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After the Elections: What's Next for Israel?

Posted: May 15, 2006

There is a sense of clarity in most people's minds in Israel now that the elections are over. The winners didn't gloat and the losers quietly faded away as the nation entered its 59th year. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented his government and quickly got to work, and since the platform of the ruling Kadima Party was laid out before the election, the agenda was not a surprise.


The country's 31st government reflects a new era in the Israeli psyche. Many are calling it the age of unilateralism which strikes an existentialist chord in the public that has seen the ideologies of Land for Peace, Greater Israel and even Zionist Socialism whither. The country chose a platform that called for the completion of the security fence, backed further consolidation of outlying Jewish settlements and a return focus to improving our own selves and our own welfare.


The age of the generals like Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin governing Israel is over.  A large number of legislators are now urbane, multilingual lawyers or academics or even union leaders, and this is a sign that the state is maturing.  Indeed, the two retired senior officers and two high ranking Shin Bet officials in the government were not given important ministries.


Even Olmert, who was far from Israel's most popular politicians, (he had finished 33rd in the previous Likud Party's primaries) won despite himself, mainly because Kadima's platform reflected the new direction Israelis want the country to take.  In fact, the government's new guidelines speak of a "new chapter in the life of the state of Israel that aspires to promote unity and peace, tolerance, mutual respect, restraint and love within the nation while reducing internal disagreement."


Even so, the new government's first week in office was a raucous one faced with challenges on all fronts.


Olmert's first order of the day was to approve (six months late) the 2006 draft budget of $61 billion.  The first meeting of the Cabinet coincided with banner headlines of the news that American billionaire Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had agreed to pay $4 billion in cash for 80 percent control of an Israeli machine tool company.  Yet, ironically, on the day of this large investment in the Israeli economy, this new social-policy oriented government increased the price of subsidized bread by 7 percent, leading to an embarrassing mini coalition crisis.


Labor Party leader Amir Peretz assumed his responsibilities as Defense Minister.  He is only the second non-general to head the ministry in the last 25 years.  The appointment of the social-minded leader of the Labor Party who had little military experience beyond his compulsory service caused a stir in the Israel Defense Forces, all the more so since Peretz arrives with an agenda to cut the defense budget.  He was immediately faced with mettle-testing decisions – a proposed targeted assassination of a Palestinian terrorist behind the incessant Kassam rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel, and the forceful removal of Jewish settlers from a disputed house in Hebron.  He approved both.


The defense establishment was further rocked by another civilian when Vice Premier Shimon Peres bluntly replied to threats by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying "Iran can also be wiped off the map." The comments seemed to contradict Israel's policy of holding its tongue in an effort to not turn Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations into a conflict between Jerusalem and Teheran instead of a global issue.


The most pressing issue facing Olmert's new government remains his so-called convergence plan for the West Bank. The new prime minister has said that the borders of the State of Israel will change significantly and there would be no referendum on this since he already made his intentions clear in the Kadima Party platform before the elections.


In a sign that the new government is still formulating its strategy, Olmert said that he would give the Palestinians six months instead of a year to come forward as partners to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal. After that, Israel would begin unilateral steps, which are reportedly being formulated now, for a gradual evacuation of sections of the West Bank, including many Israeli settlements. The media was skeptical as to whether Olmert's government had the wherewithal to actually carry out this convergence; the main reason being the lack of international support for unilateralism by Israel.


Olmert is scheduled to come to Washington, D.C. on May 22 to 25, where he will set out to establish a working rapport with President George W. Bush and try to present himself as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's heir and bolster support for his new government in his speech before Congress. Later, Olmert is scheduled to visit Egypt and Jordan and European capitals. Olmert believes he comes into office with a mandate - basically drawn up by Sharon – that is firmly backed by a majority of Israelis.


The challenge is whether Olmert will be confident and strong-willed enough to overcome the obstacles ahead and realize his potential to become a major figure in Israeli history, which, after all, is still only 58 years old and a work in progress.


* By Arieh O'Sullivan, Director of Communications at ADL's Israel Office in Jerusalem.

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Remarks by Ehud Olmert, Acting Prime Minister, to ADL's National Leadership Conference
April 25, 2006

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