Reporter's Notebook: Israel Vote

Mike Tobin
If you think labor is something you do to earn a buck and a Likudnik is something your dermatologist can remove with laser treatment, this blog is for you. The Israeli elections are convoluted. The gaggle of political parties can resemble a bunch of old men in a crowded deli fighting for the front spot at the counter. Old politicians dead or incapacitated are active in the campaign. Posters are written in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. No one could blame you for getting lost viewing this from the outside. It’s a lot easier to grasp when you realize this election is about one issue: the potential of a major withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the West Bank. The question is: Will Ehud Olmert have the public support he needs when the horse trading (fundamental in a coalition government) begins to make the withdrawal a reality?

All the polls show Ehud Omert and the Kadima party are in the lead. That alone is remarkable, because Kadima has never been tested in a general election and only recently did Kadima define what it stood for. What is clear is that Kadima is the party Ariel Sharon founded after rebels from the other party he founded, Likud, forced him out following the Gaza withdrawal. Sharon, of course, remains hospitalized in a coma but his picture is everywhere in the Kadima ads and in a giant banner draped down the side of Kadima headquarters. The party rode the popularity of Ariel Sharon, and the wave of emotion that followed his illness, while it built a platform. The platform all boils down to a West Bank pullout, or as Olmert put it, “Defining the final borders of Israel.” He said in no uncertain terms that any party opposed to a withdrawal will not be invited into the coalition at horse trading time.

Critics have said that OImert is defiling the legacy of Sharon, because, long before his brain injury, Sharon stated publicly that there were no plans to follow up the Gaza withdrawal with a similar action in the West Bank. But if you look at the patterns established it was clear Sharon intended some kind of a pullout from the West bank and he didn't want to negotiate it with the Palestinians.

Olmert was always Sharon’s scout, voicing big ideas like the pullout from Gaza in public forums to test the pubic reaction before Sharon adopted them as policy. Before Sharon had his stroke, Olmert was floating out test balloons for further withdrawal. Sharon played politics to win and sometimes said what he had to say if it helped him achieve his goal, then changed his statement as needed. There is little doubt that Olmert is now carrying Sharon's disengagement torch. The Israeli public supports another pullout and the polls project Kadima will be the top vote getter with somewhere around 34 seats in the Knesset. A party needs 61 seats in Israel to get a majority and take power. That’s where the horse trading comes in to play.

The party first in line to form the coalition with Kadima is Labor. They proudly tout that they are the party of the late Yitzhak Rabin and in favor of compromise with the Palestinians. The top Labor candidate, Amir Peretz, recently beat Israel’s remaining elder statesman Shimon Peres for leadership of the party. That sent Peres over to Kadima. Peretz (it’s easy to get the names confused) came into politics as a leader of trade unions. His strength is in dealing with the issues of the working man. Early in the race, he attempted to campaign only on domestic issues, like a minimum wage hike, but that didn’t resonate with the voters. The dialogue switched over to the withdrawal and Labor set its course for the election. Polls predict Labor will win about 20 seats, which still leaves Kadima short of a majority and forces the party to find more partners.

A possible partner and a party to watch is Yisrael Beitenu. The name means “Israel our home,” and it is headed by Avigdor Lieberman. Born and raised in Russia, he has effectively courted 45 percent of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who immigrated to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians also like him because he takes very strong stances, including rooting Israeli-Arabs from the Israeli population and shuttling them over to the Palestinians. Lieberman wants to swap Israeli-Arab towns over to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for land.

Olmert has stated publicly that Liberman and his party are too far to the Right to be invited into the coalition. But never bet the family cow on a bold statement made by an Israeli politician. Compromise for a withdrawl could be found somewhere within Lieberman's plan to swap land. The party is projected to win anywhere between seven and 15 Knesset seats, enough to put Kadima close or over the 61 seat threshold of power. Some speculate that Yisrael Beitenu cold end up with more seats than Likud, making it a very attractive partner, even if they don't see eye to eye on everything.

Olmert can also find partners in the several religious parties in Israel. The religious parties are generally interested only in government subsidies that keep the Yeshivas open and allow the ultra-Orthodox to devote all their energies to studying the Torah. So their votes are for sale. Religious parties become convenient partners to both the Left and the Right when they need Knesset seats to vote with their team.

Yossi Beilin and the Meretz party could also end up partners. However, at the moment, Meretz is too far left for the center-left coalition. Beilin has used words like "stupid" when describing the unilateral withdrawal plan because it calls for an Israeli military presence to remain in the West Bank, still creating friction with the Palestinians. He also thinks a pullout without negotiations with the Palestinians won't get you any closer to peace. But he does want to get out of the West Bank, and his party should win around six seats. He also could end up a partner by the time the coalition is formed.

Olmert will not find a partner in the Likud party. Benjamin Netanyahu led the Likud rebellion against Ariel Sharon and stuck to the old principles of never giving up an inch of land. He effectively ran Sharon out of the party but the public went with Sharon. Likud has gone from ruling to a marginalized opposition party. With polls predicting Likud could take as few as 12 seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu has problems. He has found himself very unpopular with the Israeli public and could very well face a rebellion of his own following the election.

The wild card here is voter apathy. The people who were polled may not show up at the ballot box. Only 60 percent of the public is projected to vote. None of the candidates are superstars who lure people to the polls. No Israelis think a party or platform will take them to a final resolution with the Palestinians and there is no cliffhanger. To quote the man who owns the coffee shop near my apartment, “We all know Olmert is going to win. So, why vote?”

Mike Tobin is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Jerusalem.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.