Israelis at U reflect on election pivotal for Israel’s future

Megan Kadrmas

Although they could not vote in Tuesday’s elections, Israeli immigrants at the University closely followed political events back in Israel.

The race for control over the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, was billed by experts as the most important yet least inspiring ballot in Israel’s nearly 58 years of existence. Voter turnout and election results seemed to affirm these predictions.

Kadima, the centrist party formed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon only months ago, won the election by a slim margin. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who replaced Sharon after his Jan. 4 stroke and subsequent coma, will retain his position.

Kadima earned 28 of 120 parliament seats. This number falls short of expert predictions of 35 seats and Kadima’s goal of 40.

These results, according to Oren Gross, an Irving Younger professor of law and an Israeli citizen, will make the task of establishing a coalition for control of parliament difficult.

“If Sharon, by personality, could maybe glue (the coalition) together, I’m very doubtful Olmert could,” he said.

Itai Himelboim, a School of Journalism and Mass Communications doctoral candidate, is an Israeli citizen who has been in the United States since 2003. He said disagreement over how to define Israel’s borders was what made this an important election.

“For the first time, the largest parties and the leading political candidates declared before the elections that if they win, they will withdraw from large parts of the West Bank and evacuate thousands of Jewish settlers,” Himelboim said. “Israelis voted yes to that.”

Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, and his party support a hard-line security stance, but take a different approach to territory disputes with Palestinians.

Olmert vowed during a victory celebration to continue his plan to abandon smaller Jewish West Bank settlements and annex larger ones within four years.

“Improving Israeli-Palestinian relations is the role of the prime minister,” Himelboim said.

Gross said a huge factor in low voter turnout was the lack of promising options for many potential voters.

“Olmert, until a year ago, was one of the least attractive politicians in Israel and would certainly not be someone you would vote for voluntarily to anything like being the prime minister,” Gross said.

Olmert won because of Sharon’s impact on Israeli politics, Gross said.

“Basically, Sharon still won the elections. He won the elections from his bed in Hadassah (Medical Center),” Gross said.

Brett Willner, a junior Jewish studies and Arab-Israeli relations major who is studying in Tel Aviv this semester, agreed that many Israelis weren’t attracted to any particular candidates. He also said corruption within parliament has turned off many voters.

“I asked my taxicab driver last night if he voted. He said no, and when I asked why not, he said, ‘I don’t trust any of them,’ ” Willner said.

Social issues surprised many by playing a large role in campaign platforms. Social agenda parties such as Shays and the Pensioners Party earned more significant places in parliament than expected.

“This was a huge victory for the social agenda in Israel. Helping the poor and retired and reducing the gap between rich and poor were all important issues like they haven’t been before,” Willner said.

Only 17 seats separate the top five parties within the Knesset. Gross said the next month will be vital in understanding where Kadima plans to lead the government based on how they form a coalition.

“I think that if I had to put it into one word, I would say mess,” Gross said. “There were almost no winners in this election.”