Israel Votes for a New Government

Voting for a new parliament has started in Israel. Polls show acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party holds a commanding lead over the Labor and Likud parties. Renee Montagne talks to Linda Gradstein.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Israelis today vote in a new parliament, in an election where the stakes could hardly be higher, and interest in the candidates lower. Ehud Olmert, who took over as prime minister after the popular Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke, is billing this election as a referendum on a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. His new centrist Kadima Party is expected to get the most votes, but not a majority, and that will mean forming a coalition government.

NPR's Linda Gradstein joins me from Jerusalem. Hello.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Linda, polls show that voter turnout in Israel is expected to be among the lowest in that country's history. Why the apathy?

GRADSTEIN: First of all, even low voter turnout here is still somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. It's the fourth election in seven years, and the people are just tired of these elections. None of the candidates are charismatic. There's just a lot of apathy. At the same time, there are very important issues on the table, and this actually could turn out to be one of Israel's most fateful elections.

MONTAGNE: Well, I just mentioned a West Bank withdrawal. Talk to us about that and what else Olmert and Kadima are running on.

GRADSTEIN: Well, what's interesting is that usually, political candidates, you know, at least here in Israel, try to fudge things as much as possible before the elections, and only afterwards come out with detailed platforms. This time Olmert has come out with a detailed plan, what he calls convergence, which is an Israeli pullback from part of the West Bank to the line of the barrier that runs in and around the West Bank. That would mean uprooting about 70,000 Jewish settlers from their homes. And just sort of to compare this summer in Gaza, that withdrawal took 9,000 settlers from their homes, and caused a lot of turmoil in Israel. So this is a much bigger, possible withdrawal.

Now, polls show that a majority of the Israeli public does want this withdrawal. They would rather it be with a negotiated agreement with the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, they don't think there's a Palestinian partner. So, this is a unilateral plan. Olmert says Israel will determine its own destiny. Israel will get out of at least some of the West Bank, and then annex other areas of the West Bank--what he calls the settlement blocks--to Israel. Now, that is a plan that is not going to be accepted by the Palestinians, but it is very popular in Israel.

MONTAGNE: Now, Ariel Sharon remains in a coma in a Jerusalem hospital after suffering a stroke in early January. And yet he is, in a sense, still playing a role in this election.

GRADSTEIN: He's playing a big role. The centrist Kadima Party, which he founded just a few weeks before his stroke, has certainly used Sharon as one of its main campaign images. His picture is everywhere. The Kadima headquarters has, you know, a giant poster of Sharon. And even the right-wing Likud Party, which Sharon left when he formed Kadima, is using some of Sharon's earlier statements about holding on to the West Bank in their campaign ads.

At the same time, on the street in Israel, you don't hear a lot of talk about Sharon. He was somebody who dominated Israeli politics for decades--first as a general and then as the prime minister. And he was very loved by the Israeli public, especially at the end of his career. And yet, there is a sense that somehow, the public has kind of moved on and accepted the situation as it is, and is now moving on.

MONTAGNE: Linda, just briefly--even if Kadima wins, as expected, Olmert will still need support from other parties. Who are his likely partners?

GRADSTEIN: The most likely partners are the center left Labor Party with an estimated 20 seats, the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, which is slated to get about 11 seats, the left-wing Meretz Party with six or seven. So, if polls turn out as expected, Olmert will be able to put together a very stable coalition of the center and the left in Israel.

MONTAGNE: Linda, thank you.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.

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