Ehud Olmert's Kadima party won less than a quarter of the available Knesset seats (29 out of 120) in the March 28 Israeli parliamentary elections. It appears that a plurality of voters now favor left-leaning economic policies and unilateral withdrawal from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Some allege that the ideology of the Land of Israel, which includes Judea and Samaria, has been abandoned. Others talk about the end of the Zionist era in Israel.
Regardless of its battle fatigue and post-Zionist dovishness, however, Israel lacks a Palestinian peace partner, which bodes ill for security and prosperity in the Holy Land. The Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority continues to call for the destruction of Israel and is likely to start a new terror war in the future. It issued a chilling statement justifying the Thursday suicide bombing near the village of Kedumim, which took lives of two grandparents and a teenager. The U.S. should recognize and prepare for the possibility of a new round of a terror aggression against the Jewish State.
Kadima disappointed in these elections. The polls predicted a massive victory, which would make Kadima a dominant force in the center, pushing aside Labor and Likud. But the elections, with the lowest turnout rate in Israeli history (63 %), upset pollsters' predictions.
The big surprise was on the center-right: the Likud, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, won only 12 seats. It now shares the second and the third place with the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party, and it is only a question of time before a bitter leadership fight ensues in the once-proud creation of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon.
Unpopular after his 1996-1999 stint as prime minister and championing deep cuts in the social safety net under Sharon, Netanyahu led his party to its deepest humiliation since its inception in 1975. Several Likud leaders abandoned the party for Kadima, including Olmert, former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni, and Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi.
Israel Our Home (Israel Beiteinu), predominantly Russian-speaking party led by the former Netanyahu chief of staff Avigdor Lieberman came in with astounding 11 seats and will compete with the Likud for the mantle of the leader on the right.
The Labor Party, led by populist super-dove Amir Peretz, who advocates socialist tax and spend policies, came in second with 20 seats.
Kadima's security policy is a far cry from reality. Olmert, despite his personal and political roots in the nationalist Herut movement, ran on a platform of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with no reciprocal political agreements, such as a peace treaty or a long-term ceasefire, with the Palestinians. The proposed retreat under terrorist fire requires relocating up to 80,000 Jewish residents, and will further bitterly split Israeli society, possibly resulting in violent resistance.
Olmert will need a coalition with Labor to implement the grand retreat. Peretz is likely to demand a massive "social spending package," which will reverse Netanyahu's budget cuts and send Israel's economy back to the dark days of 2003, when it took a beating in the wake of repeated terrorist attacks.
Smaller parties, such as Sephardi Orthodox Shas, may join the coalition in exchange for funding for its social programs, but Shas and its leader the former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef are hawkish on security and its support may be tentative. As a result, Olmert's coalition may be narrow and divisive.
Olmert announced that he would first seek a Palestinian partner for peace talks. But Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, calls for its destruction, and will not denounce terror. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose goal is to establish a Sharia state throughout the Middle East and beyond. Radical and often violent, it is supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia, and claims that all Holy Land is the land of the Islamic religious endowment (Waqf). Hamas has already allowed Al Qaeda and Hizballah to penetrate Gaza to provide terrorist training and begin recruitment of terror cells for the next war.
Under the circumstances, a unilateral withdrawal is likely to invite more violence. Despite Israel's complete withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas militants fire Qassam and Katyusha rockets on Israeli towns and cities daily, threatening one of the country's key power stations. If Israel pulls out, Hamas will control the strategic mountain ranges that dominate the coastal planes of Israel. If missiles are fired from the West Bank, Israel's densely populated central plane and its Ben Gurion International airport will be vulnerable. And Hamas, whose dozens of attacks have killed and wounded hundreds of men, women and children, is likely to resort to these tactics once again as it establishes political control.
U.S. strategic priorities in the Middle East are at stake, including credibility, ability to stand against terrorist organizations -- even elected ones. America still hopes to affect regional dynamics in the direction of tolerance, civil society and the rule of law.
The U.S. also needs to prevent Israel from becoming a security burden or being overwhelmed by terror. The Bush Administration and the State Department should take assertive diplomatic measures to promote stability in the face of these daunting challenges.
The U.S. should spearhead a worldwide campaign to isolate Hamas, not just among Western allies, but vis-a-vis the U.N., Russia, China, the Arab and Muslim world, and other developing countries. This campaign should include cessation of all economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority, as for the last decades billions of misallocated assistance dollars ended up in off-shore bank accounts controlled by Yassir Arafat, his cronies, and his family members. Moreover, funds are fungible, and Hamas will likely divert them to terrorist uses, such as buying weapons and paying off suicide bombers' families.
The U.S. and the international community should demand that Hamas not only recognize Israel, abandon violence, and adhere to the "road map", including dismantlement of its heavily armed militias, but also cease and desist from systematic brainwashing of the Palestinian population, including children, to become suicide bombers in the guise of "holy warriors" (mujahideen).
Israeli voters have demonstrated once again that they are willing to support far-reaching compromise for peace. Until such time as Palestinians produce a realistic leadership willing to compromise and negotiate peaceful arrangements, the US should make it clear to Israel that it has full rights to protect itself against terror threats by all means necessary -- just as the US does.
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