After Sharon: New Kadima party set to win elections

The Kadima party founded by the Israeli Prime Minister before he suffered a stroke is set to win elections next week. But many people don't know what they are voting for

Shimon Peres is no rock star. But with Ariel Sharon ill in hospital, Mr Peres's face is the most famous in active Israeli politics.

So, when the octogenarian former prime minister, dapper in his brown leather windcheater, not a white hair out of place, sprang unannounced but with remarkable agility from his white Volvo at the corner of Tel Aviv's Sheinkin and Allenby streets and began shaking hands with startled voters, he was all but mobbed. Everyone with a mobile phone wanted to photograph him with a wife, husband, son, daughter or friend.

Zara Haddad, 44, dashed forward to shake his hand and appeal to him to look after her two sons in the army. "Please keep them safe," she pleaded.

Like every experienced campaigner, Mr Peres was careful not to be detained by long chats, preferring simply to repeat "Kadima", the name of the new centre party which Mr Sharon, not long before his stroke, persuaded him to join, and exchange countless Shabbat Shaloms (it was Friday) with an appreciative public. Two pretty girls in crazy costumes for the religious festival of Purim sprang from nowhere to kiss the architect of the once-so-hopeful Oslo accords. Mr Peres agreed to hold a baby, though - no doubt from long experience - declined to kiss him.

But he gamely sipped a villainous-looking orange-coloured milk shake of banana, strawberry and pineapple - essential, the gleeful stallholder told him, to bring in extra Knesset seats.

The party Mr Peres joined when he defected from Labour grew out of the right-wing Likud, and its top leadership, from Ehud Olmert, down is still dominated by former Likud ministers who have also abandoned their old party. But Kadima's poll success isn't great news for Labour either.

Yet this half-hour visit to Sheinkin, one of Tel Aviv's trendier shopping streets, may have had more to do with Mr Peres's half-century of celebrity than with his immediate persuasive powers. For his chosen party is so new that many voters have not yet fully woken up to the fact that the Labour veteran is now a member. Lisa Science is easily in the top 10 per cent of well-informed Israeli voters. But even Ms Science, who runs an estate agency and who had just shaken Mr Peres' hand, forgot his new allegiance and said she would not be voting for him as she was now a Kadima supporter.

But Ms Science, 40, who was born in Newcastle upon Tyne and came to Israel 19 years ago, is an articulate representative of those voters who have moved to the new centre party from the left. Having always voted Labour, she had come to the conclusion after Sharon withdrew 8,500 settlers from Gaza that "the right wing gets done what the left wing would have great difficulty doing. I think it's easier for them to get away with it because there is less opposition to them doing it."

She had already decided before Mr Sharon's stroke that she would vote for him. She hadn't been "ecstatic" about his replacement, Ehud Olmert, whose chequered history as mayor of Jerusalem has been attacked by Likud but who was Mr Sharon's staunchest ally over disengagement from Gaza. But she believed Mr Olmert would continue with the Sharon "vision" of further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank. Like many voters, Ms Science has little faith at present in a continued peace process. "I've been here 19 years. How long do you wait for something to happen?"

Ms Science's decision says a great deal about the appeal of Kadima, one that is all the more remarkable given the low-key nature of its campaign. Early on, Mr Olmert attended a few rallies and election events - distinct from his regular official appearances as Acting Prime Minister. Now he has stopped doing so.

One reason is the security hassle involved in moving a modern Israeli Prime Minister and his bodyguards from one location to another. Another may be the fact that Mr Olmert, a capable politician but with a reputation for arrogance, occasionally strikes a jarring note; it is hard to imagine a British political leader saying, as Mr Olmert did at a rally a fortnight ago, that there was no doubt his party would win and the only question was by how much. A third reason may be that no prime minister of as news-rich a country as this has to try for publicity, as the media acclaim lavished on Mr Olmert after the raid on Jericho's jail last week showed.

All this has, no doubt, contributed to the widespread view that this is a dull election. Yet this itself is odd. First, on the showing of the polls, next Tuesday's election, and any future coalition, will be dominated by a party that defies all historical precedent by succeeding from what Israeli politics sees as its centre ground. Secondly, the election is explicitly about something real: Mr Olmert's declared plan to draw what he insists will be the permanent borders of Israel within four years by withdrawing many more settlements in the West Bank while annexing the most populous settlement blocs. This is not only the referendum on unilateral disengagement from Gaza that the right complained was never called before it happened; it is also one on future disengagements as well.

To see this, however, you have to watch the frequently changing television adverts that take up 30 minutes every night and show that the fiercest battleground on territorial policy is between Kadima and the parties to its right, who are also fiercely competing among themselves.

Some of the Labour adverts are brilliant: a typical one plays to the perceived weaknesses of its leader, Amir Peretz, by declaring: "He comes from a small town in the provinces; he wasn't a general; his English was funny; he's just a workers' leader," before showing a picture of Israel's revered founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. But while Mr Peretz, a plausible coalition partner for Mr Olmert, still seeks talks with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, the emphasis is on pensions and a call for a new minimum wage.

By contrast, it's the centre right and right-wing campaigns that are dominated by security and the future of the occupied territories. An aggressive advert from Benjamin's Netanyahu's depleted Likud goes for Kadima's jugular by exploiting Hamas's recent election victory and claiming that Mr Olmert's plan "will bring Hamas to the borders" and that its missiles will be within 6km of Ben Gurion airport. To underline its point, it shows a picture of an empty baggage trolley to suggest, implausibly, that no one will dare take a flight to or from an Olmert-led Israel while quoting a statement from Mr Sharon - which few believed when he made it - that "there is not going to be another disengagement". It then promises there will be no withdrawals "without gaining something" in return, before concluding: "The choice is between terror and Israeli security. You decide."

And there is no denying the impact of the adverts of the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman which is proving the surprise of the campaign after polls showed it might win at least nine out of the 120 seats because of his popularity among voters from the former Soviet Union who account for nearly 20 per cent of the electorate. Mr Lieberman, who lives in a settlement, has modified his extreme-right record but still envisages a partition in which the border - and fence - would be rerouted to put up to 500,000 unwilling Israeli Arabs on the Palestinian side.

After stressing that he alone knows how to ensure a secure Israel with a Jewish majority, his simple and endlessly repeated Russian slogan declares: "Olmert: nyet, Netanyahu, nyet, Lieberman, da."

Not surprisingly, Kadima believes its main threat comes not from the left but from the right. Kadima adverts have emphasised, firstly, that - unlike Likud - by envisaging partition, albeit one that significantly expands Israel's 1967 borders, Mr Olmert offers "a solution that will allow us to keep Israel as a Jewish society"; and, secondly, that Mr Olmert "is continuing Sharon's way - he's not someone who has parachuted from nowhere. He was influential on Sharon's decision to make concessions."

But last night's Kadima advert, amid worries about low turnout, injected a note of urgency, declaring that a failure to vote for Kadima was a "vote for Likud". Saying it would have the "different priorities" of spending on education and welfare instead of settlement building, its subtext was a warning to supporters not to take victory for granted.

The polls still show that Mr Netanyahu and his potential partners on the far right are way short of the majority of 61 he would need. "The probability of that is quite low, but the election is not over yet," said Avraham Diskin of Hebrew University. Certainly, the landscape could be altered by a suicide bomb, perhaps in retaliation for the Jericho raid. Yet most analysts, Professor Diskin included, still expect Kadima to be the single biggest party after next Tuesday.

If they're right, however, it will hardly be the glittering prize for the Palestinians which Kadima's right-wing opponents like to depict. The likeliest consequence is that Mr Olmert will negotiate not with the Palestinians but internally and with the US for backing of a unilateral fixing of borders that falls well short of what even the most moderate Palestinians could agree to in talks.

Instead, it will reflect at once a weariness with continued conflict and the peace process, along with a recognition of the demographic argument that a Jewish state is incompatible with wholesale occupation of Palestinian territory: what Professor Diskin calls "a willingness to make concessions despite the fact there is every reason to be suspicious of the other side, particularly if the other side is Hamas."

Lior Chorev, a consultant who works for Mr Olmert as he worked for Mr Sharon, puts it bluntly: "Most Israelis are not looking for peace with Palestinians. They are looking for quiet, for security and they want the [West Bank] fence to be high enough so that they don't have to see them any longer."

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