Opponents of last year’s Disengagement from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank frequently remind us that a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was actually part of Amram Mitzna’s platform in the previous Knesset election. Since Mitzna’s Labor Party was crushingly defeated by Ariel Sharon’s Likud, disengagement opponents like to portray that election as a referendum on the Gaza Disengagement in particular, and on further unilateral disengagements in general. As they see it, the Israeli electorate had the chance to vote in favor of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and resoundingly repudiated the idea.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that while unilateral withdrawal was indeed one of the issues presented in the 2003 campaign, there were a lot of other factors involved; and in fact, it is highly doubtful that this issue had any real importance to Labor’s defeat and the Likud’s victory.
Labor in 2003 was something of a basket case. It had never come to grips with the failure of the Oslo process to bring peace and security to Israel; it had never properly recovered from the political incompetence of Labor’s last Prime Minister, the hapless, clueless-yet-arrogant Ehud Barak; and its new leader was a relative unknown with no experience in national politics. Lacking convincing leadership and campaigning ineffectively, Labor managed its worst showing since Biblical times. The Likud – led by a grandfatherly Sharon who had finally found a government job that didn’t require the administrative skills he never possessed – cruised to an easy win.
Of course, the 2003 election was hardly a referendum in favor of Disengagement, either. If anything, it was a referendum on the leadership and personality of Ariel Sharon – an ultra-pragmatic soldier/politician who had never been trusted by the ideological Right. While some Likud voters felt betrayed by Sharon’s eventual switch to a strategy of unilateral territorial withdrawal, the current pre-election polls indicate that an awful lot of the people who voted Likud in 2003 are planning to vote for Kadima – and, by implication, for further unilateral withdrawals – next Tuesday. Either these voters have all made a radical shift in their thinking over the last three years, or else they voted Likud last time for reasons unrelated to the idea of Disengagement.
This time, though, things are different. Ariel Sharon is out of the picture, and there is no figure in the current election with anything like his personal appeal. According to the latest survey, the three Prime Ministerial candidates stack up as follows:
Ehud Olmert Amir Peretz Binyamin Netanyahu Nobody Viewed positively 26% 23% 22% N/A   Viewed negatively 39% 43% 50% N/A   Most suitable to be Prime Minister 26% 16% 20.5% 24%
While Ehud Olmert is slightly ahead of his competition, the differences aren’t all that dramatic; we’re clearly not dealing with a charisma-fest here. If Kadima indeed wins this election, it won’t be because of Ehud Olmert’s whopping 26% personal-popularity rating!
Further, this time there is no question that unilateralism – past and future – is the biggest issue being put to the voters. The Gaza Disengagement happened less than a year ago; its wounds are still fresh and the displaced are not yet resettled. And Kadima has stated clearly that while a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians (under circumstances that now seem wildly improbable any time in the near future) would be nice, a Kadima-led government would not wait long for the Palestinians to transform themselves into suitable negotiating partners. Since the negotiated alternative is obviously not going to happen, Ehud Olmert and his cohorts have made it obvious to all that a vote for Kadima is a vote for a major unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank within the next few years.
So this time around, it’s entirely reasonable to view the election as a referendum on disengagement. The only real question is how to interpret the results. Since Israeli elections involve lots of political parties, nobody actually “wins” here in the sense that we Americans are used to; a party that gains 30% of the vote is seen as having won a major victory. Further, not all Israeli political parties can be accurately categorized as pro- or anti-disengagement; several significant parties are rather wishy-washy on the subject, while others on the Left favor leaving the Territories but aren’t thrilled by the unilateral aspect of Sharon’s and Kadima’s disengagements.
I can think of three ways to evaluate the results of next week’s vote as a referendum on disengagement:
- Identify those votes that are definitely from hard-core proponents or opponents of disengagement, and ignore all others. I would count Kadima votes as the pro’s, and Likud and National Union / National Religious Party votes as the anti’s. This method should give reasonably accurate results, but it leaves out a huge number of voters – since the three parties chosen are predicted to win about 60 Knesset seats, representing 50% of the popular vote.
- Categorize all parties as either pro-disengagement, anti-disengagement, or irrelevant. This would include many more voters in the hypothetical referendum, but would add some significant uncertainties: for example, can we be sure that all voters for Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, and United Torah Judaism would have voted “no” in a Disengagement referendum? Can we be sure that all Labor and Meretz voters would have voted “yes” despite these parties’ disapproval of unilateralism? How would Israeli Arabs have voted? (The latter group might have been more amenable to the first Disengagement, which got rid of all Israeli settlements and military bases inside the Gaza Strip, than they will be to future disengagements from parts of the West Bank, since the latter will leave Israeli “settlement blocs” in place.) Lacking any definitive answer to such questions (although I suspect that the various political parties’ leaders know more about their voters’ preferences than I do), I suppose I would have to follow a simple right-left rule, assuming that Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Yisrael Beitenu represent “no” votes, and Labor, Meretz, and the Israeli Arab parties represent “yes” votes.
- For each political party, estimate the percentage of its voters who would vote “yes” and the percentage who would vote “no” in a disengagement referendum. In theory, this method could be more precise than the others; but lacking accurate polling data on the feelings of each party’s voters on the subject, I would worry that the answers we get from this method might be both precise and incorrect.
So by Method (1), if Kadima outpolls the NU/NRP plus the Likud, the disengagement has passed the not-quite-a-referendum test even if Kadima is unable to assemble an effective pro-disengagement coalition; by Method (2), an overall victory for Kadima and the various parties to its left would indicate public approval of disengagement even if many left-wing voters don’t actually like non-negotiated withdrawals. On the other hand, if the Likud plus the NU/NRP outpoll Kadima and the Right (as broadly defined) outpolls the Left/Center, we can safely say that the not-quite-a-referendum has rejected disengagement even if Kadima wins the election and sets up a coalition including Shas and/or Yisrael Beitenu.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)