Israel Update for January 2006

Continued from page 1


In the stricken premier's significant wake, two major questions now dominate the spinning Israeli political scene: How long will Ehud Olmert serve as Israel's Premier, and what will he do while in power?

All opinion polls taken in the hours and days after Sharon suffered his massive stroke forecast that his new Kadima party would crush its Likud and Labour rivals even without the comatose PM at the helm. But Labour and Likud analysts think that much of this projected support was a mere sympathy reaction to Sharon's dire condition, and therefore not a true reflection of how people will actually vote on March 28th. Evidence that this might indeed be the case mounted as the month wore on, with later surveys showing a small but steady erosion in Kadima's support amid a significant rise in Labour's projected fortunes, along with a less substantial upturn for the Likud party.

Possibly indicating a further deterioration in Kadima's currently anticipated landslide victory, various polls all found that at least six out of every ten Israeli voters chose someone other than new Kadima leader Ehud Olmert as their first choice for premier. Over 20% picked Netanyahu, mostly citing his substantial governmental and military experience. A paltry 10% to 12% named new Labour party leader Yitzhak Peretz as their first choice for premier. This is not surprising given that the fiery socialist has absolutely no national governing experience (as was also the case with Labour's trounced 2003 candidate, Amran Mitzna), and seems to have little clue what he might do to revive the shattered Oslo peace process. To the further chagrin of many party members, the same polls show that Shimon Peres would have secured around 10 additional Knesset seats for Labour, mostly at Kadima's expense, if he had not been ousted as party leader last November.

Despite his relative personal unpopularity, most political pundits believe that Ehud Olmert will easily emerge as Israel's next elected Prime Minister. This is because a substantial number of Israeli voters indicate they see no other viable way forward but the 'middle ground' that Kadima has staked for itself, including grudging support for a Palestinian state while maintaining Israeli security supremacy and vigilance, bolstered by physical separation from the Palestinians wherever possible.


The second question preoccupying the political establishment in the wake of Ariel Sharon's severe stroke is seemingly much easier to answer: Ehud Olmert plans to implement Sharon's political programme as much as possible. This was made clear in the first cabinet meeting the Acting Premier chaired just four days after the veteran PM was incapacitated. Olmert bluntly told his somber cabinet colleagues that he would "carry out the wishes of Ariel Sharon."

So the more pertinent question is this: What were Sharon's wishes and goals, and can they actually be implemented by anyone other than the 'bulldozer' himself?

Although it is probable that he held some in-depth discussions with his chief cabinet deputy, the truth is that the stricken premier kept his cards close to his extensive chest. While promising to virtually fulfill a messianic role by ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and drawing permanent borders for his small country, Sharon revealed little if any details to the public as to how these lofty goals might be achieved. It was apparent that such a process involved additional Israeli military and civilian withdrawals from Judea and Samaria, but exactly from where and when was anybody's guess. Sharon's endorsement of the American-initiated Road Map peace plan has already been echoed by Olmert, who has also repeated Sharon's insistence that Palestinian leaders must keep their side of the bargain by disarming and dismantling terror groups before formal peace negotiations can be resumed.

Most pundits assume that while Sharon shared at least some of whatever actual plans he had with Olmert, he probably spoke far more freely with his longtime friend and former political nemesis, Shimon Peres. So the new Kadima leader may actually need to rely upon his new Number Two-and trust that Peres is not putting words in Sharon's stilled mouth-if he wants to faithfully implement the unconscious Prime Minister's wishes.

This apparent reality has left many Likud strategists hoping that, given previously proven widespread public distrust for Peres, many projected Kadima voters will return to their usual Likud home on election day. Still, they realize that many others will stay put in the new centrist party, partly because they anticipate that Netanyahu will not be able to govern without the support of several small right-wing and religious parties. Such a Likud-led coalition mix has often been tried before, and usually falls apart rather quickly due to exorbitant financial demands from the Orthodox parties, and/or because of the maximalist political positions maintained by far-right parties. Both basically seem to be looking for Messiah's perfect rule-a role that no Likud leader can fulfill.


One other significant question remains unanswered as Israel prepares to choose a new leader: What effect might the Palestinian elections, and subsequent Palestinian actions, have on the March 28th Israeli ballot? Most analysts agree that the expected strong Hamas showing will bolster the voting public's growing sense that no final peace accord is ever achievable with their recalcitrant Palestinian adversaries. But whether a majority will then buy Kadima's main argument-that further unilateral action is necessary to cut off whatever territory cannot be easily maintained, while hanging tough on Israel's overall defence needs-or whether they will accept Netanyahu's contention that one-sided land pullouts are too risky to take, especially around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is not clear.

Analysts say the answer may lie in what actually takes place on the ground between now and March 28th. If more Palestinian rockets are launched at Israeli targets from Samaria (as has now been confirmed to have occurred at least once in December, and maybe up to six times), this may well strengthen the Likud's hand. They add that a plethora of Palestinian terror attacks like the one that left over 20 Israeli civilians wounded in Tel Aviv on January 19th may do the same. A large-scale Hizbullah attack in the north, probably ordered by Iran and Syria (whose despotic Presidents met together in Damascus the same day as the Tel Aviv attack), could similarly spark a voter shift to Netanyahu's column. Indeed, this is exactly what took place in 1996, when initial opinion polls projecting an easy Peres win over Netanyahu were eclipsed by a spate of Hamas bus bombings and Hizbullah rocket assaults during the campaign.

Another increasingly important election issue is the question of who can most effectively deal with the growing threat from Iran. Both Acting PM Olmert and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz strongly denounced Tehran's early January decision to defy international opinion and resume Iran's nuclear enrichment programme, which experts say could lead to the creation of nuclear weapons. During a January 16th news conference, Olmert alluded to possible Israeli military action to halt the programme: "Under no circumstances, and at no point, can Israel allow anyone with these kinds of malicious designs against us, to control weapons of mass destruction that can threaten our existence." Iranian officials hit back hard one week later, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi warning "Israel knows quite well that any military action will produce severe consequences" for the small Jewish State.

With most Israeli security experts and politicians saying that both the grave Iranian and Hizbullah threats must be dealt with rather sooner than later, it seems realistic to forecast that Israel's next premier will need extra divine wisdom and insight to adequately deal with his heavy responsibilities. May all who stand with Zion in these difficult days intercede like never before for such gifts to be granted from the Heavenly Throne! "'For I will restore you to health, and I will heal you of your wounds,' declares the Lord. 'Because they have called you an outcast, saying: "It is Zion; no one cares for her."' (Jeremiah 30:17).  CR

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