March 7, 2006

Pragmatism Tops Peace in Israel Election Campaign

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - For once, Israeli politicians aren't so quick to promise peace. Broadcast campaigns for March 28 elections kicked off on Tuesday with little of the past rhetoric by Israel's high-flying hawks and doves on how best to end conflict in the Middle East.

Instead, the dominant Kadima Party and main rivals Labor and Likud made do with more modest vows to set Israel's borders through unilateral West Bank withdrawals. Fringe factions preferred to focus on issues such as crime and the economy.

There was also sniping aplenty in an election shaping up to be as much about candidates' personalities as their policies.

Political analysts call it a response to a public worn out by war. With Islamic Hamas militants ascendant among the Palestinians and deepening international uncertainty over Iran's nuclear program, few in Israel now expect peace in their time.

"The country has sobered up, accepting that, in the best of cases, all that can be hoped for is calm rather than any permanent settlement," said Raviv Drucker, political correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 television.

To many Israelis, the sense of insecurity seems to justify unilateral moves taken by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the face of a Palestinian uprising -- withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year and the prospect of wider pullbacks in the West Bank.

Though Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke on January 4, his successor, Ehud Olmert, has cast himself as loyal executor of the prime minister's so-called "disengagement" policies and thus kept Kadima as frontrunner in the race.

Never mind that the centrist party, custom-made by and for Sharon after he bolted the restive right-wing Likud, has been widely criticized for lacking a clear vision on Israel's future.

"The polls predict victory for Kadima, proving that many prefer to vote for power rather than ideology," wrote Gilad Grossman, a commentator with Maariv newspaper.


Kadima is not alone in putting pragmatism over dreams of a "Greater Israel" on occupied land Palestinians want for a state or, alternatively, of ceding territory as a guarantee for peace.

Center-left Labor, which while in government in 1993 signed pioneering accords with the Palestinians, has now opted for the less-than-epic slogan "Fighting terror, defeating poverty."

Though it opposed giving up Gaza, Likud is not pledging to take it back. Much of its election campaign has focused on Israel's recent economic recovery, for which Likud's leader, ex-Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claims credit.

All three major parties favor Israel keeping large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank forever, even though the Palestinians have said this would spell the end of peacemaking.

"The ideological gaps between the parties have shrunken to such an extent that this now more of a contest of personalities," Drucker said.

Likud strategists have dubbed Olmert "Smolmert," a play on the Hebrew word for leftist, while one Kadima spot urges voters to take note of what it calls Netanyahu's "lying eyes." Likud and Kadima alike mocked pledges by Labor chief Amir Peretz, a veteran trade unionist, to keep Israel's free market robust.

After the election, alliances are seen as inevitable.

Given a long-term rivalry between Olmert and Netanyahu, Kadima is expected to join forces with Labor for a national unity government strong enough to push through West Bank withdrawals in the face of Jewish ultranationalist ire.