The Israeli Elections and Middle East Peace Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is claiming victory for the centrist Kadima party in Tuesday's Israeli parliamentary elections. But the very definition of the Israeli state may be at stake. Neal Conan leads a discussion on prospects for peace in the Middle East.
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The Israeli Elections and Middle East Peace

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The Israeli Elections and Middle East Peace

The Israeli Elections and Middle East Peace

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From NPR News in Washington D.C., I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION. For the first time the leading vote-winner in Israel is neither Labour nor Likud, but the new, centrist, Kadima Party. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert campaigned on further withdrawals on Palestinian land. In Jerusalem last night, he said Israelis had spoken in a loud and clear voice.

Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israeli Acting Prime Minister): (Through translator) If the Palestinians agree to act soon, we will sit at the negotiating table in order to create a new reality in our region. If they do not, Israel will take its fate into its own hands.

CONAN: Who won, who lost, and why. Plus, immigration, a new White House Chief of Staff, and hearings on censure. Our weekly visit with the Political Junkie is the TALK OF THE NATION, after the news.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Voters in Israel yesterday confirmed a fundamental political realignment. Through the first 58 years of the country's history, politics was dominated by two parties, first Labour, then Likud. The biggest vote-getter yesterday was a newly formed centrist Party called Kadima. It's the creation of Ariel Sharon and his decision to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza and withdrawal last year. Sharon remains in a coma following a stroke, but his successor, Ehud Olmert, campaigned on his policies, which include completion of a barrier to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and to withdraw from much of the West Bank. Despite the high stakes, turnout yesterday was about 63%, low by Israeli standards. And while Olmert and Kadima can claim victory, it was hardly a landslide. Kadima won 28 seats, Labour was second with 20, and in perhaps the biggest surprise of the day, Likud finished fifth with 11 seats. On this day after the elections in Israel, the new Hamas government was sworn in in Gaza. Almost immediately the U.S. ordered diplomats and contracts not to do business or have contact with Hamas officials in the new cabinet.

Later in the program it's our weekly visit with NPR's Political Junkie, Ken Rudin. If you have questions for him about this week's political developments, you can send them to us now at Email is the best way to reach us right now. But first, if you have questions about the Israeli elections and what this means for the future, give us a call. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, and the email address is the same, begin with Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. He's with us on the phone from his office in Jerusalem. Steve, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. Steven Erlanger (Jerusalem bureau chief, New York Times): Happy to do it.

CONAN: Between the low turnout and the fact that Kadima won fewer seats than some expected, are these results being accepted as a mandate?

Mr. ERLANGER: They are, but not nearly as much of a mandate as I think Mr. Olmert is claiming. The idea that Sharon had when he founded Kadima was to create a big bang and create a stable, centrist majority in Israel, to do pull-outs from the occupied West Bank. And the fact of the matter is, there is a centrist group, but it's not a majority. And though Olmert will be able to cobble together a government without much trouble, it will be a bigger government than he wanted, which means he'll have to give more away and it'll be less stable and it will be less unified in policy terms. So, it's not quite what everybody wanted. It's a mandate, but it's not that clear-cut, you know, great majority mandate for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank that I think he wanted.

CONAN: Everybody is suspecting that the most likely coalition partner, the biggest member of the coalition he'll have to assemble, is the Labour party, which came in second with twenty seats. But are they likely to support -- they are likely to support him on withdrawal, but maybe not necessarily on the barrier, on the wall?

Mr. ERLANGER: Yeah, they'll certainly support him on withdrawal, but they would prefer a negotiated withdrawal. So, Olmert went out of his way yesterday to talk about how he would give the Palestinians time, even the Hamas-run Palestinians time, and only after it was clear that a coordinated and negotiated withdrawal was impossible would Israel move ahead unilaterally. That was again a bow, I think, to Labour. And Labour, I believe, would not have lots of problems with the barrier. That's not the problem. The problem is exactly the root of it, one the things that the new Labour Party leader, Amir Peretz, did, which was a change. Which was to say during the campaign that he wanted to keep Jerusalem united, and that was a change from Labour's willingness under Barak(ph) to divide Jerusalem and give East, most of East Jerusalem back to the Palestinians for their capital.

CONAN: Given these big stakes, what are people saying about the turnout?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, the turnout in American terms is pretty good. I mean it's 60, nearly 64%. It was down 3% from last time. It's low for Israel, partly I think, people are tired, partly Olmert is not inspiring, partly even the idea of unilateral withdrawal isn't exactly inspiring. It feels like a failure. Even the people who support it are a little bit depressed by it, because it means you can't negotiate the real peace that I think many people want. It's a kind of default position. I think Sharon's illness cast a bit of a pall on things, and you know, there was, the most interesting thing, I think, was the reemergence of domestic issues and social welfare issues in this campaign. In a way that's because so much of the country, I think, has accepted the idea of further withdrawals from the West Bank. Security was very important, but Labour and some other parties made some traction by complaining about social injustices perpetrated by Benjamin Netanyahu when he was in the old government, when he was Finance Minister.

CONAN: And Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, may not even be the leader of the opposition when all of this is said and done. What does he say about the reasons for his precipitous fall?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, he was honest in acknowledging them. I don't think he's really explained them to himself. It's a disaster for Likud and a disaster for Netanyahu, they're now at their historic low. And they've been outdone by Netanyahu's former aide, the Moldova-born Avigdor Lieberman, who ran a Russian-style Party called Israel Beintenu, which was just like Cherna Merdin's (ph) Russia, Our Home Party, it means the same thing, Israel, Our Home. And he appealed to Russians who felt bereft by Sharon's disappearance and who wanted a strong security figure, who wasn't going to be too nice to the Arabs. And he also ran on a strong social program. So, it was aimed at Netanyahu. So, his Party is a bit bigger than Likud, and Likud has a lot of soul searching to do. And my guess is, they'll either break apart completely or find another leader.

CONAN: Has the turnout been evaluated, the results been evaluated enough to tell us how Israeli Arabs turned out, and who they voted for?

Mr. ERLANGER: Um, pretty much. They came out in larger numbers. There was real concern because this year the threshold for winning seats was raised to 2% of the total vote. So, if a party didn't get 2% of a total vote, at least three seats in other words, it wasn't going to get any seats. And that made a lot of the Arab Parties push very hard to get out their vote. So, they voted in higher numbers than other Israelis. And they did well, actually. They got ten seats, partly because turnout was low elsewhere, their size of the turnout went up.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. By the way, if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, email, We'll turn to Kate. Kate's with us from Trimble, Ohio.

KATE (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call. I'm wondering why Olmert, or no one else, is talking about Israel abiding by the '67 lines and abiding by UN Resolution 242 and 338, because we keep hearing Israel demands of Iraq and Iran abide by, you know, the UN's IAEA Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, I'm just saying, why don't they set that same standard and abide by UN Resolutions also? And Neal, I'd ask, I'd like to ask you to do two shows, one on the paper by Mearsheimer and Walt, called The Israeli Lobby, and I'd love to see Jimmy Carter on your program to talk about this same issue.

CONAN: Jimmy Carter was on the program two weeks ago...

KATE: Oh, I missed it. Sorry.

CONAN: Sorry about that, but anyway, Steve Erlanger, was withdrawal to the '67 lines an issue for anybody in Israel?

Mr. ERLANGER: It's an issue for the Palestinians and it's an issue for Hamas. I mean, in Israel, you know, all I would say is it wasn't a big part of the debate because Israel regards the '67 boundaries as the unfinished armistice lines of the unfinished 1948-49 war and the real boundary that Israel probably, we should go back to the U.N. plan of '48. All '67 was in Israeli eyes was an unfinished war. It's where armies stopped. So, they don't regard them as borders, but much of the rest of the world and particularly in these U.N. resolutions, as your caller says, says that peace has to begin with a withdrawal to '67 lines. So, you know, Israel basically's line is final borders will be established in negotiations with the Palestinians and until then, you know, they don't really want to hear about it.

CONAN: Steve Erlanger, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time. Steven Erlanger, bureau chief of the New York Times, speaking to us from his office in Jeruselem. We turn now to Israel Harel, a columnist for the newspaper Ha'aretz in Israel. He's the founder of the Council of the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, commonly known, the first two of those, as the West Bank, and thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. ISRAEL HAREL (Founder and Former Chairman, Council of Jewish Communities in West Bank and Gaza; Columnist, Ha'aretz Newspaper): Hello.

CONAN: Do you accept that yesterday's election results are a mandate for Kadima and its policy to withdraw to the, basically the line of the wall?

Mr. HAREL: Not at all. Not only I don't accept it, I think that all the political commentators say that he did not receive a vote, Mr. Ohmert, to go farther with the disengagement plan, and with his withdrawal plan, not whatsoever.

CONAN: So in order to do that, as some others are saying, do you think that he would have to hold a referendum?

Mr. HAREL: Definitely, he has 28 seats at the Knesset out of 120, so this doesn't give him any majority and even some left-wing parties will join his coalition, it still will be around the 50s, but will never have the 60s for this and, therefore, he will have to go to a referendum, definitely.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We just have a few seconds before we go to a break, but this was, I think is widely accepted, a disaster for Likud.

Mr. HAREL: Yes, the Likud suffered disaster, but one should remember that two-thirds of the Likud are within the new party, Kadima. So if you put all the fractions of the Likud together, then it's not so much a disaster. It's just because the Likud split into three parties, therefore, you'll have the original Likud, went down to 11 seats at the Knesset, but if you glue them together, you have around 40 Likud members in this present Knesset as well.

CONAN: Okay, stay with us if you will. We have to take a short break. We're gonna continue afterwards talking about yesterday's election results in Israel. If you'd like to join us our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about yesterday's election in Israel and what it means for the future. In a few minutes, Israeli author David Grossman will join us as well as Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist with The Jordan Times. With us right now is Israel Harel, founder and former chairman of the Council of the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He's also a columnist for Ha'aretz, a newspaper in Israel. And let me ask you, as a result of yesterday's elections, whom do you think settlers regard as their representatives in the Knesset?

Mr. HAREL: Well, the settler community is split almost as the entire Israeli community. There are those who are a more ideological element and those who are just a general, they came to settle, to live in a better environment. As for the breakdown of the settlers' votes, the majority went to the National Unity Party, which in the Knesset received only 10 seats, but there are also, even Kadima, Ehud Ohmert's party, also received votes, especially in the big concentration in the town-type settlements. So, I mean, the break to almost as the entire general Israel electorate.

CONAN: We heard some people to Steve Erlanger were talking earlier that none of the leaders of any of the parties was particularly charismatic in these elections. Does that, to you, explain the relatively low turnout?

Mr. HAREL: No. The relatively low turnout is mainly because in the last election of 2003, there was one issue one main issue on the table, disengagement or not disengagement. And the Labor Party suggested to disengage only from two settlements of the Gaza Strip and Mr. Sharon opposed it very strongly and he won 40 seats in the Knesset while Labor Party only 19. And then a few months later, he went to a major disengagement, not only from two settlements but from 25. I think that Israeli voter lost confidence in the political system because it's not like a few years ago when President Bush, Sr. promised not to raise taxes and he said read my lips, because here it's not, the issue is not if you raise taxes or not, though important issue in America, but here it's to disengage or not to disengage is an existential problem for Israel. It's a ideological problem. It's a problem of security. because after the disengagement, the kassam rockets doubled themselves and so on.

And so the Israeli voter lost confidence in the political system because he doesn't trust anymore that the politician are telling them the truth when they promise, when they go to election with certain ticket and then a day later they change their mind.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. One final question for you. Mr.Ohmert, who will be the new Prime Minister, said last night his task for this next four years is to set the boundaries of Israel by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if necessary. Do you think he'll get that done?

Mr. HAREL: The results of the election say that he doesn't have the backing or the personal might to do it. Would he have 10 seats more in the Knesset, maybe. But once, he needs a big coalition and he cannot form a coalition without parties from the center, and from the right, he won't be able to do it, especially not a unilateral major step.

CONAN: Israel Harel, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Mr. HAREL: You're very welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Israel Harel, a columnist for Ha'aretz, a newspaper in Israel, the founder of the Council of the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. For another view, joining us now is David Grossman from his home in Jerusalem. His novels included See Under: Love and Be My Knife. Among his non-fiction books are The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire. It's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DAVID GROSSMAN (Author): Hi, good afternoon, shalom.

CONAN: The same question I just put to Mr. Harel, in four years is Mr. Ohmert going to be able to set Israel's boundaries?

Mr. GROSSMAN: That's what he promises to do. Unlike Mr. Harel, I think that he will have a majority and even significant majority. I'll not go into those calculations, but it's very clear that he will gather something like 70 votes seat in the Knesset to support his plan, which basically is a good idea to set the final borders of Israel, because for so many years as Israelis and also as Jews, I think this was our major problem, that we did not have fixed, clear borders, that there was this vagueness regarding our borders. Now, if you live in a state like we do for 58 years and you do not have fixed borders, agreed upon borders, it creates a temptation to invade you by others, it creates a temptation to invade others. It is like to live in a house with mobile walls. You never really know where you end, where the other starts, and this ambiguity causes so much tragedy and so much violence around us. So, there is something basically, profoundly important that we shall have such a definition, that we shall be, you know, a people among peoples who have borders, who have this decision that this is our place and we know exactly the borders of this place. The bad news is that I suspect that Mr. Ohmert, judging him by the suggestions that he makes with the Palestinians, what he really tries to do is to find an excuse to do it unilaterally, you know, without having a real serious dialogue with the Palestinians, and I'm afraid that you cannot achieve real peace or even real confidence and real security here in a unilateral solution.

CONAN: Did you vote for Kadima?

Mr. GROSSMAN: No, not at all, because I really don't really believe in this strange political creature, which is kind of a cross-breed between so many contradictory opinions. Kadima is something very typical to Israel. Again the central left and the central right, they strike a deal between them, a deal that reflects their wishful thinkings and their nightmares and they prefer to turn their back on the real needs of the Palestinians, the real misery of the Palestinians, and therefore, they turn their back on reality. There is no other way than having a dialogue with the other. You cannot detach yourself, or disengage yourself from reality. You know, both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, no matter how they dislike each other now, they have to look at each other's eyes. They have to acknowledge the suffering, the atrocities that they have committed on each other to understand the horrible, human price of their stupidity and arrogance, and to acknowledge that the evil that burst out from them. Only if they do that, only if they really pay this maturity tax of admitting their responsibility, of feeling the pain of concession, the territorial and ideological concession, in order to give a just answer to the needs and the anguish of their opponent, only by that we can achieve a viable peace. Every other way will only lead to more and more bloodshed.

CONAN: Let's get a listener in on the conversation. This is Asaaf(ph), Asaaf calling us from Eureka in California.

ASAAF (Caller): Yes, hi. I actually wanted to talk about the fact that 50% of the voters just chose not to go and vote at all...

CONAN: Well, not quite 50%, more like 37% but go ahead.

ASAAF: It's still a huge percentage, and I'm mainly talking about young people that are fed up with basically the old politicians, who are completely disconnected from the young people. I can tell you that I'm right now in Eureka, California and I have immigrated to America just because you cannot make a living in Israel, and one of the big reasons that you cannot make a living in Israel is that the old politicians are completely ignoring the need of the young people who just came out of the army, and everybody in Israel has to go to the army for three years, and when I came out of the army, I couldn't even make a living as a guy who worked at the gas station, or a delivery guy, and I had to struggle to make a living for three years and none of the politicians gave me an answer for that...

CONAN: David Grossman, why do you think the turnout was so relatively low?

ASAAF: I actually talked to all my friends and they said they just don't care anymore because no one...

CONAN: Alright, let's see if we can give David Grossman a chance to respond to this.

Mr. GROSSMAN: You know, I mean, it's really very sad what you tell. I know it personally. I have a son who is probably your age. he just came out of the army and then finding it very difficult to find his way here. And in a way, you are right, because so much of the money, but not only the money, the national energy, was invested in this occupation, in this huge, the biggest national project of Israel ever, that eventually, most of it would be handled away to the Palestinians, instead of really dealing with important things, the welfare things, the social, the human things inside Israel. And Israel Harel just has said, a good sign about this election is that there is more emphasis about these topics for the first time. Another sign is that the three competitors, at least two of them, Amir Parits(ph) of the labor, and Ehud Omert of Kadima, they are civilians, their attitudes, their frame of mind is very civil. And this is, just as I said, a good sign, but for people like Asaaf, I really think that having peace in Israel would enable us, for the first time maybe, now we're history, to create Israel as a real home for people who are interested, who are intrigued by living here in Israel, because Israel was meant to be a home for the Jewish people. But until now, it's not a real home, until now it might be a shelter, a fortress. But it's not a place that you feel at ease in. You do not feel this nerval(ph), natural attachment to every centimeter in this place, because there are other people who have some just demands and, and, and arguments regarding your own home. So setting our boulders in a biological way, and having this feeling of being at home for the first time, enjoying this solidity of existence that until now, we do not have here. All this will really bring us to something totally new. And I really hope that it will be even attractive for Asaaf and for his friends to come back and to build his life here.

CONAN: Asaaf, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ASAAF: Thank you.

CONAN: And David Grossman, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. GROSSMAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: David Grossman, an author whose books include, See Under: Love, and Sleeping on a Wire. He joined us by phone today from his home in Jerusalem. We're talking about today's election in Israel. In a few minutes time, we're gonna be joined by our political junkie Ken Rudin. If you have questions for him about American politics our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And the E-mail address is You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we go now to Amman, Jordan for another view. Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist for the Jordan Times and the Jerusalem Post newspapers. He's also director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah on the West Bank. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DAOUD KUTTAB (Palestinian Columnist, Jordan Times and Jerusalem Post): Thank you.

CONAN: How are Palestinians reacting to the victory of Kadima and Ehud Omert yesterday?

Mr. KUTTAB: Well, Palestinians have been watching, they've always been watching Israeli politics. But we've had our own political changes with very smooth civilian turnover of authority from the Fatah government to the Hamas' government. I think that and the uncertainty of the future is, is, you know, the most important thing on people's minds. They are worried about what's going to happen, especially with the U.S. and Canada, today announced that they will stop all relations with the Palestinian government, and even though the government is made of Hamas and some independents. But we people feel very angry at the pro-democracy Bush Administration, which is rejecting talks to a democratically-elected government.

CONAN: So now we know after all of the uncertainty of the past year and more, with the makeup of the new Palestinian government, and the makeup of the new Israeli government, though of course, the coalition in Israel remains to be negotiated, but we are perhaps at square one now?

Mr. KUTTAB: We are, and you know, despite the uncertainty, three very interesting things happened in the last 24 hours. Ehud Omert made a very positive remark towards the Palestinians and Mahmoud Abbas asking him to negotiate in good faith with him. Mahmoud Abbas responded quickly saying that he's ready for negotiations. And the newly elected, or newly appointed, sworn-in prime minister of Hamas said that they will not stop in the way of anything that will be for the good of the Palestinian people. So, in many ways, things are very difficult, but in many other ways the potential is there. The problem we have is with the unilateralism that David Grossman spoke about, because with the Ehud Omert talking about negotiations but threatening with unilateral moves, I think this is going to complicate the situation, and make the possibility of genuine negotiations much more difficult.

CONAN: Some people might find you know, the same way that some, many Palestinians objected to the Israeli withdraw from Gaza as a unilateral withdraw, nevertheless, Gaza got turned over to Palestinian hands. If the Israelis withdraw back to the line of the wall, much of the West Bank would be in Palestinian hands.

Mr. KUTTAB: Yes, but they're not, A, the wall is very much deep in Palestinian territory and they're also talking about keeping the whole Jordan valley and not allowing Gaza and the West Bank to be connected. And unilateralism, it might a good short-term solution, but it's certainly not the good long-term solution. We are very, very close to each other. We live next to each other. We live inside each other in some places. And just to find unilateral solutions, to impose a solution based on the fact that you have Caterpillar bulldozers and guns protecting them, is not a good way.

CONAN: Again, the same question I put earlier to David Grossman and to Israel Harel, that is that Ehud Omert said yesterday his task for the next four years is to define Israel's borders by negotiations, if possible, unilaterally, if necessary. Do you think he will get that done?

Mr. KUTTAB: I hope he does it through negotiations. I would be very sad if it has to be done unilaterally.

CONAN: Daoud Kuttab, thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate your time.

Mr. KUTTAB: You're welcome.

CONAN: Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist for the Jordan Times and for the Jerusalem Post. He's also director at the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah and joined us today from his home in Amman, Jordan.

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