were united in their support for the war. A substantial and growing view in Israel is that the United States has lost its way in the morass of Iraq, and that bringing democracy to the Muslims of the Middle East is not a useful guide for foreign policy.
Should we worry that two more Americans have signed on to the substantial number of European and American intellectuals who look to Israel with something other than admiration or moderation? Bad question. It is inevitable that we will worry. Shit happens. Some of it comes from Harvard and the University of Chicago. And it is inevitable that the lively and divided Israeli polity will take advantage of the academic article. Some will bash the professors. Others will praise them. Today's lead editorial in Ha'aretz reflects the closeness between that newspaper and the Christian Science Monitor. It urges the Israeli government about to be elected to pay heed to the paper out of leading American universities, and to begin early the process of a major withdrawal from Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Politics continues. There is no end game. The Messiah of the left or the right will not come today or tomorrow. Neither Hamas' election, nor the results of Israel's election will settle the Middle East. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis will leave, or cease causing problems for the other. If anyone out there is disappointed by the news, you have my sympathy.
It could not have been better for Ehud Olmert. The Palestinians were clearly at fault. Commentators from several points on the political spectrum concluded that they had violated an agreement, whereby the killers of Israeli Tourist Minister Rehavam Zeevi would be incarcerated in Jericho. Americans and British jailers were meant to guarantee the deal, but they signaled that they would be leaving because the Palestinians were not living up to their end of it. Palestinian officials had said the men would be released. Twenty minutes after the Americans and British left, the Israeli army surrounded the prison, and announced to the prisoners that they could surrender or be killed. The process took some 9 hours to play itself out, and concluded on prime time news. The bad guys who said they would fight to the death surrendered when army bulldozers began to knock down the walls of their compound.
All this two weeks before the election. It showed that Olmert can insist on keeping agreements, and the good fortune that the army could do its part with a minimum of Palestinian bloodshed, and no Israelis wounded. Arabs protested that it was illegal. The mobs of Gaza protested by burning the British Council Library and kidnapping a number of foreigners who had come to provide them with humanitarian aid. One of those kidnapped, and then released, was an American teacher of English who said that he understood and sympathized with the Palestinians. Americans do not know how the Palestinians suffer, he said, from the daily killings by Israeli forces. At this point the CNN anchor accused him of exaggerating. The teacher insisted that the Palestinians were suffering. His students told him so.
The leadership of the Meretz party said that a diplomatic solution would have been better. The head of the European Union expressed his "worry" about the action. Europeans said they would have to repair the damage done by Israeli forces. The British Foreign Minister told parliament that the Palestinians had proved themselves to be unreliable. Some critics said it was insulting to force the Palestinian jailers and other prisoners to march out of the facility wearing only their underpants. That is the drill when the object of concern might be wearing an explosive belt. Presumably those freed will recognize that they have gotten away with their lives, even at the cost of some embarrassment. The leaders of Israeli political parties who stood to lose what Olmert's party won said that it was the only decision possible, and was timed not for the Israeli election but to counter the likelihood that Palestinians would free a group of killers.
Mahmoud Abbas was in Vienna when it happened. The leaders of Hamas are still trying to put together a government.
Olmert's opponents to the left are saying, "It can't be the case that there is no one to talk to! How are you going to make peace?"
Yesterday's situation indicates that there is no one to talk to. Olmert cannot make peace with a Palestinian partner. He will have to go it alone. Now it seems that he knows how to do it. Peace may not be in the cards. There is a limit to the opportunities that an Israeli leader can create.
I have lived in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. My wife and two of my children were born here. So I allow myself to claim roots in the city. Along with this, I will take the liberty of commenting on what others write about it.
What prompts this letter? A dull spot in national politics. The Israeli parties are trying to clobber one another with an eye to the election two weeks away, but have not managed to express anything new since the campaign began. Our neighbors are wrestling with the results of their election. Hamas winners and Fatah losers are wondering how to position themselves after this most recent major event in Palestinian history. If they choose wrong, they may find themselves written out of history. They seem to recognize this, so not much is happening on their front while they talk and ponder.
In the midst of this political hiatus I received from a friend yet another collection of writings about Jerusalem. The writers and those quoted are world class intellectuals, among the people who seem required to express themselves about Jerusalem. No doubt the city has a presence in the world. If there was a measure of words written per thousand residents Jerusalem would come out in first place. Googling the names of Jerusalem along with other national capitals shows Jerusalem with more citations, or not too many fewer citations than other capitals with many times its own modest population, and at the centers of countries with many times the size and power of Israel.
One reads about awe, and glory, the weight of faith, expectation, politics, competition between large worlds of Christianity and Islam, and the small world of Judaism; and violence associated with that competition. For some, it is all a reason to come and experience the city. I can sit at home and entertain friends from my childhood and professional experiences in several countries. The stream of visitors is impressive and enjoyable, and likely to be greater than if I had settled elsewhere.
Some cannot tolerate the pressures they perceive in Jerusalem. The packet of writings recently received included a line from the poet Yehuda Amichai, "the air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams....It's hard to breathe." The Jerusalem-born writer A.B. Yehoshua confesses: "I feel really relieved every time I leave the place." Walter Laqueur wrote a piece that he called "Dying for Jerusalem" in which he emphasized a city torn between Jews of ancient and modern, ultra-Orthodox and secular, and even more painfully between the Arab East and Jewish West. Several of my friends have moved out of Jerusalem claiming the oppression of the ultra-Orthodox. They find themselves still working in Jerusalem, and having to commute from their suburb 5 or so miles away, amidst the morning and evening creep of many others who work here but live outside the city, either on account of lower prices for housing, or a lesser feeling of being oppressed by the problems of Jerusalem.
Often the centrality of Jerusalem is painfully inconvenient. Traffic jams are world class when the heads of major countries come to express themselves on the Middle East and make their visits at holy sites and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Less awesome are the problems caused by leaders of middle- and small-scale powers like the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Georgia, and one or another Central American country. Some visits make no greater impression than causing speculation about what are those national flags being put on the lamp posts by municipal workers.
Yet another feature of Jerusalem's status, not entirely positive, is the pressure from religious and other communities throughout the world to develop their own space in the city. The late 19th century witnessed a major wave of church and hospice building by European and American Christians. The Jews have been building since 1948. The Hebrew University is one sign of this, with facilities indicated as the contribution of families and communities from Uruguay in the southwest to Melbourne in the southeast, and lots of Americans and Europeans between those points. In most fields, it is Israel's best university. Competing fund raising for Hadassah and Shaare Zedek hospitals assure Jerusalemites access to better medical care than residents of most other Israeli cities. Financial realities are that donors help, but Israeli taxpayers provide more than 80 percent of the outlays at the university and hospitals.
Yad Vashem continues to grow and develop, partly against the specter of competing Holocaust memorials in Los Angeles, Washington, and elsewhere. Yet another site that will mention the Holocaust eventually is the Museum of Tolerance, being developed by the Simon Wiesenthal industry in the center of town. So far this has done nothing more than close what had been the major parking lot in town. The place is fenced off, and involved in legal challenges focused on a Muslim cemetery that the museum developers would like to move elsewhere. It is likely that the site will remain in a limbo for years while the battles continue, all the while there will remain lost a couple of hundred parking spots for those wanting to drive into the center of town.
The possibility or threat of peace is likely to produce yet another wave of religious communities wanting to establish a presence in the city of peace. The Mormons are waiting to reactivate their student center on the Mount of Olives. Korean Christians have accumulated money to purchase land for their own center. Already some 25 to 30 thousand religious pilgrims come to the city annually from that country. I doubt that North American Evangelists are far behind in their concern for real estate.
Most impressive is the backlog of religious tourism from one billion Muslims who have stayed away from a Jerusalem ruled by the Jews. Palestinians and Jordanians have been competing to refurbish the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, and have raised the prospect of 5 million Muslim tourists annually once peace comes to Al Quds.
All of the above reflects the world status and historical residues found in the air and on the ground of Jerusalem. For most of those who live here, however, the city is like any other. It is where we have our work and our families, do our shopping, argue with neighbors who disturb us, leave town for a weekend in the countryside, and do everything else that residents of Toledo, Frankfurt, York, Adelaide, or Sudbury do in and around their cities.
Our neighborhood is not unusual in having four synagogues, financed partly by overseas patrons. They all boast enough attendance to support daily prayers, but I suspect that a majority of neighborhood residents do not visit any of them on a regular basis. I have no doubt that most Jerusalem residents are aware of the implications of their city, but prefer to minimize their concern for the great issues. Israelis generally do not want to struggle. They fight when they have to, but want normalcy. They are tired of more than five years of intafada, and hope that a majority of Palestinians are also tired of it.
There may be a lesson here in the poll results associated with the coming election. Labor and Likud have retreated to their ideological extremes, and seem to be suffering as a result. The leader in the polls is the new centrist party, Kadima, which proposes pragmatic adjustments to reality instead of historic postures about social justice or land. Two weeks before the election, polls are showing 20 percent undecided. So far a lack of excitement suggests that there will not be a rush to the left or right. Religious nationalists are upset about the disengagement from Gaza, but are having trouble gaining traction with the broad center of the electorate.
To be sure, the city is, as ever, delicate. For Jerusalem someone coined the word "crusade." Security forces claim to have foiled several attempts at terrorist bombings in recent days. If a bus or cafe blows up, especially with Hamas fingerprints on the weapon, the results can be significant. So far, however, the atmosphere in Palestine as well as Israel seems to express a fatigue with great efforts, and an acceptance of calm. The intafada may be over. Here and there will be individuals or groups enraged enough to do something violent, but they will have trouble gaining support in the locales of greater power. Seven hundred thousand Jerusalemites, west and east, Jewish and Muslim (and the few Christians who remain), will find enough to keep themselves busy with work, family, and all the personal problems and aspirations of city dwellers in less dramatic settings. Most of us recognize that there will be no great and lasting victories in Jerusalem. We prefer life without emotion or heroics. Better parking places than another museum concerned with the Holocaust.
Is it possible that the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election was the best thing to happen for Israel since 1948?
It is more desirable to have an extremist opponent than a moderate with whom one must deal. It is possible to ignore the extremist and go one's own way. It may be as if the Palestinians suddenly disappeared, and no longer present a political challenge to Israel's capacity to live in relative safety.
Of course, there is a down side. We can expect a continuation of terror, sponsored or supported by international powers like Iran, Syria, and maybe South Africa. However, Israel's acquisition of defense learning during the five and one-half years of Intafada is likely to give it the capacity to limit the damage to something significantly less than that associated with traffic accidents, or murders in New York City. In other words, it can be like the detritus associated with urban living.
Early signs are that Hamas will live up to the role associated with unreformed extremists. It is not willing to discuss reform of its antediluvian covenant, which assigns all the bad moments in 100 years of world history to Zionists. It is not willing to recognize Israel, or to engage in a dialog with Israel. It is willing to discuss Israel with third parties, like the United States. That will not get the Hamasniks very far. It has been a long time since Israel was such a pariah that it had to sit outside the room where deals were hammered out for its acceptance.
Israel is moving as if Hamas--and by extension the Palestinians--do not exist. The barrier continues to be built, despite occasional delays by decisions of Israeli courts. Palestinian protests, joined by self-styled Israeli "anarchists" have resulted only in a few of the protestors injured by the police and delivered to local hospitals. Occasional reports of terror attacks planned have led Israel to close the gates in the barriers around Gaza since mid-February that transport goods and allow workers to move daily to jobs in Israel. Some Israeli factories and farmers have lost sales to Gaza, but Gazan families are not eating as well as they did when some 5,000 men could come to Israel for day jobs.
No Palestinian "security forces," numbering at least 30,000 in Gaza alone, have sought to disturb the few hundred Palestinians who make and fire rockets toward Israel. Recently they have not done any damage, so the IDF is willing to continue its side of a game and shell the empty area from which the rockets are fired. Once a rocket lands too close to an Israeli, that game is likely to change. A few Palestinians may learn what it is like to wonder if there is a missile or artillery shell likely to fall in one's neighborhood.
What will happen to the Palestinian population led by an intransigent Hamas? That will be their problem. Once the barrier is complete, there may be little movement between Palestine and Israel, and that will be tightly controlled. Activists will bleat about the injustice, but the postures adhered to by Hamas will be all the defense Israel needs in the enlightened capitals. Palestinians will find allies among extremist Muslim countries and some third world countries, but most of them will be even further into the international corner reserved for pariahs than Israel. Early signs are that support for Hamas will be weak, at best, among the likes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Muslim states troubled by their own Islamic extremists.
Note the conditional expressions throughout this letter. It will all depend on how extremist Hamas remains. If things continue as they are, it will lead the Palestinians deeper toward the stone age in terms of education, economic opportunity, sexual equality, humane laws, medical care, and all the other modern goodies. It will not be entirely pleasant to have a Taliban quality regime a few hundred meters from many Israeli homes, including ours. But the balance of power is likely to be awesomely in our favor.
Can Hamas change? Perhaps. But it would be as momentous as the claim that the Prophet has altered the Koran. Or that the sun has risen in the West.