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Israeli right reeling after election

JERUSALEM – The victory of the centrist Kadima Party in Israeli elections last week failed to give it the parliamentary dominance its leaders had hoped for, but the vote did deliver a knockout to rightists opposed to giving up any more land in the West Bank.

The election affirmed what opinion surveys have long indicated: that most Israelis support removal of Jewish settlements and withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank, either unilaterally or through negotiations, and consider continued control of those areas a burden.

That is the essence of the plan put forward by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the leader of Kadima, which calls for an evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers beyond a line roughly traced by Israel’s West Bank security barrier while incorporating large settlement enclaves into Israel.

Olmert has argued that by relinquishing control of areas where most of the Palestinian population lives, Israel will preserve its Jewish and democratic character.

Parties that campaigned against further withdrawals, the once-dominant Likud and a pro-settlement alliance of religious nationalists, received relatively little support. Likud sank to 12 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to final results released Thursday, and the pro-settlement bloc won only nine seats.

The rightist and religious parties do not control enough seats to block the withdrawal plan, while Kadima, with left-wing and Israeli Arab parties, has a majority in support of the pullback.

Although Kadima’s 29 seats fell short of expectations raised by polls before the election, the party’s emergence as the largest faction reflected the popularity of the view that there is little chance for a negotiated peace in the near future and Israel must act on its own to separate from the Palestinians.

That view gained ground during the recent years of violence and was strengthened by the victory of the militant group Hamas in Palestinian elections in January.

The result is a new political alignment in Israel, which has been dubbed “the big bang.”

“Since 1967 the political map in Israel represented two schools of thought. One proposed trading land for peace, the other opposed withdrawal from the territories,” said Yoram Peri, an expert on Israeli politics at Tel Aviv University.

“Now a new approach has developed, which says there is no partner for peace, but the territories have become a liability, so Israel has to unilaterally give up territory even though it is not going to get peace. Kadima represents that perception. It is a real revolution.”

The emergence of the centrist consensus has blurred divisions between right and left, and it helped Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carry out a withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip last year.

Olmert told President Bush in a telephone call last week that he wants to continue the policies of Sharon, who founded Kadima four months ago but has been comatose since suffering a massive stroke in January.

With a commanding presence that inspired broad public support, Sharon had been expected to take Kadima to a comfortable victory that would produce a strong centrist faction anchoring a stable government.

But Sharon’s passing from the political scene splintered the vote, and many Israelis reverted to smaller ethnic or special-interest parties.

Russian-speaking immigrants voted heavily for Israel is Our Home, a rightist immigrant party whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, advocates moves to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs and transfer their areas to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

The religious party Shas, which appeals to Sephardic Jews of North African origin, increased its strength, as did United Torah Judaism, a faction whose constituency is ultra-Orthodox Jews of European descent.

Young voters alienated from the established parties threw their support behind the Pensioners Party, which entered parliament for the first time, winning seven seats. The idea for the protest vote caught on as an alternative to a blank ballot or not voting at all.

Many people, who without Sharon found none of the candidates attractive, stayed home, leading to the lowest voter turnout in Israeli history, 63 percent.

Controlling fewer parliamentary seats than expected, Olmert will be in a weaker bargaining position during coalition talks. He will have to allocate important ministries to his partners and accommodate their demands to restore social benefits slashed by the government in recent years.


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