Israel’s Big Bang

Tuesday’s election changed everything.

Israeli Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Not long ago, the Likud central committee put Ehud Olmert down in 32nd place on the party’s list of candidates for the Israeli parliament. They didn’t like this “party prince,” thinking him too arrogant, too liberal, and too left-wing for a Likudnik. Olmert, for his part, wasn’t very keen on his colleagues in the party. He thought they were out of touch with the country, power-struck, and narrow-minded.

It was Ariel Sharon who saved Olmert from political obscurity. (Sharon had the same problems with the Likudniks, with one exception: They made him their leader, because they knew he could help them win.) He made Olmert his deputy prime minister. Maybe he thought he was the best man to succeed him, maybe he knew he would be efficient and loyal, or maybe Sharon was tweaking his fellow party members.

Three years have passed, and Olmert has his revenge, but the cost to the political system is not to be taken lightly. Israel’s two major tabloids used the same headline Wednesday morning: “The Bang.” Likud, the ruling party for most of the last 30 years, placed fifth * in Tuesday’s elections, preceded by Kadima; the Labor Party; Shas, the Sephardic religious party; and Israel Beitenu, which is dominated by Russian immigrants. Benjamin Netanyahu, who dreamed of returning to power, if not now then the next time, may not even be leader of the opposition.

If Sharon smashed the conservative definition of right and left by deciding to take his rightist party for a walk out of Gaza, this election shattered the entire structure of Israeli political life as we knew it. It’s not Likud and Labor struggling for office anymore—at least not for now. Perhaps it’s Labor and Kadima, perhaps another scenario. One thing is almost certain: This arrangement of parties will not survive this election cycle. Expect mergers, defections, sabotage, maneuvers. Do not expect stability. You can’t have stability when there are five “major” parties.

The cost will be evident as soon as the ruling coalition is formed. Olmert got enough votes to become prime minister but not enough for a secure coalition—not, at least, if he really wants to pursue the ambitious second disengagement plan he campaigned on. The right-wing parties will not support it, and the religious parties aren’t reliable partners when it comes to controversial political moves. Labor will be supportive, but relying on the support of the left to execute a move that might be perceived as making concessions to the Palestinians has never succeeded in Israel’s history. Yitzhak Rabin discovered that in Oslo, as did Ehud Barak at Camp David.

So, Olmert faces a tough challenge on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but there are other tricky issues. When it comes to the economy, he will have to deal with many sectarian parties, each focused on its own constituency. The biggest surprise of this election—the pollsters missed it completely—is the emergence of a new party, with eight seats in the Knesset, dedicated solely to improving of the lives of Israel’s elderly.

This morning Olmert faces a dilemma. He can form a broad, stable coalition—stable but stagnant—or he can take a more adventurous route, risking his government’s standing in the Knesset and with the public. Yesterday it seemed that he was going to try to have it both ways: forming a broad coalition now and then dealing with the issue of support for his disengagement plan when the time comes to implement it in a year or so. The downside is the temptation to keep postponing the plan to maintain the coalition. The upside—well, the upside is obvious: It will buy Olmert precious time. And in a country in which no prime minister has survived the full four years in office provided by law, that’s nothing to sniff at.

Update, March 30, 2006: Soldiers’ and other absentee ballots led to some adjustments in the distribution of seats. After the final count, Kadima was allocated 29 seats in the Knesset, Labor 20, Shas and Likud 12 each, and Yisrael Beiteinu 11. So, Likud came in fourth, rather than fifth, as it had appeared when this article was originally published on Wednesday morning.