by David Eden
As the President of Israel begins the process of appointing a Member of Knesset (MK) to form the next government and be Prime Minister (PM), he is holding meetings with representatives of all parties elected to the 17th Knesset (Parliament). During these meetings, each party will advise President Katsav as to their preference, and he will decide which candidate has the best chance to form a coalition. While the main issue in the elections was future steps that would lead to further disengagement and Israeli withdrawal from areas of the West Bank, the economy, budget, and social issues will be key factors in forming the new coalition. In their efforts to influence the outcome, and the issues that they will be able to push forward, improbable combinationsof parties will be proposed. Alliances will be made and broken, just to gain any advantage in negotiations. In the end, Ehud Olmert, will be the one.
A Breakdown of the Parties on the Issue of Disengagement:
There is a clear majority for withdrawal from West Bank, either through negotiations with the Palestinians or unilateral action by Israel:
63 – Kadima 29, Labor 19, Meretz 5, Raam/Tal (United Arab List) 4, Hadash (Communist led list) 3, Balad (Arab centered party – rival to Raam/Tal) 3
7 – Pensioners
6 – United Torah Judaism
Against Gaza Disengagement, but maneuvering to be potential coalition partners (both of these parties have strong social issues constituencies:
12 – Shas
11 – Israel Beitenu
12 – Likud
9 – National Union/Mafdal (National Religious Party-NRP) (Alliance of 2 Right wing/pro-settler parties)
Olmert will have a lot of headaches putting a coalition together. It is 100% certain that he will have to bring Labor into the coalition. Theoretically, Olmert could form a coalition without Labor, and also without Likud and (hard Right) National Union/NRP, although such a coalition (Kadima, Shas, Israel Beitenu, Pensioners, & UTJ – 65 MKs) would probably not be cohesive or supportive of withdrawal from Occupied Territories in the West Bank, and this would be unacceptable to both the majority of Israelis and the US. The presence of Labor as main coalition partner will anchor Olmert’s new coalition firmly in the pro-withdrawal camp. Still, there are a lot of possible conflicts between Kadima and all its possible partners, mainly regarding economic/social issues – these will be a problem for Kadima to accept, in view of their Free Market/Privatization policies.
There are several issues that possible coalition partners have to deal with. With the core of 63 pro-withdrawal MKs, Olmert has the luxury/dilemma of being able to play some of the players off each other as they negotiate joining the coalition, possibly “bringing down the price”. To guarantee a “stable” coalition, other than (his own) Kadima and Labor, Olmert only needs the support of 2 of these 3 parties. The political jockeying will also set up political rivalries that can make his own position easier to maintain. The 3 parties in the running to be junior coalition partners:
· Shas – This party cannot afford to be left out of the coalition. With its widespread education/welfare services, it needs to be in the government to get funding for their programs, otherwise they are in danger of losing the support of large segments of their constituency. If they are desperate, they will be more accommodating to Olmert. One possible obstacle to their joining the government is that their spiritual leader opposed the withdrawal from Gaza. In the past, however, he has supported territorial compromise, saying that saving the lives of Jews is more important than keeping all the territories. Olmert will certainly use the tactic of simultaneously negotiating with both Shas and Israel Beitenu, hoping to lower the cost of their demands. One possible factor that may influence the outcome is that Shas has often cooperated on social issues with both Labor and Meretz, and the 3 parties may well support each other in presenting something of a united front in negotiations with Olmert.
· Israel Beitenu – Led by Avigdor (Yvette) Lieberman (immigrated to Israel in the 70’s from Moldova-USSR). Lieberman was Likud leader Bibi Natanyahu’s chief of staff, and is identified with the Right. Opposed the withdrawal from Gaza, and proposes a territorial and population exchange as a solution to the issue of Israel domination of the West Bank: towns and villages of Israeli Arabs (citizens of the State of Israel) along the borders would be placed under Palestinian Authority control, in exchange for Israeli annexation of areas of the West Bank where there are Jewish settlements. Dual purpose is to assure that settlements will remain part of Israel, and that Israeli Arabs are removed from the Jewish State. Endorses reduced rights for non-Jews in Israel, including abrogation of voting rights. More of a Nationalist than a traditional right-wing party, the party has the support of possibly 50% of the (million) Russian immigrants who arrived in the last 15-20 years. As their representative, the party is concerned with social issues: employment, health insurance, education, etc., this pushes them towards the center of the political map. They will also take the position that if Olmert chooses to bring Shas into the coalition instead of Israel Beitenu, he is actually preferring Sephardic Jews at the expense of the large Russian population in Israel. (There is a racist undertone to relations between Russian immigrants and some of the other ethnic groups in Israel, Jewish as well as non-Jewish). A possible stumbling block is that Labor will find it difficult to sit in a coalition as a partner with Lieberman, as most Labor supporters consider him a racist.
· The Pensioners Party – The Pensioners ran a single-issue campaign. Veteran intelligence officer Rafi Eitan, who was involved in the Jonathan Pollard espionage affair, holds the # 1 position on their election list. With a strong security orientation, and an opponent of concessions to the Arabs in the past, it is believed that he has moderated some of his positions (similar to Ariel Sharon). One of the real surprises of the elections, it seems that the Pensioners drew support from mostly Center Left and Center Right voters, and as such may be an easy fit for joining Olmert’s coalition. If they succeed in joining the probable Labor – Shas social issues alliance, the tri-partite group will probably have a strong influence on the new government’s economic and social policies. If they remain out of the coalition, the individual Members of Knesset from this list will be courted by many other parties. If they do not maintain cohesion, it is doubtful they will be able to garner much support in future elections.
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