Tel Aviv — As Israel’s election campaign heads into its final weeks, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will take off his gloves to protect his lead, said a campaign consultant.
With front-runner Kadima sagging in the polls, though still holding a commanding lead, Olmert’s centrist party plans to go on the offensive against Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu in a negative campaign that will paint the former prime minister as a bad decision maker who cracks under pressure. The shift follows a trial balloon floated by a top Kadima candidate about a new unilateral evacuation of the West Bank. Eyal Arad, the confidant of Ariel Sharon who is one of the main strategists for Kadima, conceded that the party has seen an erosion of support because it hasn’t convinced swing voters who have moved back over into the undecided column. “Voters are in a wait-and-see period. It’s the nature of a centrist new party that there’s always a lack of sufficient information about it because it’s new,” he said. “It doesn’t arouse a set of images like the older parties.”
Kadima is currently polling around 36 of the 120 Knesset seats, indicating a parliamentary faction that would still be as big as Labor and Likud together, but smaller than the 40 seats forecast just a few weeks ago. After running a campaign in which Kadima has remained above the election fray and focused on burnishing its image as Israel’s new ruling party, Olmert plans to sharpen his attacks on rivals.
Labor Party candidate Amir Peretz will be painted as lacking the qualifications to become prime minister, while Netanyahu will be assailed as a failed prime minister who doesn’t deserve another chance. “We are going to hit our rivals very sharply. We are going to present Bibi as unfit to rule based on his past experience,” said Arad. “It’s like asking Americans why [Jimmy] Carter should not be the president again, or [Richard] Nixon. He’s a combination of the honesty of Nixon with the capabilities of Jimmy Carter.” The criticism came as Olmert and Kadima parliamentary candidates started to stake out their positions on thorny issues like the future of the West Bank. At a conference on Tuesday, Olmert said that the government would shift public funds away from Jewish settlements toward infrastructure projects inside the Green Line. Once investment moves from construction in the West Bank to development inside Israel, it will change the character of Israel, said Olmert.
But the most telling weathervane of the direction of a Kadima-led government may have been offered by former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, who spoke on Sunday about the need to unilaterally abandon smaller remote settlements in the West Bank while holding on to the larger blocs of Israeli communities over the Green Line. Dichter said that the next disengagement would only involve settlement evacuation rather than a military pullback, allowing the Israeli army to continue fight terrorism. The former Shin Bet chief described the move as a logical response to Hamas’ ascent in the West Bank and Gaza. But it also represented the first indication that the party may break with Ariel Sharon’s vow before his stroke to hew to the road map instead of a new unilateral initiative. “In the absence of a Palestinian partner … Israel will have to determine for itself what its permanent borders are,” said Dichter in an interview with Israel Radio. “The move will start to take shape immediately with the establishment of a Kadima-led government. It’s similar to a weather prediction, with a higher probability.”
And yet, Arad and other Kadima figures attempted to soften the certainty of Dichter’s remarks. Kadima parliamentary candidate Marina Solotkin said that Israel needs to size up the new Palestinian government before deciding on any new evacuations.
“It’s premature to talk about places we’re leaving during the election,” said Solotkin. “What if there’s a civil war among the Palestinians? We’ll have to wait and see.”
The idea of a new unilateral withdrawal drew fire from the right and the left, a sign of a sharpening debate in the last three weeks of the election. Likud politicians lambasted Kadima, after the comment warning that another settlement evacuation would reward Hamas and break with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s promise of no more unilateral pullbacks. “[Kadima] is going the opposite direction of Sharon,” said Likud legislator Yuval Steinitz. “Instead of dismantling the Hamas government, they are going to give it another moral victory and more territory to build their military garrisons.”
The suggestion of a new evacuation in the West Bank also draws a potential contrast with Labor, which is concerned that a new unilateral step is liable hurt any prospects of strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas.
Even in Olmert’s own party there is unease with the idea of another unilateral withdrawal soon, a sign that Kadima has yet to formulate a unified position toward the Palestinians. Labor parliament member Yuli Tamir called the suggestion of a new pullback an election gimmick, and challenged Olmert to make good on the government’s promise to dismantle the dozens of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank.
“In the coming period we can’t make long-term decisions until we understand what is going on in the Palestinian Authority. We need to take time,” she said. “They want to show that they know what to do. I don’t think anyone knows which way things are going.”
Founded by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after his unilateral evacuation from Gaza split Likud, front-runner Kadima has tried to remain above the political fray. Dichter’s remarks and the negative campaign signal a change. “They’ve been running a very general campaign without many specifics; that could be why they started to lose latitude,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “They have a dilemma here: on the one hand there are questions of what they really stand for and, ‘Where’s the beef?’ The problem is that they might lose more voters if they’re too specific.”
The gambit of running on another round of settlement evacuation is aimed at Israel’s center-left, which still believes in unilateral pullbacks even after Hamas won a landslide election victory in Palestinian elections in January, said Wilzig.
“I think it will go down in the center,”’ he said. “Now that we have Hamas on the other side, the logic of a one-sided disengagement makes more sense on one hand. But the right wing can say why are you giving it up now?”