• Forward


Party emerged victorious in national elections held this week in Israel. The win was a victory for interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took the helm of government — and the newly formed party — after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke. The celebrations will be short-lived as Mr. Olmert begins the arduous task of cobbling together a new government. That effort — and the goal of pushing ahead with a final settlement with the Palestinians — will be hampered by a smaller margin of victory than anticipated and low voter turnout. Mr. Olmert will be hard pressed to claim a mandate for controversial decisions.

Mr. Sharon formed Kadima last year, after he infuriated his country’s rightwing by withdrawing Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip. The abandonment of the settlements there was to make Israeli territory more defensible and to prepare the ground for similar action in the West Bank. That prospect was intended to push Palestinians back to the negotiating table — if they refused, Mr. Sharon would settle the final border question unilaterally. His bold break with the settlers — who Mr. Sharon had championed for so long — realigned Israeli politics. It split the Likud Party that he had founded and attracted the support of others, like former Labor Party head Shimon Peres, who felt Mr. Sharon had the credibility and the strength to push for a final settlement.

Unfortunately, weeks later, Mr. Sharon suffered a massive stroke and has remained in a coma ever since. Mr. Olmert, deputy prime minister and a former mayor of Jerusalem, took his place as prime minister and head of the party, leading the campaign for the election. Mr. Olmert differs from Mr. Sharon in two critical ways. First, he is not the “bulldozer” that Mr. Sharon was, nor does he have the military record that insulated his predecessor from criticism from the right about failing to protect Israel’s national security.

Second, he was much more specific than Mr. Sharon about his plans. Mr. Olmert has called on Palestinians to join him in negotiations to settle the borders of the two states as called for in the “road map” agreed by the “quartet” — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. But he also warned that he will act unilaterally if decisions are not made by 2010. He has said that Israel is prepared to withdraw from much of the West Bank and make “painful” decisions to close settlements. Speaking to Palestinians, he explained that “We are prepared to compromise, give up parts of our beloved land of Israel, remove, painfully, Jews who live there, to allow you the conditions to achieve your hopes and to live in a state in peace and quiet.”

That is by no means a foregone conclusion. While Kadima “won” the vote, it merely claimed 28 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. Labor took 20 and Likud emerged with a fraction of its former strength, holding 11 seats, less than one-third of the 38 it had before the vote. Mr. Olmert has said that he will only negotiate with parties that back his peace agenda. That list will include Labor, the Pensioners Party, which picked up seven seats despite having no representatives in the last legislature, and Meretz, a dovish party. The 10 seats held by Arab parties are likely to give tacit support to the government.

That should give Mr. Olmert a majority. More important, he will not have to rely on nationalist parties to form a government; those parties would be likely to impose conditions on membership that would hamper the prime minister’s ability to make a deal.

Still, his mandate is limited. Despite coming in first, Kadima won 28 seats rather than the 44 that were once predicted. In addition, voter turnout was a record low 63.2 percent. Israelis have been disillusioned by corruption and opportunistic politicians who switch parties and principles too easily.

Striking a deal for peace is complicated by the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections earlier this year. The group still refuses to recognize the existence of Israeli, to accept the previous peace agreements, or to renounce violence against Israel. Mr. Olmert insists that he will not negotiate with Hamas until it takes those steps; Hamas has been equally adamant in its refusal to do so, and the new Palestinian Parliament swore in a new Cabinet dominated by Hamas as Israelis voted. Israeli settlers, some 60,000 of whom could be affected by Mr. Olmert’s plan, will also be opposed — and it should be remembered that it was an Israeli nationalist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

It is critical then that the will of the majority prevails. Israelis have spoken. The Palestinians should make plain their desire for peace, and press their leaders to meet Mr. Olmert halfway. That is the only way Israelis and Palestinians can make the most of this opportunity and move forward toward peace.

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