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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Borderline Support

While some columnists claim that last week's election provided a 'clear mandate' for Kadima Achora's plan to expel 80,000 Jews from their homes, at National Review Online, Meyrav Wurmser sees it differently:

Riding on Sharon's overwhelming popularity, Kadima was predicted by most polls to win an enormous victory — between 36 and 45 out of 120 Knesset seats — as recently as last week. Certain of his party's triumph, Olmert did something atypical of Israeli candidates: he spelled out his post-elections political plan. He told a variety of newspapers that he intends to withdraw unilaterally from large parts of the West Bank and to evacuate about 80,000 settlers from their homes. Even Prime Minister Sharon, who gained the Israeli people's unwavering trust, did not spell out his plan to disengage from Gaza prior to the last elections, fearing that such a move would cost him votes. Olmert, on the other hand, was so certain that the majority of Israelis had moved to the center-left, in support of unilateral disengagement, that he did not feel the need to keep his plans to himself until after the elections.

But Olmert's confidence was premature. Instead of gaining the hoped-for 36-45 seats, Kadima won the elections with only 29. This result was disappointing to many in Kadima if only because they hoped the party would have more positions to hand out. But the results are most disappointing to the advocates of unilateral withdrawal.

The challenge now facing Ehud Olmert is how to build a broad coalition that will support this withdrawal. His natural allies include the Labor party, with twenty mandates, the Pensioners, with seven mandates, and the secular ultra-left Meretz party, with five. Although this does amount to 61 seats, the thin majority would leave such a government tremendously vulnerable to instability. Should the coalition survive and vote in favor of unilateral withdrawal, critics would surely claim it illegitimate and non-representative of the views of a very large minority.

To secure a more stable coalition, Olmert will have to turn to the large religious Shas party, which gained 12 mandates, or to the Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beitainu, which secured 11 mandates in the elections. If those two parties joined the coalition, Olmert could preside over a broad coalition of up to 84 mandates. Although it now seems likely that one or both will become members of the ruling coalition, this kind of a coalition would last only until Olmert launches his withdrawal plan. Shas's leaders, as well as the majority of its voters, strongly oppose unilateral withdrawals. In fact, in his victory speech following the elections, Shas's leader Eli Yishai emphasized, with tears in his eyes, his opposition to such border changes. Likewise, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitainu said as late as a week before the elections that his party, which advocates territorial exchanges with the Palestinians in order to maintain a clear Jewish majority in Israel, will oppose Olmert's unilateral withdrawals.

Although many Israel observers in Washington interpret Kadima's election as a mandate for unilateral withdrawals, the fact is that there is not a strong, reliable Zionist majority to support such a move. Olmert could rely on the support of one or more of the Communist or Arab parties (with a total of nine seats), which oppose Israel's existence as a Jewish nation, to carry out withdrawals. But opponents, including the settlers' Ichud Leumi (National Union) party, the secular right-wing parties, and the religious block (which together total 50 Knesset seats) would likely argue that this undermines the legitimacy of the withdrawal. No matter how wide a temporary coalition Olmert will be able to establish, his ability to maneuver and carry out his political plan will face strong opposition. The disengagement plan may just disengage the flimsy coalition.

I want to put this in perspective for all of you. In many - if not most - western countries, treaties require supermajorities of the legislature if not of the people. In Israel, they do not. No matter how you slice it, that makes them 'less legitimate' in the public's eye, especially when we're talking (as we are in this case) about truly existential issues. When Menachem Begin pushed the Camp David treaty with Egypt through the Knesset, he had over 90 votes in favor, and therefore he had a clear mandate to evacuate the Sinai. One of the reasons the so-called Oslo accords were never accepted by much of the country is that Oslo II - which was the real substance - was passed by a 61-59 vote in the Knesset in which two MK's were 'bribed' by the Rabin government to leave their party (Tzomet) and become a minister and a deputy minister. And the 61 included Arab MK's even with that. It ought to be the case that for this type of decision, some supermajority of the Knesset ought to be required (80? 90? MK's) and 'coalition discipline' ought to be banned so that MK's can vote their conscience (if they have one). Sadly, this is unlikely to happen (and the long litany of how the Gaza expulsion was pushed through last summer should be all the proof we need that it's unlikely to happen).


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