Goldman Israeli Visiting Professor in the Department of Government Arie Kacowicz and Georgetown University Law Center Doctorate candidate Yousef T. Jabareen led a dialogue on the 2003 Israeli elections Wednesday afternoon in ICC Auditorium. The discussion centered on abstention and Israeli-Palestinian issues in this year’s vote.

The election became necessary after the previous Israeli parliament, the Knesset, dissolved on Nov. 5, 2002. The leftist Labor Party’s resignation from the rightist-majority Knesset, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party, necessitated the dissolution.

Arab-Israelis and Israelis took to the polls on Tuesday, Jan. 28 to elect the 16th Knesset. The Knesset is a unicameral Parliament composed of 120 members elected by popular vote. Israeli citizens cast one vote for a list of candidates aligned with a party, and not for specific candidates.

Sixty-eight percent of the population voted, the lowest total ever among both Israelis and Arab-Israelis.

“People were unhappy with the situation, but voted not to change it,” Jabareen said. “This happened because Israel lacks a clear political alternative.”

The Likud party was the major victor. Sharon’s party doubled its representation from last year’s 19 seats to 38. Centrist Shinui claimed a distant third with 15 spots, while the Labor Party earned second place with 19 seats.

The Labor Party, led by Amram Mitzna, made a bold political move in breaking from the previous Knesset. Critics of the party and its leader, however, believed that it did not carry this strength of purpose into its election campaign.

“Mitzna was too honest for his own good. Some say one thing and others say another. He called Sharon godfather, but he said his party wouldn’t sit with Likud,” Kacowicz said. “He said he was in favor of break with the Gaza Strip and would open negotiations with [Palestinian Leader Yasar] Arafat,” Kacowicz said.

Mitzna’s supposed contradictions gave many Israeli voters the impression that either the Labor Party was unclear in its intentions or that the group was not to be trusted. The party was open to negotiations with the Palestinians and supported the two-states for two nations plan that would allow Palestinian land on what currently is Israel. Mitzna’s endorsement of Sharon, however, was a disconcerting addendum to the Party’s policies.

The centrist Shinui Party added a less ominous, but equally disheartening reason for voter abstention. Shinui largely avoided the major issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of smaller concerns relating to daily life and the economy.

“Shinui supervised the intensive care unit and chose instead of treating the patients or providing care, the group chose to plant flowers,” Kacowicz said.

In keeping with history, the Israelis chose to support the former military leader that who provide the most security for the nation. Sharon knew this and reminded the population that in this time of terror and suicide bombings in Israel, the nation needed a military leader. Sharon seemed to compare the current situation with the tumult of the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

“Sharon has succeeded in manipulating national emotions among the Israelis. Sharon has called this a period of war, but it is an imagined war,” Kacowicz said.

Whether or not the current state of Israel is in an official war, Sharon’s attempts to raise fear brought more ambivalence than support from the nation’s citizens.

“The Israeli’s are hawkish in the short-term, but want a long-term political solution,” Kacowicz said.

Although many Israelis did not vote, nearly all of the population will be focused on the political changes ahead. Before anything changes, Sharon must bargain with other parties and form a 61-member majority coalition.

As this process takes place, all eyes will be toward the Labor Party. Citizens will look to see if Mitzna’s party will again refuse to be part of the Likud Knesset. The party’s decision will have a large influence on the nation’s political climate.

“If the Labor Party agrees to stay a part of the government there will be no change. But if Labor refuses then there will be a big change,” Kacowicz said.

The Labor Party’s refusal to join with the Likud would be a huge victory for the 20 percent Arab-Israeli minority in Israel. However, since only 61 percent of Arab-Israelis voted, this situation would be more like a gift.

“This term, the Palestinians should have been more supportive. No change in the left-wing can happen without Palestinian support,” Kacowicz said.

Whether the left wing gains power or not, according to Kacowicz, the Israelis still will not escape their major dilemma.

“The Israelis want three things: to be Democratic, to have a Jewish state and [to have] the Palestinians to occupy the territories. But they cannot have all three,” Kacowicz said.

Both Jabareen and Kacowicz are invested in the Palestinian cause and peace in Israel. Jabareen spent years as a legal researcher for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee among other organizations. Prior to teaching at Georgetown Kacowicz wrote Peaceful Territorial Change and Zones of Peace in the Third World. He is currently working on a new book about the links between globalization and poverty.

The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies sponsored the dialogue.

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