Winners and losers: Lawrence Joffe looks at the results of the Israeli elections and what they might mean for the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories.

Author:Joffe, Lawrence

A YEAR AGO, ARIEL SHARON WAS ISRAEL'S PRIME MINISTER, SAFELY ensconced having overwhelmingly won general elections in 2003 at the head of Likud. Shimon Peres, well into his 80s, headed Israel's second party, Labour, and Mahmoud Abbas had just been elected president of the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile some 8,000 settlers, and many more Israeli soldiers, were still dotted throughout the Gaza Strip.

One year later, the Gaza settlers are no more; Sharon lies in a deep coma; his former deputy, Ehud Olmert, is prime minister; and the victorious party that Olmert heads and Sharon founded--called Kadima--did not even exist before November 2005. The Moroccan-born Amir Peretz, moreover, now heads Labour, and as we go to press is busily horse-trading to determine the terms under which his representatives will re-enter government.

Meanwhile, Shimon Peres, having been ousted as Labour leader by Peretz last November, left the party he had served for some six decades to become Olmert's deputy. Some saw him as Kadima's liberal conscience; others, as their bridge to the outside world, especially Washington, where he is evidently more prized than in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Most remarkably, Likud--effectively sabotaged by its creator, Sharon, and now led by former premier, Benjamin Netanyahu--is a decimated shell of its former self.

And in late January, on the other side of the fence--or should we say 'separation wall'?--the Islamist grouping Hamas vanquished the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah to take over the running of the Palestinian Authority. Its formal refusal to recognise Israel raised the spectre of renewed violence, or at least that of a continuation of the current no-war no-peace conundrum.

Notwithstanding these bewildering changes of fortune, several commentators described the run-up to polling day as the dullest in living memory. The 63% voter turnout--comparatively low by Israeli standards--seemed to betoken disenchantment with politics altogether. Or perhaps the very tumult of events simply exhausted the electorate. It is equally possible that the sudden departure of the dominant Ariel Sharon left formerly impassioned voters feeling bereft. Whatever the case, Israel's election campaign and the results themselves proved something of an anti-climax.

However, there is another view. It was not so much that voters did not know what they wanted or were merely "apathetic", goes this line of thinking. Rather, voters cast their ballots on different issues, expressing different agendas: hence results which might look like a muddled patchwork quilt, but which reflect voters' myriad interests with some accuracy.

It is not exactly what former Labour Knesset representative, Haim Ramon, had in mind when two years ago he predicted Israeli politics would undergo a 'big bang'. The metaphor, derived from astrophysics, denotes an immense, seismic event; one which, in this case, would entail a total reconfiguration of Israeli politics. Ramon dreamt of a new mega-party that would clarify the confusion in politics, and encapsulate the new consensus. This he defined as broad support for unilateral withdrawals from the territories--assuming the absence of a negotiating partner amongst Palestinians--and a commitment to a freer streamlined economy.

True, a new centrist party, Kadima, was duly formed out of the increasingly beleaguered rump of Likud that coalesced around Sharon; and Ramon was the first of several Labourites to join its ranks. But while Kadima did overcome both Labour and Likud at the ballot box, it ultimately scored just 29 mandates --considerably less than the 44 predicted just weeks earlier. Labour, meanwhile, won 19 seats--exactly the same as it won in 2003.

This means that Kadima, Israel's supposed premier party, holds less than a quarter of all seats in the Knesset. Hardly the commanding centre that Ramon envisaged. Instead, the old demon of too many parties returned--a reflection of Israel's very pure form of proportional representation, and one that has perennially necessitated cumbersome coalitions.

Speaking at London's Chatham House the day after the elections, Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow with the think tank's Middle East programme, predicted Kadima's smaller seats tally would reduce its bargaining power in negotiations towards forming the next government. Olmert was compelled to forge a broad coalition; so broad and disparate, in fact, that Mekelberg foresaw any resultant government crumbling before it had served a full term.

Three weeks after the polls closed, it seems Mekelberg's first prediction was borne out: at first Labour's Amir Peretz played poker by trying to form another Likud/Labour pact, this time to exclude Kadima from top office. It was an ideological non-starter, and disappointed...

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