Commentary Magazine


What Israel Did (and Did Not) Vote For

Israel’s political system has a long history of mergers and fissures, with smaller parties joining to form larger ones and splitting again in new ways. Up to the day it was held, this year’s March 28 election seemed certain to be remembered for the most recent and dramatic of such splits: Ariel Sharon’s walking out of the Likud last November to form the new Kadima party, which his January stroke prevented him from leading in the campaign. Contemplating the election’s returns, however, one wonders whether the real bolt wasn’t a different one, in which the Israeli public walked out on national politics.

One might start with the fact that the turnout at the polls was a mere 63 percent, compared with 67 percent in 2003 and 62.3 percent in 2001, when the vote—which elected Ariel Sharon to his first term—was not for the Knesset but for prime minister alone. On the face of it, this may appear to be par for the course. Voter turnout has been low and dropping in Western democracies for decades. In post-World War II presidential elections in the United States, for example, turnout peaked at 63 percent in 1960 and fell steadily to 47 percent in 1996 before rebounding somewhat in 2000 and 2004. In French parliamentary elections, it dropped from 74 percent in 1945 to 60 percent in 2002. Seen from this perspective, Israel is part of a worldwide trend.

Yet, until very recently, Israel had not been part of this trend at all. Indeed, at the same time that voter participation was declining nearly everywhere else, it was holding steady or rising in Israel, hovering at slightly over 80 percent from 1955 to 1992 and reaching 84 percent in 1996 and 1999. This was a remarkably high rate, from which the drop-off of the last three elections has been precipitous.

Over this same period, Israel’s voting patterns differed in another significant way as well. In the United States and Europe, two large parties—Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Laborites, Christian-Democrats and Socialists—have been the rule, with third parties like Great Britain’s Liberals occasionally a factor. In Israel, for the first two-and-a-half decades after its establishment in 1948, a single party, the socialist Mapai of Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, and Golda Meir, dominated the 120-member Knesset and the government. Mapai won 46 seats in the elections of 1949, 45 in 1951, 47 in 1959, and so on, while its nearest competitor never passed 20 and the remainder of parliament was divided among a dozen smaller factions. Only in the elections of 1969 did the first signs of a two-party system emerge when an alliance of Mapai and other left-wing parties, the forerunner of today’s Labor, garnered 56 Knesset seats, while a parallel merger of the two largest right-wing parties, forming the basis of what was to become Likud, won 26.

From then until the mid-1980’s, what seemed to be a transition to a full-fledged two-party system proceeded apace. In 1973, Labor won 51 seats and Likud 39. In 1977, when the Right triumphed for the first time, Likud gained 43 seats and Labor 32. In 1981, it was Likud 48 and Labor 47, with these two parties accounting between them for four-fifths of the Knesset.

Yet this proved to be a high-water mark. In 1984 it was Labor 44, Likud 41; in 1988, Likud 40, Labor 39; in 1992, Labor 44, Likud 32; in 1996, Labor 34, Likud 32; in 1999, Labor 26, Likud 19; in 2003, Likud 38, Labor 19. From election to election, the joint share of Israel’s two leading parties decreased, although rising temporarily in 2003.

And now we have 2006, with 29 seats for Kadima, 19 for Labor, and Likud a distant third at 12. Who are the other parties? Two of them, the Sephardi Shas (12 seats) and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (6 seats), are ethno-Orthodox religious parties that seek neither to appeal to nor to represent Israelis who do not belong to their camps. Three others are Arab parties (10 seats), of which the same can be said. Still another party, Yisrael Beyteynu (“Israel Is Our Home,” with 11 seats), draws most of its votes from Russian immigrants and is led by an ex-Russian immigrant himself. Another, the National Union-National Religious party (9 seats), ran as the political arm of the settler movement. And finally, with an astonishing 7 seats, there is the newest addition to the Knesset, the Pensioners party, which many Israelis had never heard of until election week and whose platform consisted entirely of a call for increased government aid to the elderly. (Having turned into the mascot of the disaffected in the campaign’s last days, the Pensioners attracted a tongue-in-cheek protest vote.)

None of these, with the partial exception of Yisrael Beyteynu, ran on a program for the nation as a whole—an economic policy, a defense policy, a policy toward the Palestinians—because none conceived of the nation as a whole as its concern. Each not only was committed to furthering the interests of a specific population group but was indifferent to the interests of any group beside its own.

Thus, if to the 37 percent of Israelis who simply did not vote in March we add those who voted for single-constituency parties, including the 160,000 who supported twenty fly-by-night tickets that did not make it into the Knesset at all, we arrive at the bottom line that nearly two-thirds of Israel’s voting-age citizens were prepared to accept politicians who had neither any plans nor any aspiration to govern them. These are the elections’ most striking results.

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Why has this happened in a country with an electorate that was not long ago distinguished by its high sense of national responsibility? The reasons are, for the most part, well-known.

The lowering of the flame beneath Israel’s “melting pot” is one. For all of its great difficulties, the period of massive immigration to Israel from Eastern Europe and the Arab lands in the late 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s succeeded remarkably well, at least on the surface, in forging out of highly disparate groups a single people with a strong national ethos. Becoming “Israeli,” whatever that may have meant to different people, was something that nearly everyone strove to do, and the one significant part of the Jewish population that consciously resisted this process, its non- or anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox sector, stayed largely aloof from politics. Although this sector had its political parties, they, unlike the Zionist-oriented National Religious party, did not participate in coalition governments or expect much from them.

All this began slowly to change in the 1970’s. Protest movements of “Sephardi pride” early in the decade were a harbinger. But it was only when Menachem Begin and the Likud campaigned victoriously in 1977 by appealing openly to the resentment of the “Ashkenazi establishment” felt by many Israelis with family origins in the Arab Middle East that identity politics arrived in Israel in a major way. And it was Begin, too, who enticed the ultra-Orthodox to join a government for the first time, thus turning them from passive to active players on the political scene.

In the 1980’s the trend strengthened, abetted by multiculturalist tail winds from abroad and the growing rift between Left and Right over the occupied territories; this struck at the heart of the national consensus that Israelis had always prided themselves on when it came to major issues. A sign of the times was the founding of Tami or the Israeli Moroccan Movement, an openly ethnic party and the first successful one of its kind since 1951. Tami won three Knesset seats in 1981 and paved the way for Shas, which first ran in 1984 and rose to seventeen seats by 1999. Paralleling this trend was the growth and radicalization of Israel’s Arab parties, the largest of which, the Democratic Front for Peace, originally the joint Jewish-Arab Israeli Communist party, gradually eliminated all Jews from its ranks. And when, at the end of the decade, a huge Jewish immigration began pouring in from the former Soviet Union, it did what no new large group of new immigrants had ever done before and launched a party of its own: Yisrael Be’Aliyah, headed by Natan Sharansky, which won 7 Knesset seats in the elections of 1996.

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None of this would have happened, however, had it not been for Israel’s traditional system of proportional representation, inherited from the Zionist politics of Europe and British-Mandate Palestine. In this system, voters cast their ballots not for candidates running as individuals in electoral districts but for nationwide lists presented by parties, each of which is then apportioned Knesset seats on the basis of the percentage of votes it obtains. (If party X wins 5 percent of the vote, for instance, it gets 120 × .05 or 6 seats, which go to the top six candidates on its list.) While not without its virtues, chief among which is the parliamentary voice it gives to minorities, proportional representation also has its grave defects. That is why, in its pure form, it is practiced in Israel and Holland alone, and in hybrid versions in only a few other countries like Finland, New Zealand, and Ireland.

One of these defects is that, in a country that is religiously, ethnically, or ideologically fractured, proportional representation can produce parliaments with many small parties and no dominating large ones, leading to complex and unstable governing coalitions that are difficult to establish and maintain. This is what has happened increasingly in Israel—a tendency exacerbated by an electoral reform law, first taking effect in 1996, that instituted a direct popular vote for the office of prime minister alongside party voting for the Knesset, which until then had itself chosen the prime minister. Although this law, which badly backfired, has now been repealed, its damage lived on after it, for it further encouraged Israelis to vote by sector for the Knesset while fulfilling their national duty, so they thought, in the vote for prime minister. Indeed, the only explanation for the sudden plunge in voter turnout in 2001, when a prime minister alone was elected, was that many Israelis no longer saw the point of voting at all when their sectoral interests and identity were not at stake.

But this is not proportional representation’s worst feature. Even more serious is its severing of voters from the candidates elected by them. Whereas, for example, all Americans have a Congressman from their district and a Senator from their state who must take into account their needs, desires, and opinions, Israeli politics has no corresponding figures. Party X’s Knesset members are not personally answerable to the public that chose them, which has no influence over them and may not even know who they are. Nor, having been chosen by their parties, can they be rewarded or punished on an individual basis. There is no way to return one member of party X to the Knesset for having done a good job while retiring another member of the same party for having done a bad one.

Such a system, clearly, is capable of producing a fundamental estrangement from politics. As long as Israelis, despite their differences, shared a strong sense of common national purpose, this was balanced by other forces; once Israeli society began to fragment, however, it became salient. And as it did, the effective response to it became identity politics—with ethnic, religious, or ideological constituency taking the place of geographical districts. By voting as members of a given community, with its formal and informal networks, it was possible for Israelis to monitor the performance of their politicians and exert some influence over them.

And the politicians reciprocated. A Republican Congressman understands that he represents his entire district; he must be attentive to Democrats, too, if only because he wants as many of their votes as he can get in the future. But a Knesset member from single-constituency party X feels no such obligation to voters for parties Y and Z. He may never have had the slightest contact with them, having gotten to be a Knesset member in the first place not by winning local elections and working his way up the political ladder but by being active in the population group that party X represents and cultivating its leaders. (Israel’s only local elections are for mayor, and few mayors make the jump to the Knesset.) This in turn has discouraged good people from entering national politics, in which advancement depends largely on cronyism and connections. Little wonder, then, that Israelis, especially younger ones, have grown cynical about their politicians.

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One could name still other factors that help explain electoral apathy and single-constituency voting in a country whose very existence—unlike that of most other Western democracies—may depend on the political decisions it makes. One thing in particular, however, deserves mention. This is the way in which the two leaders who, in recent years, took the boldest of national initiatives, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, only deepened the cynicism of the voters.

Much has been said about Rabin’s betrayal of his voters in 1993, when, after winning the 1992 elections on a platform of refusing to negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, he about-faced and signed the Oslo agreement with Yasir Arafat. Less remembered today is how in October 1995, a month before his assassination, he declared himself satisfied with the Knesset’s ratification of Oslo’s second stage by an acrimoniously contested vote of 61-59, even though the winning margin was provided by two anti-Israel Arab parties and two Jewish members of the right-wing Tsomet party who were politically bribed to cross the lines. Had the issue been one of lesser magnitude, Rabin’s supporters might have argued that he was only doing what democratically elected politicians routinely do. But in a matter like this, which was of the profoundest national import, he was inexcusably violating the trust Israelis had put in him.

As if this were not bad enough, along came Ariel Sharon a decade later and did something perhaps even more reprehensible. In unveiling his Gaza disengagement plan, it will be recalled, Sharon, anxious to obtain the public mandate that Rabin had deemed unnecessary, announced that he was submitting the plan to a referendum of the members of his own Likud party. (Although his preference had been for a national referendum, in which pro-disengagement sentiment would have been much stronger, he abandoned the idea when advised that this would encounter legal and parliamentary obstacles.) The referendum was held in May 2004, and, contrary to initial expectations, disengagement lost by a wide margin—whereupon Sharon broke his promise to honor its results and pushed on with the plan anyway, thereby precipitating the party revolt against him that led to his leaving Likud and to its disastrous showing in March’s elections.

The point is not whether one supported either the Oslo agreement or the Gaza disengagement. It is that, in both cases, an elected leader told his voters that what they had voted for, even if they had gone to the polls at his own special behest, was irrelevant. Can Israelis be blamed if, in deciding whether to take part in the recent elections, and then whether to prefer a party with a broad national agenda to one representing their own immediate clan, they took this lesson to heart?

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Did Ehud Olmert and Kadima receive from the Israeli public, as they and many commentators have argued, a “mandate” for further disengagement in the West Bank? Even disregarding the low turnout, it is hard to see how this can be maintained. Of all the parties running in the March elections, Kadima alone had disengagement on its platform—and it won less than a quarter of the vote. Moreover, it was precisely in the final weeks of the campaign, when Olmert and other party leaders grew more outspoken about their plans, declaring that an Israel governed by them would, by 2010, unilaterally withdraw from most of the West Bank to final borders determined by itself, that Kadima lost altitude quickly, slipping from the approximately 40 seats projected by the opinion polls to its electoral tally of 29.

Or, rather, were the elections—in the second sweeping generalization that has been made about them—a vote against the market-oriented economic policies of the Likud’s current leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was minister of finance in the Sharon government, and in favor of a return to and even an expansion of the costly social-welfare programs that Netanyahu had slashed? The Knesset seats won by the Jewish parties that campaigned openly against Netanyahu’s “brutal capitalism,” as they called it, add up to 43: 19 for Labor (the same as in 2003), 7 for the Pensioners, 5 for the left-wing Meretz (down 1 seat), and 12 for Shas (up 1 seat). This can hardly be interpreted as a landslide in favor of resurrecting Israel’s old welfare-state economy.

In reality, sad to say, the March elections were not a “mandate” for anything. The most noteworthy thing about them was how poorly all three of the major national parties did. Although Kadima, which began the campaign on a wave of popular sympathy engendered by Sharon’s stroke, received far fewer votes than expected, neither Labor nor Likud picked up a single one of these. Likud, which began the campaign with a projected result of 15 to 18 seats, sank to 12. Labor was given around 20 seats by the early polls, and that is what it ended up with. The many voters who abandoned Kadima as election day neared went elsewhere.

True, the formation of a Center-Left government based on Kadima, Labor, the Pensioners, and Meretz, with Shas, United Torah Judaism, and possibly Yisrael Beyteynu as likely climbers-aboard, could create a government with a sense of purpose—certainly more purpose than would be mustered by the improbable specter, bandied about after the elections, of a Left-Right “stop Kadima” alliance. Such a Center-Left coalition would presumably involve a programmatic swap in which Kadima, whose outlook on economic issues is for the most part closer to Netanyahu’s, would cede to Labor its main social-welfare demands, in return for which Labor, which has been lukewarm on further unilateral disengagement, would back Kadima on extending it to the West Bank.

Economically, this need not be a bad thing. Although Israel needs still more, not less, free-market reform, the safety net for the weakest parts of its population, which bore the brunt of Netanyahu’s budget cuts, requires strengthening. If this can be done without tax hikes or increases in overall government expenditures, the country’s economy, now expanding again after years of stagnation, can continue to grow.

But the implementation of West Bank disengagement at this point is something else. Bitterly divisive though it was, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last summer, with its uprooting of 8,000 settlers, caused less disruption than was feared because popular support for it far outweighed popular opposition. If the elections have made anything clear, it is that a similar measure of support does not exist at the moment for another withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria, in which ten times as many settlers would have to be relocated. For Olmert to press ahead with this would be to make the same mistake that Yitzhak Rabin made in 1995. A narrow majority in the Knesset could be mustered with the help of the Arab parties, but the country would be torn apart once again. This is the last thing that anyone who cares about Israel’s future should want to see happen.

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Had kadima won the 40 or more Knesset seats it seemed likely to win, a strong argument for undertaking West Bank disengagement under the next Israeli government could indeed have been made. After all, there have been elections next door to Israel, too, and Hamas’s winning of them has made the case for Israeli unilateralism more cogent than ever.

Nor were the two elections unconnected, since the commanding lead enjoyed by Kadima in the early polls helped convince many Palestinians to vote for Hamas last January. The logic behind this was simple. Although a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank may seem politically moderate to most Israelis, especially when compared with the hard-line posture of the Right, it was completely unacceptable to even the most “moderate” Palestinians, from whose perspective the only hope for peace negotiations with Israel lay in a victory for Labor and the Left. Once it was apparent that such a victory was not in the offing, Palestinians could not think of many reasons to prefer a corrupt and discredited Fatah to what they perceived to be a virtuous Hamas.

Yet this is not to say, as has been proposed by the never-say-die school of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, that Hamas’s strong showing was simply a “throw the rascals out” vote that must not be allowed to curtail efforts to reach a negotiated settlement. It demeans the Palestinians’ intelligence to attribute to them the notion that they were choosing between Middle Eastern versions of the Clean Government party and Tammany Hall. In speaking of a society in which every village and family has Hamas activists who for years have openly preached the destruction of Israel and the impossibility of co-existence with it, not to mention assisting and participating in the mass murder of Israeli civilians, only the disingenuous can contend that Palestinian voters did not know whom or what they were voting for.

It was important that the Palestinians were allowed to speak their minds—and fortunate for Israel that they spoke them now and not in another five or ten years. Imagine for a moment the scenario preferred by the die-hards of negotiation: that the Left in Israel had been much stronger; that Fatah had therefore won the January elections; that Mahmoud Abbas had then taken an unprecedentedly conciliatory stance toward Israel while somehow managing to keep his own and other Palestinian organizations in line; that Labor and the Left had consequently won in March; that serious negotiations had then commenced and resulted in a peace treaty based on a generous Israeli upgrading of Ehud Barak’s last offer at Taba in early 2001—that is, an almost total return to the pre-1967 borders; that Israel had then withdrawn to these lines, uprooting between 100,000 and 200,000 Jewish settlers; and that, several years later . . . Hamas had won the next Palestinian Authority elections. For Israel, far better a Hamas in power today but not on the 1967 borders than a Hamas in power and on them tomorrow.

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The much-debated question of whether, now that it is in charge of running the Palestinian Authority, Hamas will change its position and recognize Israel is, or at least should be, perfectly immaterial from the Israeli point of view. Verbal positions can always be changed—for this there are diplomats. There are a dozen different ways in which Hamas can “recognize” Israel conditionally, or provisionally, or hypothetically, without this “recognition” having the slightest validity in its own eyes. If it is under heavy enough American and European pressure to make tactical concessions, it may make them; hudnas, Islamic truces with the enemy, are never to be ruled out. But to suppose that Hamas will jettison its ideology or strategic goals with its first taste of power is quite simply to ignore the realities of radical Islamic politics.

Hamas is not, after all, just another Palestinian political organization that happens to have a religious leadership. It was founded as, and still is, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—which is to say, it is part of an international jihadist movement that can no more accept the permanent presence of a Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East than it can accept pork or alcohol. A Hamas that changed its mind about this would have to change its mind about everything, starting with its basic understanding of Islam.

Moreover, just as there can be no lasting or meaningful peace between Israel and Hamas, so there can also be no lasting peace between Israel and a Palestinian people that is capable of choosing Hamas to govern it. And since the Palestinian people has shown that it is capable of such a choice, Israel must recalibrate its own thinking accordingly.

This leaves it with only two options: unilateral disengagement to borders determined by itself, or continued occupation for an indefinite period, definable for all practical purposes as forever, of all the territories occupied since 1967. I will not repeat the reasons, stated by me in previous COMMENTARY essays, that would make the second option calamitous. All that is new is that the Hamas victory has made unilateral disengagement far more practicable in international terms. About this, something needs to be said.

There has been all along a basic confusion on the part of much of the world between two things that are not at all identical: the Palestinians’ real and wholly justified need to be free of Israeli military occupation, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Palestinians’ need for an independent West Bank-Gaza state, which has little if any justification at all. These two notions have been conflated ever since King Hussein relinquished Jordan’s claims on the West Bank in 1988, but they are in fact distinct and not intrinsically connected.

This is a crucial point, because the main objection to unilateral disengagement that has been raised in international circles is that it will make a viable Palestinian state impossible. The argument goes like this: since the West Bank borders to which Israel proposes to withdraw will leave the Palestinians with insufficient and inadequately contiguous territory, and since Israel’s retention of much or all of East Jerusalem will deprive any Palestinian state of its natural and only possible capital, unilateral disengagement cannot take the place of a formal Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

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This argument is undoubtedly correct—if an independent West Bank-Gaza state is in fact an international desideratum. But even if that is theoretically the case, is a West Bank-Gaza state that is governed by Hamas, or that could be governed by Hamas, also a desideratum? Do the United States and Europe have any conceivable interest in the establishment of an independent Palestine ruled by a jihadist government? If they do not, and clearly they do not, might not the argument against Israeli unilateralism—namely, that it rules out the possibility of an independent Palestine—be seen instead as an argument for it?

But, it will be asked, if Israel withdraws from most of the West Bank, and an internationally recognized Palestinian state does not arise on the territory that is evacuated, what will take its place? How will the Palestinians there run their lives?

The answer is: with great difficulty—which is why they will be dependent on Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries adjacent to them, for economic and political help, and in the longer run for some form of economic and political union. And this, it must be said, would be a good thing, because both Jordan and Egypt have pro-Western governments that fear jihadism and understand its dangers, and both can be counted on to keep Hamas in check.

But—it will be next rejoined—neither Jordan nor Egypt wants this burden. Furthermore, both stand to be endangered by it, since discontented West Bank and Gaza populations with strong Islamic leanings will only worsen their own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood and threaten to destabilize their regimes. Why should Europe and the United States want to impose this on them?

Yet one must consider not just the tiny patch on the map called Israel/Palestine, nor even just Egypt and Jordan. One must think of the entire Muslim world, which is breeding an aggressively militant Islam that is a threat both to the West and to the countries it breeds in. Hamas is an integral part of this militancy, no less than is the government of Iran or al Qaeda, and the battle against it is part of a war that must be fought globally. The governments of Egypt and Jordan, whether they like it or not, are caught up in this war and are as interested as any government, and more perhaps than most, in seeing it won. Surely it is not too much to ask of them to act in their own self-interest, to say nothing of the interest of the Palestinian people, by helping to contain Hamas as best they can. If this means that, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, they will have to be responsible for law, order, and a measure of economic welfare in Gaza and the West Bank, that is not an unreasonable expectation.

But—comes the next objection—would this not in effect be asking the world to endorse a return to the situation that prevailed between 1948 and 1967, when Gaza was an Egyptian protectorate and the West Bank was part of Jordan?

Yes, it would (although it is also possible to conceive of Gaza as being associated not with Egypt but with Jordan, thus giving the latter country a port on the Mediterranean). And yet ironically, many of those expressing shock at such an idea are also likely to assert that the decades between 1948 and 1967 were far better for the Middle East than what followed, and that the region’s worst problems began when Israel conquered the Egyptian Gaza Strip and the Jordanian West Bank. Well, then, just as, in a sense, the 1967 war returned Israel and the Palestinians to the pre-1948 days of the British Mandate, in which the two peoples lived together in a single land they were vying for with no clear demarcations between them, so unilateral disengagement would return Israel and the Palestinians roughly to the pre-1967 days of the 1949 armistice lines.

These lines, it must be remembered, originally marked the positions of the Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies at the end of the 1948-49 hostilities and were not necessarily intended to be permanent; never recognized as such by any of the Arab states, they were for a long time not recognized by Europe and the United States, either. It is a forgotten chapter of diplomatic history that in 1955, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, with the backing of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, formally proposed that Israel agree to a “compromise” between the boundaries of the 1947 UN partition resolution and the 1949 lines, suggesting that this include ceding parts of the Negev to Jordan and Egypt to create a land-bridge between them. The suggestion disappeared from the table only as a result of the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli campaign against the Egyptians.

One might keep this episode in mind in weighing the argument that unilateral disengagement will not work because the borders Israel withdraws to will have no international standing. There is international standing and there is international standing. If one is talking only about the kind that involves de-facto toleration rather than de-jure acceptance, Israel could live with it for an extended period just as it lived with the 1949 armistice lines.

Naturally, de-facto toleration, too, has to be communicated in more ways than chilly silence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have made the first move in this direction when, to a question about unilateral disengagement put to her three days after the Israeli elections, she responded: “I wouldn’t on the face of it just say absolutely that we don’t think there’s any value in what the Israelis are talking about.”

By the same token, one should also not just say, absolutely, that Hamas’s victory has not set some in Washington and in European capitals to wondering whether anyone, the Palestinians included, really needs a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state after all. It is true that the indispensability of such a state has become such a mantra of international discourse over the last fifteen or twenty years that to deny it (unlike denying the indispensability of a Kurdish, Tibetan, or Chechnyan state, which is considered a common-sense proposition) strikes many as akin to denying a law of nature. But nothing calls for critical rethinking more than the obvious; and if Hamas—whose Muslim Brotherhood ideology postulates the eventual disappearance of all Arab states anyway in a renewed pan-Islamic caliphate—has made the obvious less so by winning the Palestinian elections, it has done the world an unintended good turn.

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Where then does this leave us? It would appear to have been preferable had Israelis given their newly elected government the go-ahead to proceed with unilateral disengagement in its current term of office, which has up to four years to run. Israel has lived for too long—nearly four decades!—without clear borders and with an ambiguous and tragic relationship to the occupied territories and their Arab and Jewish inhabitants. It is time to decide what to keep and what to leave, and if this cannot be done together with the Palestinians, it will have to be done without them.

Even without a clear mandate to disengage in the West Bank, the newly elected government, however it is constituted, has its work cut out for it. Apart from economic issues, it needs to concentrate on the kind of electoral reform that will give Israelis a political system they feel connected to. Such reform had originally been intended by Ariel Sharon to be one of Kadima’s banners; although it fell by the wayside during the campaign, the election results have demonstrated how badly it needs to be raised again. While the complete abolition of proportional representation might be neither practicable nor desirable in Israel, and impossible in any case to pass in a Knesset many of whose parties would be abolishing themselves, a hybrid of proportional and district voting, such as exists elsewhere in the world, is feasible and probably the best solution.

Regarding the prospect of West Bank disengagement, too, there is much for the new government to do. Finishing the security barrier, currently planned for next year, is one such thing. Construction of the barrier has been painfully slow, in large measure because, despite official denials, it is intended to serve as the border to which a unilateral withdrawal will take place and thus to mark Israel’s permanent frontier. This has meant carefully weighing demographic, military, political, and historical considerations against one another, and it may be that some decisions now need to be revised in the wake of the Palestinian elections. If the outcome of those elections does—as it should—make the undesirability of an independent Gaza-West Bank state utterly clear, Israel might consider annexing more West Bank territory in which the Palestinian population is small, such as parts of the Jordan Valley or the wilderness of Judea.

Above all, Ehud Olmert and Kadima can use the coming years to rally the international backing that alone can make disengagement workable. First and foremost, this means getting the support of the United States. Even if the Bush administration will no longer be in power by the time disengagement is carried out, any shifts or declarations of policy that it makes while still in office could well continue to be honored by future American governments. It is in Israel and America’s joint interest, as it is in that of Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan, to give Hamas as small a power base as possible.

Disengagement will have to wait—but not necessarily for four years. Once the required pieces are in place, Olmert could call for a midterm election, asking Israelis for the mandate they did not give him in March. Indeed, since the pieces are not yet in place, it is perhaps just as well that the mandate was not given now. Too much hangs in the balance for haste. Four decades are indeed a long time, but they have all but passed already, and two or three more years will not make a crucial difference—if they are used wisely.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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