- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tomorrow’s election in Israel will mark the first time that the new centrist Kadima Party formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late last year appears on the ballot.

Dating back to early December, Israeli public-opinion polls have been remarkably consistent in showing Mr. Sharon’s successor as Kadima Party leader, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as the clear favorite, winning between 35 to 45 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament) — putting him at least 15 seats ahead of his closest competitors: Labor Party chief Amir Peretz, a powerful union head who is campaigning mostly on economic populist themes, and Likud leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As would be expected in a nation that has been at war with its neighbors for all 57-plus years of its existance, the dominant issues in the Israeli campaign involve national security. Since no viable Palestinian peace partner exists, Mr. Olmert proposes to consolidate Israeli settlements (containing slightly over 190,000 Jews) in the West Bank into so-called settlement blocs that are generally adjacent to the Green Line — the border separating Israel and the West Bank from 1949 through 1967. These blocs would formally become part of Israel. Mr. Olmert’s proposal would require another 60,000 or so Jewish settlers east of the security fence to abandon their homes. (To prevent terrorists from using the land to attack Israel, Mr. Olmert would apparently permit Israeli security forces to remain in these areas.)

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Netanyahu has attacked Mr. Olmert for proposing unilateral concessions; Mr. Olmert now says that he will refuse to include in his coalition any party that rejects his settlement plan, which would appear to exclude Likud from the governing coalition — unless the party does so poorly at the polls that Mr. Netanyahu is forced out. At the moment, Mr. Olmert seems most likely to form a coalition with Labor on the left and/or smaller parties (in particular, the Russian-oriented party Yisrael Beitenu and the Orthodox Jewish party Shas) whose voters lean sharply to the right on security, and, taken together, may win at least as many seats as either Labor or Likud.

But Mr. Olmert is wary of forming a narrow coalition with security hawks who may bolt once he actually starts relinquishing settlements. And with nearly 20 percent of the electorate undecided and a volatile, deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories — there is always the possibility of a last-minute surprise from the voters.

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