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by Fawzia Sheikh

Israel: "We Will Ignore Hamas-led Palestine And Make It Irrelevant"

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Fresh after winning the most votes in last week's general election, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party must now form a coalition willing to implement policies ranging from setting the country's borders to addressing socio-economic problems.

Because Kadima won a smaller bloc in Israel's 120-seat parliament than was expected -- at one point the party, which gained 29 seats, was predicted to secure more than 40 -- it aims to patch together an alliance of partners that may include the Labor party (19), the ultra-orthodox parties Shas (12) and United Torah Judaism (6), the senior citizen-focused Pensioners (7), and the right-wing Israel Beiteinu (12).

Labor's 19-seat win will make it a senior partner in the coalition, expected to fall into place over the next few weeks. Kadima needs to form a coalition government that has at least 61 seats.

Public and backroom clashes are intensifying over control of the major Cabinet portfolios: defense, finance, education, justice and foreign affairs.

It has been suggested that Labor be awarded the defense post. But it prefers running the finance ministry because that "controls the socio-economic agenda, which is the main issue they went to the elections with," Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Jerusalem-based Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, told IPS.

Labor, Pensioners and Shas joining forces in the social ministries would "turn Israel into a socialist paradise," says Ira Shakansky, professor of political science and public administration at the Israeli Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Israel's extensive military is a strain on its budget, which leaves scant offerings for "what the Israeli left wants to provide the people," he told IPS.

Although at times Olmert's plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank and establish Israel's permanent borders within four years became a focal point during the elections, the country's socio-economic ills also played into Israelis' votes. Issues at the forefront included pension reform, increasing the minimum wage and expanding health care.

"There are a number of cases where (former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s) cut welfare benefits so quickly that people were really thrown into distress," Sharkansky said.

Meanwhile, there are mixed views on how the government will approach security.

As it stands, Baskin said, coalition candidates like Shas will not back the destruction of Israeli settlements "unless it will save Jewish lives."

The Pensioners, likewise, may not agree to a major pullout from the West Bank. The party campaigned on the themes of pension reform and rights for older Israelis, and has not articulated a political platform, Sharkansky said.

Sharkansky believes if Kadima and Labor fail to sway their likeliest coalition partners to give up territory, the danger in soliciting the help of parties outside government like left-wing Meretz (5) or the Arab groups (10) is that they will encourage giving more land to Palestinians.

Some experts believe Kadima will first push for negotiated peace with the Palestinians over the next six months to a year.

Baskin said it is probable Olmert and President Bush will develop another plan to engage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has said that the United States does not oppose a one-sided re-drawing of the map of Israel but prefers negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority.

Some Palestinians watching the election results that point to a weak center-left government are concerned about the rise of nationalistic parties like Israel Beiteinu, founded by a Russian immigrant, which won 11 seats.

"I'm worried that in three, four, five years we'll see a very extremely right-wing government," said Professor Assad Ghanem, head of the government department at the Israeli Haifa University.

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel Beiteinu, is the most vocal about excluding Palestinians from Israeli society, Ghanem told IPS. "We know from Israeli surveys, half of Israelis don't want Palestinians to be here."

Sharkansky said there is a disconcerting possibility that Israel Beiteinu may join the coalition government. Palestinians, he said, are familiar with Lieberman's hope one day to forcefully transfer Palestinian citizens living legally in Israel to the West Bank and Gaza. Under such a scenario, they would lose their homes and businesses.

"He might get some of what he wants," said Sharkansky. Once in government, Lieberman would bombard Palestinians through the Israeli media with messages to leave Israel, he said.

"More of them might leave," he said. Or, "they might get violent and use Lieberman as an excuse."

Apart from the political right picking up steam, Israel's election saw the demoralization of former political heavyweight Likud.

"Likud is in big trouble," said Baskin. "They've lost most of their support."

The party, which earned 12 seats, is destined for an internal power struggle as some members demand the resignation of Netanyahu, who the electorate mistrusts, Baskin said.

Baskin described Netanyahu's dream of clinging to a "Greater Israel" as out of synch with the wish of many Israelis to leave the West Bank and thereby shrink the borders.

Although the business of hammering together a coalition is not likely to be smooth, Sharkansky said, "Olmert is very much a pragmatist. He will make the deals he has to, to run the country."

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Albion Monitor   April 5, 2006   (

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