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MAY 2006

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Kenneth W. Stein
Dr. Kenneth W. Stein, Director, Institute for the Study of Modern Israel 
News and Op/Ed

The Message From Israeli Voters 

A view from Emory U.

Israel's 2006 elections are over and the Kadima party, created by Ariel Sharon and now led by Ehud Olmert, is now embarked on the task of forming a new coalition government. The implications, however, go far beyond the mechanics of forming the next government.

Dr. Kenneth Stein is the William E. Schatten Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and Israeli Studies, the Director of the Middle East Research Program and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University. Stein spoke about the implications of the most recent election in Israel at a reception held at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on April 2, 2006. 

While many view the policy of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and the proposed policy for the same in Judea and Samaria as surrender, according to Stein, Israeli voters who support these policies have a different view. The State of Israel has several basic objectives:

  1. Restore and maintain Jewish life in the Land of Israel.
  2. Protect security for the people of Israel.
  3. Promote prosperity for the people of Israel.
  4. Function as a democracy.
  5. Promote Tikun Olam - repairing of the world by caring for Jews in need around the world.
  6. Maintaining the Jewish character of the state.
  7. Maintaining Jewish control over Jewish destiny.

Rather than surrender, Israelis who support unilateral withdrawal view such a policy as taking control over their own destiny and as preserving the Jewish character of the state.

Stein compared the Gaza withdrawal to other unilateral actions taken by Israel that its government saw as necessary for the nation's preservation such as the 1956 Sinai campaign in response to terrorist attacks from Egyptian territory and the preemptive 1967 war in response to the massing of hostile forces and blockade of Israeli shipping.

Stein sees the 2006 election as marking a transition in the priorities of the Israeli people toward domestic needs. Israelis very much want to have normal lives and to never go back to the recent days when parents going shopping made sure not to take all of their children with them so that if there were a terror attack at the mall, not all of their children would be killed. Right or wrong, moving forward unilaterally and separating from the Arab Palestinians is seen by most Israelis as the way to attain such normalcy.

This election marks Israelis saying that ideology can no longer govern them. This election had no battle of charismatic leaders. There were no major foreign policy issues dividing the country down the middle. Stein indicates there is now a consensus in Israel that the major foreign threats are from Iran and Syria. Iran, Syria and Hamas are viewed as threats but not existential ones. There is no major policy disagreement with the United States or the European Union at this time - a change from recent elections.

By electing the Kadima party, Stein sees Israelis as sending blunt messages to both foes and friends. To the Arab Palestinians, Israelis are saying that they will go forward with or without them and they are not waiting anymore. Israelis do not need Arab Palestinian permission to exist and they will not wait to try to negotiate a treaty with them. Israelis do see the Arab Palestinian birthrate as being an existential threat and unilaterally separating from that Arab population is believed to be the means to prevent Jews from becoming a minority in their own country.

Stein says that at the same time, Israelis are saying to friends - Jews in America and around the world, that Zionism is failing. Israelis are convinced that American Jews are not going to move en masse to Israel to bolster the Jewish population. Stein bluntly observed that if two or three million American Jews had moved to Israel and if there had been 100,000 Jews in Gaza instead of just 9000, there would probably have been no Gaza withdrawal and there would not now be plans for withdrawing from much or most of Judea and Samaria. Israelis have reached a conclusion that to continue to attempt to exist in the entire land could lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish majority state and, to employ a metaphor, Israelis have decided that their country must lose fat and strengthen muscle.

Stein did note that the scenario Israelis are following will still have its problems. Even if Israel cuts itself off from the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, it still has its own Arab citizens. Israeli Arabs make up 18 percent of the population of Israel inside the Green Line and, unless Israeli Jewish birthrates rise or Jewish immigration rises, the Israeli Arab population will rise to 30 percent in 18 years. Stein noted that Arabs currently make up only 12 percent of the vote in Israel but the biggest reason for that is that a much larger proportion of the Israeli Arab population is under the age of 18 than is the case among Israeli Jews.

The unilateralist scenario, Stein notes, has an economic problem. One of the reasons Israeli voters favor removing settlements is to free up money for domestic priorities. However, that expectation ignores the enormous expense of compensating 65,000 to 80,000 people for having to give up their homes and paying relocation expenses. Israel cannot afford to both pay for relocating so many people and increase pensions and other social spending as Olmert's likely coalition partners will demand. Stein notes that if Olmert goes forward with his plan, American Jews should expect to be asked to contribute heavily toward the cost in the form of increase donations.

On the issue of actual physical security, the barrage of missile attacks from Gaza has gotten worse since Israel withdrew from Gaza. When asked what will happen if missiles are fired from Judean and Samarian mountains that hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv instead of Sderot and southern Ashkelon, Stein indicated the situation will likely get worse and that he expects Israelis will tolerate these attacks up to a point. At some point, Israelis will no longer tolerate it and Israel will strike hard - such as in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. 

Stein also made some observations and predictions about what will happen in the new Knesset and the new coalition regarding political alignments: The religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, while not favoring unilateral withdrawal, will enter the government to get money for their religious and social programs. If they withdraw, there will still be external support from the Arab Mks who will prevent the government from falling. Coalitions can be reformed multiple times without new elections.

The Likud party may implode and Avigdor Lieberman may attempt to unify the Israeli right under his leadership.

Olmert may signal attempts to lure MK's from other parties to join Kadima if he keeps certain ministries for himself so that he can offer them as inducements later.

A key appointment will be Ambassador to the United States - an official who typically reports directly to the Prime Minister and not to the Foreign Minister. It will also be important to watch whether Olmert, when he makes his first visit to Washington, brings Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni along. If he does, that will signal that they are politically close. Stein predicted that Olmert will bring Livni with him to Washington.

Stephen M. Asbel