April 6, 2006
The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best
Los Angeles supporters of Israel's political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren't entirely in a mood to celebrate.
Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn't be needed.
Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to "faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted."
Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.
"I think we did pretty well," he said. "If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats."
As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.
The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.
"Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected," she said. "A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again."
Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.
"Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.
Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.
At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.
Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was "obviously disappointed" by the election results.
Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.
Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon's absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu's past economic policies, as well as by what he called a "vicious" campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.
The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.
"Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn't seem to have clear message and didn't make the right kind of noise," Berman said.
Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.
Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.
"This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together," Rothstein said. "You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.
A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert's vow to draw Israel's final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.
"Assuming Hamas doesn't engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there's going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba," said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, "Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil" (Oneworld). "They're probably going to be using pretty much the same maps."
A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.
"There's a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over," said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. "Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state."
Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, "like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it's in power," Ali said.
But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won't engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its "occupation," recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.
"Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they're not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn't willing to do], Khan said. "Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed."
Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.
Regardless of last week's voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate's Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.
Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.