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ELECTION BY DEFAULT?

Acting PM Olmert May Have Declared Victory But Floating Voters & Low Turnout Could Affect March 28th Election

Labors Peretz & Likud's Netanyahu Are Now Banking On Last Minute Swing Which has Not Been Reflected In Public Opinion Polls

The election campaign has failed to excite the Israeli public with all the opinion polls indicating that acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party will win big on March 28th. However, not all the experts agree that the polls reflect the real situation and there could be an unexpected last minute swing. Although Olmert has already declared victory, his Kadima colleague Zippy Livni warns about taking the voters for granted.

'Some election experts say a low turnout by voters and a large number of floating voters could upset the outcome of the Israeli election on March 28th. The current polls that show Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert winning decisively may not reflect the true picture according to election experts. In any case, the election campaign will soon focus on the make-up of the new Olmert government after Labor and Likud fail to close Kadima's lead in the polls. PM Olmert has already declared victory - but his swagger has made Foreign Minister Zippi Livni squirm. Livni warns of the tortoise and the hare syndrome and urges Kadima not to take voters for granted. But why is Olmert still far ahead of the pack after the recent mudslinging of a corrupt Sharon administration leveled by Likud's Bibi Netanyahu and Labors Amir Peretz? Olmerts two rivals drew on the damming revelations of MK Omri Sharon's diary that exposed how the PMs son personally coerced most cabinet ministers to do his bidding. The picture that emerged was a government riddled with cronyism. But even this mud did not stick according to the polls that show Kadima has stemmed its slide downward.

Olmert has finally had to outline his disengagement program saying it will be implemented by 2010. More isolated settlements will be evacuated and Israel will draw a new defense line that will serve as borders until the Palestinians come to their senses after voting in Hamas. The Likud's Bibi Netanyahu has dropped any pretensions of challenging Olmert for the center of the political map where most voters have apparently camped. Netanyahu has veered to the right declaring that Olmert will bolster Hamas and jeopardize Israels security. The Likud will never join a Kadima coalition based on Kadima's policy. The best that Labors Amir Peretz can concoct is a convoluted and contradictory pitch. First, Olmert has adopted Labors approach on the need to withdraw on the West Bank but on the other hand: A further withdrawal should be negotiated and not implemented unilaterally.

The Wild Card: Although Kadima takes 37 seats while Labor trails with 20 and Likud around 16, no less than 35% are so turned off they say they wont vote. There is also a sizable number of floating voters who haven't made up their minds. This could leave a large number of Knesset seats up for grabs. A sudden last minute swing by those voters could alter the outcome of the election. A coalition government requires the support of 61 MKs in the 120-member parliament. This leaves the door open for a blocking majority of 61 MKs from the right and religious wings, which could unite to forestall Olmert from building a Knesset majority. (Although there is talk of Netanyahu and Peretz forging an alliance to block Olmert from becoming next prime minister, this could arose the wrath of Labor left-wingers and it is hard to imagine Peretz taking such a risk).

Vision & Lack Of It: Undoubtedly, Olmert has ridden into prominence on Ariel Sharon's coattails and Netanyahu is being blamed for his belt-tightening as Finance Minister, but there is more to it. Peretz by the way has failed to show that he has the right stuff to cope with Hamas and the Iranian nuclear threat. Lacking in charisma, Olmert has made few mistakes in the campaign, except for bravado about already winning. He has fended off his opponents broadsides with a policy of being above the fray, dealing with the serious business of state. Although some voters wonder about how an Israeli politician owns a home valued at $2.7 million, and despite his arrogant approach at times, the general consensus is that Olmert is no sucker; that is perhaps the worst failing in the eyes of most Israelis. On the other hand, Bibi Netanyahu has not shaken his image that hes just not up to the job of prime minister. That Netanyahu has not changed since his first crack at it, which he bungled. Kadima has hit on this with its slogan that Bibi is the same Bibi! Even Likud party colleagues like Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat have apparently been alienated by Netanyahu's attitude. As for the Labor party leader, Amir Peretz is at the top of the charts when it comes to social equality but he has failed to make the jump to foreign affairs and security. At a time that Hamas and Iran threaten to wipe Israel off the map is there any wonder why voters are not on his bandwagon.

Facing such a stark reality, most Israeli voters want to feel that some candidate is on the ball and initiating moves they hope will pay off. Kadima has succeeded in doing that although no one has the foggiest idea of where things are going after the Palestinians apparently went haywire and voted in Hamas. But if Olmert and Kadima are saying Okay, to hell with the Palestinians, well do whats good for Israel, the Israeli public seems to be buying it. There is a precedent for this approach of seizing the initiative. Back in 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Labor launched the Oslo process, another grand design. It returned Yasser Arafat and the PLO to the Palestinian areas with the goal of forging an historic peace. After five years of good neighbor relations, Israel and the Palestinians would negotiate a two state solution. The Jewish state took the chance and ushered in the Oslo scheme on a wave of near euphoria. It blew up in a wave of suicide bombings. This time, a disillusioned Israel is now headed in a different direction and Kadima is apparently leading the way - maybe suckers once, but not twice.

David Essing

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