TCS Daily

Why Not Olmert?

By Michael Rosen - February 3, 2006 12:00 AM

While Hamas's victory in last week's Palestinian parliamentary elections stunned most of the world, for Israelis the shock took the form of a jolting return to normalcy.

Normal how? In the weeks since 77-year-old Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a devastating stroke that felled him and ended his political career, the Jewish state all but put politics on hold.

This is exceptionally strange in a country that wallows in the intrigue of parliamentary maneuvers, the constant specter of new elections, and, sadly, the rhythm of murderous attacks and counter-terror operations.

But for nearly a month, the Israeli electorate -- which will elect a new Prime Minister and Knesset on March 28 -- had quite understandably been plunged into a nether-land of hesitation and uncertainty. As news-cameras ringed Hadassah hospital, awaiting hourly updates on Sharon's condition, the chattering classes temporarily shelved their heated rhetoric.

At the same time, many pundits in Israel, Europe, and the US predicted that Sharon's upstart Kadima party would collapse, presaging the voters' return to the two traditional parties of the right and left, Likud and Labor. After all, they figured, because Kadima - a faction Sharon founded several months ago after bolting the fractious Likud - was a party built around one man, it wouldn't hold up once its patron left the scene. Kadima's left-leaning members would scamper back to their home in Labor while its rightists would return to Likud.

But a funny thing happened on the way back to the political status quo: Kadima, which means "forward" in Hebrew, has maintained its vector. The polls shortly before Sharon's stroke predicted that the party would receive 40 seats compared to 19 for Labor and 15 for Likud. But surveys taken over the past week reveal that Kadima would now take 41-44 seats while Labor would capture between 16 and 19 slots and Likud 13-17. Furthermore, the man currently replacing Sharon - Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - enjoys a 41% approval rating while Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu's support hovers around 22% and Labor's Amir Peretz polls even lower at 12%. While the effect of "Hamastan" has yet to be measured by opinion surveys, it will likely reinforce the thrust of Kadima.

But first, what is this new party - and who is its leader?

Ehud Olmert, 60, was a long-time member of Likud, its predecessor Herut, and one of its youth arms, Betar, founded by Israeli pioneer Ze'ev Jabotinsky. (Full disclosure: Olmert was my landlord during the year I lived in Jerusalem. I slept in the bedroom formerly occupied by his daughter and he was a fine landlord, but I never met him in person.)

Olmert's demeanor and appearance - sometimes bespectacled, glum, and combed-over - suggests he'll be a good fit for one of the more thankless jobs on the planet. While he cannot boast a distinguished military record like Sharon, he has - like his mentor - accumulated his ideological bona fides, stridently opposing the left since the 1950's and rising to power with Herut in the 1970's. His upset victory in Jerusalem's 1993 mayoral election put him on the map, and he has climbed the political ladder ever since.

Olmert has the reputation of a plucky, prickly pol who's not afraid to articulate his beliefs to a hostile audience. He's also known for his "flexibility" -- like Sharon, he has eschewed a lifelong devotion to retaining all of the settlements and towns in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, it was Olmert who first floated what became Sharon's plan to disengage from Gaza.

While Sharon never acknowledged that they intend to remove further far-flung settlements in the West Bank, Olmert -- and Kadima -- last week announced they would do just that if elected. Their basic logic: it will be impossible for Israel to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state if it continues to encompass within its borders 3.5 million Palestinians. At the same time, while Olmert has confirmed his allegiance to the so-called "road-map" for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), he has recognized until now that Israel has no choice but to act unilaterally until PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas asserts control over the terrorists dwelling in his midst. Now that the terrorists actually control the PA, negotiations are off the table entirely.

And it is this approach -- far more than any divine faith in the power of Sharon -- that characterizes Kadima and accounts for its popularity among the Israeli populace.

After five years of a terror war that Israel thankfully won, albeit at great cost, citizens of the Jewish state by and large categorically reject the pie-in-the-sky hopes for peace and tranquility promised by Labor since the Oslo Accords. Labor's Peretz, formerly the head of Israel's largest trade union, is a member of Peace Now and an unreconstructed socialist bent on enlarging the already-bloated Israeli welfare state. His dismal polling reflects unpopularity even among his own ethnic brethren: Sephardic Jews, who trace their roots to Middle Eastern countries.

At the same time, the right hasn't offered convincing solutions to Israel's existential concerns. While Netanyahu has admirably attempted to steer Israel's economy away from its socialist origins -- as Finance Minister under Sharon, his privatization programs have jumpstarted Israel's economy -- Likud has offered little in the way of an alternative to Sharon's plan. And while the Palestinian "demographic time-bomb" has been exposed as a serious exaggeration, population growth rates in the PA are still a cause for concern; the right has not presented any coherent or realistic way of confronting them.

Kadima stands generally for resisting the allure of the peace treaty at the end of the rainbow; with Hamas in charge, the rainbow has grown yet duller and more distant. It also stands for consolidating its hold on the Jewish population centers of the West Bank by completing the security fence while cutting loose those settlements whose protection has become increasingly costly in lives and shekels. Under the same principles, the party is even poised to make realistic concessions on Jerusalem, possibly by granting sovereignty to Palestinians in certain exclusively Arab neighborhoods while annexing large Jewish towns on the other side of the Green Line that neighbor the capital. As the former mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert is especially well-positioned to carry out such a plan, which enjoys growing, if tentative, support among Israelis.

Perhaps emblematic of this trend is Ehud Barak, the one-time Israeli prime minister who many believe sparked the second intifada by offering too much to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000. Barak, who headed Labor, spoke in San Diego earlier this month and positively gushed about Sharon -- the man who trounced him in 2001 in the most lopsided election in Israeli history. He also offered words of praise for Olmert, describing him as an able leader who could command the respect of the electorate. Tellingly, Barak had little to say about Netanyahu -- the prime minister whom he ousted in 1999 -- or Peretz, the leader of his party.

The election, of course, isn't for 100 days -- an eternity in Israeli politics. Centrist parties have traditionally fared poorly in Israel, despite encouraging starts. Hamas may act recklessly, thereby helping Netanyahu's chances. And Kadima's large electoral advantage may erode, prompting some of its members to jump ship.

But stay tuned: an Olmert-led Kadima could unite the vast majority of Israelis who desire a realistic approach to the demographic and security threat posed by the Palestinians.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributing writer, lived in Israel from 1994-95 and 1999-2000.


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