Israel's 2006 Elections: With a Whimper, Not a Bang

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The breathtaking events of late 2005 and early 2006 promised an extraordinary shakeup in Israeli politics. 

In November 2005, Amir Peretz's surprise win over Shimon Peres in the Labor party primary, and his decision to pull Labor out of the government, precipitated a series of dramatic changes. Until then, two bottlenecks were stopping up the system: Ariel Sharon was stuck in a party, Likud, that he had founded but had long since outgrown, while across the aisle, Peres' stubborn refusal to yield his personal ambition paralyzed Labor. So determined was Peres to make his way back into the Cabinet Room--maybe even the Prime Minister's Office-- that he had crippled one generation of successors and threatened to do the same to another.

A New Party is Born

The eclipse of Peres set in motion a stunning realignment. Sharon defected from Likud and, with centrist defectors from Labor, created a new party: Kadima. With Kadima, Sharon could pursue the policy trajectory he had already introduced and, in what long-time Labor MK Haim Ramon termed "the Big Bang," resurrect a broad ruling center resembling the historic MAPAI of Ben-Gurion, through whose ranks he and Peres had risen.

Sharon's stroke in January 2006 seemed to put Kadima in danger (though it also helped it by removing Sharon's corruption scandals from the public agenda). But Kadima, now led by Sharon's designated successor, Ehud Olmert, survived, pointing to the underlying suasion of that broad consensus. It finally seemed as though the Knesset would assume the rough shape of the body politic it purported to represent. It would leave most of the territories while retaining the major blocs, not out of love for the Palestinians, but to distance Israel from them; and it would accept free markets sans Bibinomics--the aggressive capitalism of Benjamin Netanyahu. At long last, the endless horse-trading and thin coalitions that had bedeviled Israeli politics for so long would be behind us.

The truth turned out to be more complicated.

Landslide Predicted

From the moment of its birth the media and the chattering classes threw their weight behind Kadima. Poll after poll, article after article claimed its invincibility, and the vast majority of journalists and pundits (this writer included) assumed that it would indeed win big. After all, wasn't a realist pullout from the territories and an embrace of free markets what everybody wanted?

In the run-up to the Gaza disengagement, a leading journalist freely confessed that the media was giving Sharon a pass on his many corruption scandals for the sake of disengagement, comparing Sharon to the communal etrog which must be preserved at all costs. Kadima assumed that role, and this time the etrog blew up in the media's face when it turned out that Kadima's support was broad, but thinner than expected.

The chattering classes--overwhelmingly secular, urban, native-born, and Ashkenazi--consistently underreported and underestimated the strength of the Sephardic religious party Shas and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. In the end, Kadima garnered 29 Knesset seats, far fewer than originally predicted, but enough to gain Olmert the premiership. Indeed, having been told over and over that the election was a done deal, many voters simply stayed home.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.