Israel's Election: Voting the Social Agenda

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OLEG POPOV / REUTERS

Newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his wife, Aliza, at the polling station Tuesday

In Old Jerusalem, it is the Jewish custom to fold written prayers inside the cracks of the Western Wall. Last night, after exit polls in the Israeli elections gave his centrist Kadima Party a slim lead over its rivals, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wedged his prayer between the stones. Translated from Hebrew, it said: "He who prays for my brother and friend I will speak peace to you."

Olmertís wish can apply to the Palestinians — and to his prospective coalition partners. With only 28 seats for Kadima in the 120-seat Knesset, Olmertís centrist party will need lots of friends, and plenty of prayers, to survive a full four-year term, political analysts say. A wobbly, Kadima-led government could end up being pulled in a dozen opposing directions by its future coalition partners. These will almost certainly include Labor (with 20 Knesset seats) and the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas (with 13) and possibly the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party (also with 13) representing the Russian-speaking immigrants around the country.

For many Israelis, this vote wasnít just about the big picture — dealing with a hostile Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. It was also about more personal issues: as Israel drifts away from its socialist origins of collective farms and all-embracing welfare towards bustling capitalism, it has ignored the poorer folks left behind. That, say analysts, explains the votersí tilt to parties such as Labor, led by Moroccan-born Amir Peretz, which focused its campaign on social inequalities, and the parties such as Shas and Beiteinu that championed the neglected but sizeable Sephardic and Russian communities. The Pensioners Party, whose sole platform was to improve benefits for elderly Israelis, was the surprise of the elections, garnering eight seats. All these factors coalesced to deal the once-dominant right-wing Likud party a resounding blow. Led by ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud scraped together only 11 seats. Netanyahu's harsh budget cuts in the mid-1990s are remembered in fury by many Israelis who sought revenge in these polls.

Yair Lapid, a columnist from the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, sums up the elections: "The people do not want to continue to hold on to the [occupied] territories, it supports the next disengagement, and it isnít willing to see its grandfather starve to death."

Only four months old, Kadima was created by Ariel Sharon with defectors — critics say "opportunists"— from Likud and Labor. And it took an iron-fisted patriarch like Sharon to hold this band of feisty Napoleons together. Party insiders admit that if Sharon were leading the party instead of lying in a coma after a January 4 stroke, Kadima would have fared far better. Now, Kadima will be at the mercy of many partners. Even as the votes were still being counted, Olmertís advisers last night say they were swamped by calls from prospective coalition allies wanting in on the deal.

Olmert, who was catapulted into the Kadima leadership after Sharonís terminal illness, has a reputation as a tough, often acerbic backroom pol. Even so, he will need plenty more prayers to weave together a smooth-running government — not to mention working out peace with the radical Palestinians of Hamas.