Israel Votes, But Little Will Change

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A poster of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seen on a traffic light pole in downtown on Jerusalem

Nowhere more than in Israel does the old anarchist aphorism hold true: No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in. That's because the Jewish State's proportional-representation democracy awards a parliamentary seat to any party able to muster a measly 1.5 percent of the popular vote, and that combined with the increasing "tribalization" of its electorate has made it an iron rule of Israeli politics that no party ever wins a simple majority. Instead, the leader of the party that wins the most seats then faces weeks of horse-trading with a plethora of small and medium-sized parties to cobble together a coalition government capable of passing legislation by a simple majority in the 120-seat Knesset. But as deep as the political divisions among Israel's 6 million citizens run — hard-line nationalists vs. peaceniks and Israeli Arabs; ultra-Orthodox vs. secularists; the poorer Sephardic Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab countries vs. the Ashkenazi Jewish elite with its cultural and political roots in Europe, with the almost 1 million Russian immigrants of varying degrees of Jewishness tilting the balance hither and thither — external threats create the cement that binds it together.

Tuesday's election is likely to produce a familiar outcome. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to trounce his Labor Party challenger Amram Mitznah, whose platform is based on seeking a to renew dialogue with the Palestinians over an Oslo-based peace agreement, and on a program to stimulate an economy mired in its worst recession in 50 years. Sharon is campaigning on the basis of continuity of his tough policies against the Palestinian uprising and postponing political negotiations until after it has been suppressed. In many ways, it's a rerun of the contest between Sharon and his predecessor, Ehud Barak — and two years later, Sharon is once again the runaway favorite to carry the day despite (or, perhaps because of) the continuing security crisis and its social and economic costs.

But a runaway victory in Israel is a relative term: Sharon's Likud Party is expected to win some 30 seats, as against Labor's 19. That will leave him forced to choose between a range of coalition options. A "National Unity" government comprising the opposite ideological poles of the dovish Labor Party and the hawkish Likud has traditionally been a temporary solution to immediate crises confronting the embattled Jewish State, and the endemic security crisis in the West Bank and Gaza has made it, increasingly, the default setting of Israeli politics. Sharon headed up a unity government until Labor bolted in search of an independent identity shortly before the latest poll, and he has made clear that a National Unity government comprising Labor and some smaller right-wing and religious parties is his first choice of coalition arrangements. But Mitznah maintains that unity governments prevent Israel from being presented with the decisive choices for peace, which for him include withdrawing from most of the West Bank and Gaza and evacuating most Israeli settlements there. He represents the dovish wing of the party that overthrew Sharon's erstwhile Labor coalition partner, former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and has vowed to stay out of any unity government with Sharon in the belief that his party can more effectively present the peace option from the opposition benches.

Mitznah may face an internal revolt that could see Labor once again accepting the junior role in Sharon's government, but if not, he may have to look towards a narrower coalition of hard-line nationalist and religious parties. The wildcard in the current election, however, is the centrist Shinui party of Tommy Lapid, which has surged from the political margins on a platform of militant secularism. Lapid's peace policies are somewhat vague, but his challenge to the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox who are exempt from military service and study at state expense has proved so popular that Shinui stands to win a potential king-making role with 14 seats. Lapid's dream ticket is a Likud-Labor-Shinui coalition, which would mark the first time in decades that Israel's secular parties were able to rule without paying disproportionate political tribute to the smaller religious parties.

Whatever the configuration of the next coalition, it's a relative certainty that Tuesday's election will return Sharon to power — and lead to a continuation of current policies. And of the current deadlock. Suicide bombers continue to strike inside Israel and gunmen attack settlements; Israeli troops maintain their occupation of the West Bank and raid Gaza's population centers. Sharon says he has a peace plan but says he's waiting for an end to Palestinian violence and the effective ouster of Yasser Arafat before it can be implemented; the Palestinians maintain that little can change in their political dynamic as long as they remain under Israeli occupation. Although the U.S. has together with European allies formulated a "road map" for rapid movement towards a Palestinian state, the Bush administration has thus far declined to put pressure on Sharon by committing publicly to the plan. U.S. positions typically play a major role in shaping the choices of the Israeli electorate — by pushing strongly for accommodation with the Palestinians, the first Bush administration helped elect Yitzhak Rabin and the Clinton administration actively campaigned to elect Barak. The current Bush administration, however, agreed to keep the "road map" off the table during Israel's election season. And that may explain why, as Israel went to the polls Tuesday for an election whose outcome is all but given, one bitter peacenik Israeli commentator observed that the only vote that really counts belongs to George Bush.