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This week's editor

Olly Huitson, Editor

Oliver Huitson is Co-Editor at OurKingdom and a freelance journalist.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Close Guantánamo, and its mindset

Guantánamo is both American prison and un-American mindset. The violations it embodies reflect how far the Bush administration has travelled from legality, says Rami G Khouri.

Syria cracks down on dissent

The domestic, regional and exile pressures on Bashar al-Assad's regime are still a long way from threatening regime change in Damascus, says Anoushka Marashlian.

The United States vs China: the war for oil

The United States's focus on the middle east, al-Qaida and terrorism is also a surrogate for long-term strategic competition with China for the world's oil resources.

Haditha: a question of responsibility

The chain of command involved in the massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha reaches far beyond those directly involved.

A tale of two insurgencies

The insurgent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are exerting severe pressure on United States and British forces – and there is more to come.

Kuwait's political turmoil

The dissolution of Kuwait's parliament and the calling of early elections reflect developing social and economic fissures in the Gulf emirate, says Raymond Barrett.

Afghanistan's endemic war

The renewed insurgency in Afghanistan owes much to the way the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.

Au revoir, Montenegro?

Montenegro's vote for independence closes a political chapter in former Yugoslavia, but Vesna Goldsworthy finds that the map of the heart is not so neatly redrawn.

The state of Pakistan

Pakistan's classification as a "failed state" reflects the collapse of Pervez Musharraf's authority, says Irfan Husain.

Between politics and war: Hizbollah in the spotlight

Hizbollah has attracted Iranian friendship and US hostility since its emergence during Lebanon's civil war. With regional tensions rising, the leading Islamist group is now at a crossroads, says Abigail Fielding-Smith.

Palestinian cinema: comedy in conflict

Fresh from London's Palestine Film Festival, Saeed Taji Farouky relives the laughter amid the darkness and reveals humour's precious, humanising power.

Montenegro at a crossroads

Montenegrins' vote on their republic's asymmetrical state union with Serbia on 21 May emphasises the ongoing transformation of the Balkans, says TK Vogel.

Iraq's partition fantasy

The supporters of an Iraq divided into three ignore the lessons of Iraq's history, says Reidar Visser.

London's intelligence failure

Three official reports into the July 2005 bombings suggest that Britain’s establishment is evading the connection between the attacks and the Iraq war.

The convergence bluff

The new Israeli prime minister's "convergence plan" is a Trojan horse, warns Jesse Fox. Ehud Olmert's record in office shows that he is not preparing for peace.

A parallel universe

The building of a massive new United States embassy and military bases in and around Baghdad signals the US determination to remain in Iraq for the long term.

Saudi Arabia's women pioneers

In the only country in the world where women are forbidden to drive, one pioneering woman obtained a pilot's licence last year. This year, a few determined female students have embarked on Saudi Arabia's first ever engineering degree for women. In the midst of rapid economic growth and social change, Saudi Arabia is a place of paradox, an extremely conservative desert kingdom where you can sit in the world's only gender-segregated Starbucks franchises and use a mobile phone that recites the Quran.

The new opium war

The expansion of the opium economy in Afghanistan is contributing to a deteriorating security situation in the country.

The wrong way to combat terrorism

A militaristic approach and a law-based vision are competing to shape the world's anti-terrorism efforts, says Sadakat Kadri.

Man in the shadows: an interview with Efraim Halevy

Efraim Halevy presided over such controversial Israeli policies as targeted assassinations. The former Mossad chief talks to Jane Kinninmont about the challenges facing Israel and the prospect of engaging with Hamas. It's time to "think the unthinkable".

A wager on war

The United States military is preparing for the "long war" by shifting its tactics and expanding its ambitions.

The agreement on 22 April that Nouri (formerly Jawad) al-Maliki will replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as the new Iraqi prime minister appears at last to mark progress towards a stable government.

Iran: war by October?

Washington's political timetable may turn harsh rhetoric into military escalation, unless voices of restraint in both the United States and Iran can prevail.

The nuclear-weapons gambit

The world avoided nuclear catastrophe during the cold war, but the era's real history has an ominous lesson for the period of "war on terror".

Back to the future: the cartoons, liberalism, and global Islam

Muslim protests over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed mark the arrival of a force challenging liberal democracy from the future: a global Islam that is inventing new forms of ethical and political practice for a global arena. Faisal Devji, author of "Landscapes of the Jihad", maps the trajectory of this ultra-modern phenomenon.

On 30 September 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a number of caricatures on the subject of Islam, Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed.

The Islamisation of Pakistan

Religious obscurantism and political weakness are combining to destroy Pakistan, argues Maruf Khwaja.

Terror, law and human rights in the Arab Gulf states

The Arab Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, along with Iraq, have carved out new laws designed to counter terrorism on their soil. Mohamed Al Roken considers their precepts in the light of international human-rights conventions.

Iraq: civil war or no civil war?

Iraq three years after the fall of Saddam is a place of sectarian and insurgent violence, insecurity and fear. But does this amount to civil war? Anwar Rizvi, recently in Iraq, weighs the evidence.

The countdown to war

The timing and nature of a United States attack on Iran can be gauged by a close look at air traffic and base security in western England.

Kadima's balancing act

Kadima's election victory opens a new phase in Israeli politics in which Ehud Olmert's government faces two major domestic challenges, warns Dov Waxman.

What Israel's election means

In seeking a system which can bring security, stability and prosperity, Israel's people are ahead of their politicians, says Jim Lederman.

Israel reverses gravity

An election where social security trumped national security represents a decisive shift in Israeli politics, says Menachem Kellner.

There are alternatives

A new compendium of global "people power" initiatives shows that non-violence and peace activism can be a more effective instrument of social change than military force.

Musharraf's own goals

By embittering his foes and alienating potential allies, Pakistan's president is diminishing his room for political manoeuvre, says Irfan Husain.

Slouching towards Kadima

In early January 2006, Israel's seemingly invincible "bulldozer" prime minister, Ariel Sharon, suffered a second stroke in quick succession and slipped into a coma. Now, on the eve of the country's election on 28 March, it seems that the entire Israeli nation has followed his example.

The felled Sharon left behind him a new party, Kadima (Forward), now led by his deputy and acting prime minister Ehud Olmert, which he had set up to ride the waves of a successful evacuation of settlers and troops from the Gaza strip in August 2005. His aim was to sweep back to power in the elections whose date he had announced in December.

What has followed since has been one of the most astonishingly dull election campaigns ever seen in a country where "dull" is a word rarely used to describe the daily news. Unparalleled apathy and indecision among the voters have been stealing more headlines than the pledge by Kadima leader Ehud Olmert finally to define Israel's borders, or new Labour Party leader Amir Peretz's promises of a social revolution, or the desperate efforts of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu to pull together the old rightwing consensus gutted by its former hero, Sharon.

Thomas O'Dwyer is a country risk consultant, journalist and broadcaster who has lived in the middle east for twenty years. He has been a Reuters bureau chief, foreign editor of the Jerusalem Post , and a columnist with the International Herald Tribune's Ha'aretz newspaper.

Also on Israeli politics and the election in openDemocracy:

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (November 2005)

Jane Kinninmont, "Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects"
(January 2006)

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

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

"Highlights" of the election campaign have been as scarce as hens' teeth. One newspaper columnist commented: "If silence were an Olympic sport, Olmert would be winning the gold." There has been but one sudden burst of action on 14 March when Israeli troops stormed a Palestinian prison in Jericho and seized several prisoners. Among them was Ahmad Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whom Israel accuses of masterminding the October 2001 assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

The swashbuckling military operation – clearly trying to send the message that Olmert was a chip off the old macho and unyielding Sharon block – was successful and popular with the public, but created scarcely a blip in the public opinion polls and quickly faded from media memory.

Michael Feige, a prominent sociologist at Ben-Gurion University Research Institute in the Negev, and an expert on the changing role of symbolism and politics in Israeli identity, finds the apathy disturbing.

Feige told me that all Israel's larger parties think new territorial political landscapes are now required – "even the Likud". But the political consensus in the country seems to be "wall off the Palestinians, put them away, behind us, and forget about them."

Feige said Israel is in fact also walling off the Jewish West Bank settlers, but won't speak about that because of the human-rights issues involved: "It's a case of 'you're all over there, in a different world from us'. From a moral perspective, this is all very disturbing. It could backfire on Israel – maybe not, but it could."

"In the meantime it is the Palestinians who will suffer the price. The second intifada (the armed uprising which began in September 2000) undermined the process of discourse. Israelis don't care any more about the Palestinians, or the settlers – the public just wants to be rid of it all."

Lior Chorev, a leading Kadima campaign strategist, echoes this view: "Most Israelis are not looking for peace with the Palestinians. They are looking for quiet, for security, and they want the fence to be high enough so that they don't have to see them any longer".

Michael Feige said it was interesting how the public attitude had shifted during the Gaza disengagement – "the religious nationalist camp ended up fighting the disengagement alone." And yet, he continued, there was an unmistakable feeling that this election would mark an important turning-point in national consciousness, for Palestinians as well as Israelis, in a post-Sharon political and social landscape.

As voting-day neared, even warnings from inside the defence establishment that Palestinian terrorists were planning bombing campaigns ("more than seventy possible threats have being identified") raised scarcely a yawn over morning coffees in Tel Aviv's lively cafes, with their bored security guards at the entrance.

The politicians worry

Signs of alarm among the frustrated politicians began to appear on the weekend of 25-26 March, and a shrill edge of desperation could be heard. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister – whom Olmert has designated as deputy prime minister if Kadima wins the election – pleaded with voters to hit the polling stations hard. "I don't understand why people are telling me that Kadima will win the elections anyway, so what's the point in voting", she said. "We are facing dramatic decisions and these are significant elections. Pick up the phone, get people out of the house."

The veteran statesman Shimon Peres echoed her concerns. "All major national decisions were made when there was at least one party with forty Knesset seats – it is impossible to run this country with a split Knesset", he said. Indeed, before Sharon's stroke, Kadima itself was confidently predicted to win at least forty seats easily in the 120-seat parliament, leaving it sure to construct a comfortable coalition majority with Labour and smaller parties.

That commanding lead has been slipping. The opinion polls on the last weekend of the campaign predicted between thirty-two and thirty-five seats for Kadima, with twenty for Labour, and the once mighty Likud trailing with just fourteen. An astonishing twenty-five seats were said to be still in the hands of undecided floating voters, and a host of small parties were scrabbling to beat the 2% minimum votes threshold (an increase from 1.5% in 2003, which may hurt the Israeli-Arab parties especially) to share the rest.

"My big worry is that even if we win the elections we will not be able to form a powerful enough coalition for the government to see through its term free of the politicking of minor parties", Olmert admitted.

Kadima's manifesto supports setting up "another nation (i.e. Palestinian) state, as long as it is not a terror state", but the party also wants to keep large Jewish West Bank settlement blocs and an undivided Jerusalem. Domestically it promises investments in social and economic infrastructure and a war on poverty and crime.

Labour's untested new leader Amir Peretz, elected in November 2005 in place of Shimon Peres (who defected to Kadima soon after) remains confident of leading his party into a ruling coalition with Kadima. At first lampooned by television satirists as a figure always bellowing through a shop-steward's megaphone at the electorate, he quickly dropped his harsh attacks on Israel's wealthy capitalists and crafted a moderate social-reform agenda to slash unemployment and raise the minimum wage. On the peace front, Peretz says that Labour will renew diplomatic negotiations based on "two states for two nations" with borders to be determined in the talks.

In every Israeli election campaign one party seems to emerge unexpectedly and make political and media waves. The dark horse this time is Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), a nationalist rightwing party with a large base among the million Russian-speaking voters. The most recent estimates suggest that Lieberman's group may oust the anti-religious Shinui (Change) party from parliament and win eleven seats, a number likely to equal the religious Shas party. This would leave an expected eight seats for the Israeli-Arab parties, and six for the leftwing Meretz.

The most pathetic figure of the election campaign is former prime minister, foreign minister and finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been fighting a forlorn battle to drag moderate Likud voters who followed Sharon into Kadima back into the fold. The gutted Likud remains the last bastion of the somewhat tattered Zionist nationalist vision of a "greater Israel" – the party's election platform pledges not to not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, to set the River Jordan as Israel's permanent border, to expand Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem, and to boost Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights (seized from Syria in the 1967 war).

But Netanyahu's problems go beyond outmoded ideologies that are out of favour with Israelis weary of being branded "occupiers". For years Israel's working classes, traditionally rightwing voters – at least since the political earthquake of 1977 which first brought the Likud to power under Menachem Begin – pinned their hopes on Netanyahu to improve their dismal economic lot. But since his Thatcherite economic reign (2003-05) at the treasury, they have turned viciously against him.

Netanyahu is further held in contempt by former admirers among the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza for his disappearance overseas during the evacuation of the Gaza settlers, despite promises to oppose it – a feeling not alleviated by Netanyahu's resignation from the government over the issue. Only the left has remained consistent on Netanyahu – they despise him as roundly as they always did.

A nation shrugs

The domestic apathy has been successfully exported. The international media crews who flocked to Israel in January to camp outside the hospital of the stricken Sharon have not come back for the election. Freelance journalists grumble that they have never had so few calls from foreign editors during an election.

Even Netanyahu, who is by far the best known Israeli leader after Sharon and Peres in the United States, brought in no American advisers, co-opted no Congress members, nor even called on influential American Jews.

Ehud Olmert, the probable next prime minister, remains virtually unknown abroad outside foreign ministries. Amir Peretz is regarded as an alien with a Joe Stalin moustache, no English, and an invisible resume as a lifelong trade-union leader. He is totally unknown to the American or European public and (a brief BBC Radio 4 interview aside) has shown no interest in getting to know them – not even the foreign Jewish public.

A US embassy diplomatic source in Tel Aviv agreed that such American lack of interest was unusual for an Israeli election. "The U.S. government will expect a new Israeli government to address some issues in the territories such as their economic plight, the tax money due to the Palestinian Authority, and how to engage with the new Hamas administration," the diplomat said. The unspoken hint was that there was little US interest in the election because very little was expected from a new Olmert government anyway.

Israelis say the only thing that could disrupt the orderly trickle of voters to the polls now would be a spectacular terrorist outrage. So, having given up on the campaign, exasperated commentators are looking to the morning after and the coalition horse-trading to provide some excitement.

Since this is Israel, the first question to be asked of the new coalition will be: "can it survive?" Olmert has promised to bring into government only parties that will back a West Bank disengagement – or "convergence", in his new terminology. But if no one cares before the election, will anyone care afterwards?

In the prevailing apathy, no one has even bothered to ask the about-to-be-elected prime minister about his actual plans for "the convergence" – the who, what, when, where and why of it all. And, as important in an Israel increasingly preoccupied with "pocket-book" issues – the how much.

Military officials say they haven't been asked to prepare any evacuation plan at all, much less one for the "morning after" the government takes office. Neither, apparently, has anyone else. Israelis too await the future they are about to decide.

The war at home

The security of the United States homeland and its borders is becoming part of the Bush administration's military planning for the "long war".
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