Kadima’s balancing act

Dov Waxman
4 April 2006

The victory of the four-month old Kadima party in the Israeli election of 28 March 2006 represents a triumph of pragmatism and moderation, albeit not an overwhelming one. Bridging the divide between centre-left and centre-right Israelis, Kadima captured the all-important middle-ground before the campaign season got underway and never relinquished it, despite Likud's attempts to depict it as a left-wing party.

The pledge of Kadima leader and interim prime minister Ehud Olmert – who inherited both roles after Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke in early January – finally to establish Israel's permanent borders and unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank by 2010, appealed to many (erstwhile "doves" and "hawks" alike) among the Israeli public. His biggest challenge ahead is likely to come from the margins rather than the mainstream, with two key events of recent history indicating the difficulties in prospect: the forced evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005, and riots by Israel's Arab citizens in October 2000.

Dov Waxman is assistant professor of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2006)

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli election:

Jim Lederman, "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (January 2006)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel reverse gravity" (March 2006)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Slouching towards Kadima" (March 2006)

Holding the centre

The mainstream consensus in Israel has never been clearer. A large majority of Israelis want four things:

  • Israel to end its costly occupation of the Palestinian territories (though having no hope for a peace settlement with the Palestinians)
  • security, even in the absence of peace
  • Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state
  • to keep an undivided Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs in the West Bank (Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion). Most Israelis are willing to abandon the smaller and more isolated Israeli settlements and evacuate settlers to accomplish this.

Kadima now faces the challenge of satisfying the desires and expectations of its voters. Lacking a parliamentary majority (with twenty-nine out of 120 seats), it will have to assemble a governing coalition; the signals are that the Labour party (with nineteen seats) will support further unilateral withdrawal, and several of the smaller parties can be persuaded to support such a policy in return for ministerial portfolios.

As ever in the fractious and unruly world of Israeli politics, this will not be easy. Many past Israeli coalition governments have fallen victim to internal squabbling, even while they commanded sizeable public support. Moreover, Kadima must also manage its own internal divisions and personal rivalries, a task made harder now that the commanding figure of Ariel Sharon is no longer at its helm. The party's weaker than expected showing in the election also means that it will have to give up more cabinet positions to its coalition partners, depriving high-ranking Kadima members of their expected government roles, and leaving them discontented and potentially rebellious.

But assuming he can manage his own party, there is good reason to believe that Ehud Olmert can maintain a parliamentary majority to carry out a large-scale West Bank withdrawal even if some parties in the government were to leave the coalition. Olmert can rely on the votes of Labour and the dovish Meretz party whether or not they are in the government (even though Meretz would prefer to negotiate a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians to unilateral withdrawal). Olmert is also in a strong position domestically because, unlike Sharon, his intentions are well-known. When Sharon campaigned in the run-up to the 2003 elections, he actually opposed a unilateral withdrawal, which was then being championed by his main opponent, Labour leader Amram Mitzna. Sharon did not, therefore, have the popular mandate for his unilateral disengagement plan that Olmert now has for his "convergence plan".

Two dangerous divides

Holding the political centre together will be far easier than reaching out to the margins. The greatest challenge for Israel's new government (whatever its eventual composition) over the next few years will be narrowing the dangerous divide between the majority of Israelis and two minority groups – religious Zionist settlers and Arab citizens of Israel. Both of these groups are outside the Israeli mainstream. Neither subscribe to the new national consensus. Both feel increasingly detached from society and disenchanted with the state. Such widespread feelings on the part of both these groups pose a threat not only to social cohesion in Israel, but also to domestic peace and even Israeli democracy.

The divide between the majority of Israelis and the religious Zionist settler minority was starkly displayed before and during Israel's disengagement from Gaza in August 2005. The passionate opposition to Sharon's disengagement plan by religious Zionist settlers failed to change the opinion of most Israelis who supported it. Even heart-wrenching scenes of settlers being dragged from their homes during the evacuation did not diminish public support, despite widespread sympathy for the settlers' plight. Now, in the wake of the Gaza disengagement, religious Zionist settlers feel betrayed by their state and alienated from their society.

Such feelings are likely to intensify as the next territorial withdrawal – this time a much larger one – approaches. This withdrawal would probably entail the removal of around 60,000 of the approximately 250,000 Jewish settlers now living in the West Bank. It will almost certainly be met with intense and even violent resistance by ideologically fanatical settlers (unlike most of the Gaza settlers who were less ideological). Although Israel's police and army could cope with this resistance, as they did on a much smaller scale in Gaza and most recently in dismantling the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank, it would surely have damaging long-term social repercussions. Evacuated settlers and their supporters would constitute a bitterly aggrieved minority, with a potential for violent actions against a state they feel had disowned them.

In seeking to mend the fractured relationship between religious Zionist settlers and the rest of Israeli-Jewish society, the temptation will be to emphasise the Jewish identity that both sides share. Appealing to a common Jewish identity, however contested it may be, has always been and continues to be a chief mechanism for achieving social solidarity in Israel. But while this may prevent a rupture between Israeli Jews, it only exacerbates the division between them and Israel's non-Jewish citizens, especially its Arab minority, who make up roughly 20% of the population.

This divide is the deepest and most persistent of all the internal cleavages in Israeli society. Many of the 1.3 million Arab citizens of Israel (80% of them Muslim, the rest Christian and Druze) have long harboured a sense of not belonging in a self-defined Jewish state, along with feelings of resentment over the preferential treatment that Jewish citizens receive. The rioting that erupted in October 2000 – weeks after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, and involving the shooting dead of thirteen protestors (twelve of them Israeli citizens) – is a stark warning of the danger that lies ahead if Israel fails to accommodate the material and psychological needs of its Palestinian minority. The alienation, exclusion and discrimination experienced by Israeli Arabs cannot continue without endangering Israeli democracy and social peace.

Stumbling blocks

The greatest difficulty for the new Israeli government, therefore, lies in successfully reintegrating religious Zionist settlers into the national community, without further alienating Palestinian Israelis. On the face of it, this might seem impossible to do since the two minorities' principal demands are diametrically opposed. Religious Zionists want Israel to be a more Jewish state: Palestinian Israelis want it to be less of one.

But on a deeper level, both groups want to be treated with respect, and not to feel scorned and shunned by the mainstream. Although the government alone cannot grant this respect, which is ultimately the responsibility of individual Israeli citizens, it can lead the way. Ehud Olmert has already taken a positive step in this direction by stating that he wants to work with the settlers, not against them, in planning for the next withdrawal. He is also hoping to begin a dialogue with moderate leaders of the religious Zionist community.

No such overtures, however, have been made to Israeli Arabs. No Palestinian Israeli was given a viable slot on Kadima's party list. It will not have a single Palestinian Arab member of parliament (it does have one Druze member). Olmert has already ruled out negotiating with any Arab party to join the new government, even though he may ultimately come to depend upon their votes to push through his convergence plan in the new Knesset.

Worse still, he has expressed willingness to include Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing Russian immigrant party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which won a surprising eleven seats in the election. Lieberman has publicly called for a territorial swap with the Palestinians of Israeli Arab towns and villages near the West Bank in exchange for Jewish settlements, and stripping Israel's Arab citizens of their citizenship. What kind of message does this send to Israeli Arabs when a party that proposes a policy that is tantamount to ethnic cleansing is considered a suitable coalition partner, while Arab parties are a priori ruled out?

Kadima's electoral victory means that a major Israeli withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank is likely to take place in the next four years. Although this is unlikely to bring Israelis peace, it will enhance their security. But while the barrier now being built in the West Bank may help protect Israelis from the threat of Palestinian terrorism, other potential threats cannot be shut out. Alienated and angry domestic minorities could pose as much of a challenge to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, as Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. Israel cannot afford to ignore the former while ending the latter.

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