- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

Israel’s Kadima center party, created by Ariel Sharon shortly before he suffered the massive stroke that threw him into a coma, has won the elections — but just barely. However, this will guarantee the prime minister’s office to Ehud Olmert, along with a difficult task.

Mr. Olmert has a record of filling shoes of those larger than his own when it comes to assuming political office. The new prime minister followed Teddy Kollek as mayor of Jerusalem; Mr. Kollek was one of the most popular mayors of the city.

Now, Mr. Olmert finds himself propelled into the post of prime minister to fill the boots left empty by Mr. Sharon, one of the giants of Israeli politics.

Mr. Olmert inherits the mantle of leadership at one of the most crucial moments in the history of Israel, as the country has to face the reality of dealing with a Palestinian government led by Hamas, a group that has vowed to destroy Israel.

Yet the 28 seats Kadima won in the 120-seat Knesset does not allow the party to form a government on its own and Mr. Olmert will need to form a coalition with one or more parties. What we will most likely see is a realignment of the status quo as the winners and losers reposition themselves and assess the situation.

Two important observations that emerge as a result of these elections: the effect it had on the candidates and the effect the campaign had on the electorate.

First, regarding the politicians, it is interesting to note who the winners and losers are in this campaign. The biggest loser in the election is the Likud and its new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud scored its worst election result ever.

Second, despite Kadima’s victory, Israeli observers find that Mr. Olmert is the second-biggest loser because he had hoped for a far better result, as most pre-election polls had predicted.

Third, Labor also counts among the losers, having performed very poorly, winning 20 seats in the Knesset.

But the biggest loser in these elections is not the candidates or the political parties but the democratic system in Israel with the country registering its lowest voter turnout ever.

The lethargy shown by the Israeli electorate at a time when the nation is struggling with an Islamist government that has brought Israel’s enemies closer than ever to its gates.

Professor Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, and Ofer Shelah, a senior columnist for Yedioth Ahronot, attribute this phenomenon to the failure of the Camp David accords and the Palestinian intifada. They blame the politicians for “making most of the Israeli public believe peace can be achieved in our time.”

Mockery of the political process, say Israeli experts, counts for much in turning the country’s young away from politics. Satirical television shows created a belief that all is corrupt: the country, the politicians and the system.

Most of the information many of Israel’s youth receive comes from these satirical shows. The result is that the young have either had very little interest or no interest at all in Israeli politics.

“It’s the Jon Stewart syndrome of Israel,” said Steven L. Spiegel, director of the Mideast Regional Security Program at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA, in reference to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

So what will the outcome of a Kadima-led coalition bring? To start with, possibly a postponement of Mr. Olmert’s plans to establish final borders for the state of Israel. Again, the experts say that the idea of Israel’s unilateral move — if the Palestinians refuse to negotiate — will most likely be put on ice for at least one year to 18 months. And that, of course, takes us right up to the next U.S. presidential elections.

Should this be the case it will leave two major outstanding policy issues — Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — for the next U.S. administration to grapple with.

Among the immediate hurdles Mr. Olmert will face is the growing popularity of Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman who pledged to his supporters that “after the next election, we will be the ruling party.” Mr. Lieberman wants to move the borders around existing Arab towns and villages so as to create a state with a majority Jewish population.

With the elections behind them Israel is starting a new day, but one that nevertheless comes with a complicated set of political problems. Those will without a doubt challenge Prime Minister Olmert, who will once again have to prove he can fill the shoes in which he landed.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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