- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Although the Kadima Party founded by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won Tuesday’s election, it prevailed by a smaller margin than had been expected. Several months ago, it appeared as if Kadima, now headed by interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, could win as many as 43 seats in the 120-member parliament; on Tuesday it won 29 seats.

Together with the second-place Labor Party, which won 22 seats, Kadima (along with a combination of smaller religious parties that include the Orthodox-oriented Shas and possibly the left-of-center Meretz Party), could put together a coalition with upwards of 70 votes in support of Mr. Olmert’s plan to remove settlements containing 60,000 Israelis — almost one-quarter of the Jewish population of the West Bank — by 2010.

Mr. Olmert said Tuesday that if the Palestinians halted terrorism and accepted Israel’s existence, there was still time to negotiate a peace agreement. But if not, he said Israel would act unilaterally to separate itself from the Palestinians and determine its own future borders: “Israel will take control of its own fate, and in consensus among our people and with the agreement of the world and U.S. President George Bush, we will act.” Mr. Bush, a strong supporter of Mr. Sharon’s disengagement policy, warmly congratulated Mr. Olmert on his victory and invited him to the White House.

It was to be expected that the election — the first since Mr. Sharon turned Israeli politics upside down in November by bolting the hawkish Likud Party and founding Kadima — would remake the country’s political map. But Israeli voters delivered some surprises.

Perhaps the most remarkable turn of events was the fall of the Likud Party headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With Mr. Sharon at the helm, Likud won 38 seats, making it easily the largest party in the current parliament; in the parliament elected yesterday, Likud plummeted to 11 seats, falling behind Shas, which won 13 seats and the new Yisrael Beitenu Party — headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a former aide to Mr. Netanyahu — which won 12 seats. Mr. Lieberman, a Moldovan immigrant, is sharply critical of Mr. Olmert’s plans to unilaterally withdraw from substantial portions of the West Bank. His party, which is oriented toward Israel’s burgeoning Russian immigrant population, instead advocates Israel relinquishing Arab towns in exchange for retention of West Bank settlements.

To a degree, a form of leftish economic populism appears to have played a role in the election results. Some exit polls suggest that much of the reason why Likud did so poorly is popular resentment toward Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts as finance minister in the Sharon government to implement painful cuts in public subsidies. Labor Party chief Amir Peretz based his campaign on that issue, while seeming to downplay his dovish views on security, and his party did surprisingly well. A new party aimed at winning more generous pensions came out of nowhere to win seven seats.

But Election Day also brought Israelis a reminder why that in the long run, national defense remains the No. 1 issue on the national agenda. Palestinian Islamic Jihad became the first terrorist group to fire a Katyusha rocket into Israel. The Katyushas have a range almost double that of the Kassam rockets fired at Israel thus far — giving Israel’s enemies the potential to target thousands more Israeli civilians.

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