National Security, Peace Process on Israelis' Minds, Analyst Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - With a nuclear Iran looming on the horizon and a Hamas victory likely in upcoming Palestinian Authority elections, the issue of national security and the peace process will be foremost on Israelis' minds in upcoming elections, an expert here said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new Kadima party were seen as sure winners in the upcoming Israeli general elections on March 28, prior to Sharon's incapacitating stroke last week.

Sharon, a former army general said late last year that Israel could not accept a nuclear-armed Iran; and he was tough on terrorists. Until his stroke, he was expected to form the next government.

Now Israelis will be seeking someone who can give them the same sense of security. Despite the fact that there are three main parties, and a number of smaller factions vying for seats in the 120-seat Knesset, many Israelis remain focused on Kadima.

"The main issue will be whether the Kadima party can survive the post-Sharon era," said expert Prof. Efraim Inbar, of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

Sharon left the Likud party, which he helped to found decades ago, and formed the Kadima party in November, saying he would try to reach an accord with the Palestinians.

Kadima ranks high and even gained strength in some public opinion polls but analysts have warned that the current outpouring of support is more of a get-well wish to Sharon than a show of real support for the fledgling party.

In terms of issues, Iran is "in the air" because it's aggressive and dangerous and "something has to be done about it," said Inbar.

A lot also depends on the outcome of the Palestinian elections and whether Hamas scores a big election victory. If Hamas wins, it would strengthen the "unilateralist" stand of Kadima, Inbar said.

Unilateralism refers to Israel establishing its borders without input from the Palestinians.

A large Hamas win and its resulting participation in the P.A. would likely lead to a severing of ties between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas has refused to negotiate with Israel and Israel has said it wouldn't talk with a terrorist organization committed to its destruction.

Sharon has said he is committed to the U.S.-backed road map peace plan, which calls for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishment of a Palestinian state. Nevertheless, he carried out a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

Although Sharon said he would not carry out any more unilateral withdrawals from territory in the West Bank, it is widely believed that such a move was indeed on his agenda.

In an atmosphere in which security is a problem, people will vote for a leader that they believe can bring security, Inbar said.

'A Moment of clarity'

David Hazony, editor-in-chief of Azure, a quarterly publication of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said Israeli politics is experiencing rare clarity with the creation of Sharon's Kadima party and with the clear-cut platform of the other two other major parties, Likud and Labor.

"This is a moment of clarity in Israeli politics," Hazony said.

The left-wing Labor party, whose chairman is the former chief of the powerful Histadrut labor union, Amir Peretz, represents workers' interests and a return to socialist values. Peretz has not said much about foreign policy or security, said Hazony.

The right-wing Likud, led by Binyamin Netanyahu (a former prime minister, and the finance minister under Sharon), rejected the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank and embraces a free market economy, he said.

The Kadima party is the first political expression given to the center in Israel, said Hazony. "The new center doesn't really believe in the Land of Israel," he said. "The new center doesn't really believe in peace."

The "new center," as Hazony termed it, basically rejects the idea that the State of Israel should include the Biblical Land of Israel (as the right claims); and the centrists reject the idea of an easy peace agreement with the Palestinians, as the left wants, he said.

"Kadima stands for unilateralism. We withdraw, so we can set up borders and the border will be permanent," he said. Sharon didn't need to say it because everyone knew that that's what they were doing - a unilateral withdrawal to permanent borders, he said.

Kadima got its strength from two things: it represented an actual ideology and the personality of Ariel Sharon, said Hazony. If Kadima wants to preserve its electoral strength, it will base its campaign on the legacy of Sharon, said Hazony.

Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem said that the assumption that Kadima was a one-man party and that if anything happened to Sharon the party would not survive seems to have been wrong.

"Olmert has a real chance of becoming the next prime minister," said Wolfsfeld. Even if the Kadima party gets 30 seats in the upcoming elections it would be an amazing accomplishment for a new party, he said.

Nevertheless, he said, there is plenty that Olmert could do to mess things up. He must control himself and keep the party together if he wants to be prime minister, said Wolfsfeld.

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