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Middle East: Israelis To Vote Amid Frozen Peace Process

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima party face a tough test (epa) Israelis go to the polls for parliamentary elections on March 28. The leading party is the one created by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remains comatose since suffering a stroke on January 4. Sharon's successor, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, describes the vote as a referendum on Sharon's policy of unilateral separation from the Palestinians. He is promising, if he wins, to evacuate settlers from some parts of the West Bank while annexing others. But those plans are challenged by right-wing parties, which say the front-running Kadima (Progress) party is ready to abandon too much land to finally establish separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

PRAGUE, March 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Israeli parliamentary election on March 28 is taking place at a time when both Israelis and Palestinians appear convinced the peace process has failed.

Ehud Olmert, who heads the front-running Kadima party, calls the vote a referendum on "consolidation."

That "consolidation" refers to Kadima's plans to draw a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank by 2010. To do so means conducting further unilateral Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territory -- this time on the West Bank -- and completing a security barrier physically separating the two sides.

But it also means annexing major settlement blocks and likely parts of east Jerusalem. That is, Olmert says, to "preserve Israel as a Jewish state with a stable Jewish majority while separating from the Palestinians."

'Two States' Only Option

Analysts say Kadima is likely to win the election because most Israelis are convinced separation is necessary and because the party appears to have the firmest plan and timetable for achieving it.

"After 1967, the Six-Day War, if you wanted to find people who supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, well, you could have found them and fit them into a single telephone booth, perhaps," said Bernard Susser of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "Now, decades later, when I look around the Israeli party system, I can't find more than maybe a half-a-dozen members in parliament who would be against the establishment of a Palestinian state. Of course, the details are very different on one side or the other."

Some of the fiercest opposition to Kadima's plan comes from Sharon's own former Likud party, now led by his longtime rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud says Israel should keep more territory in exchange for a Palestinian state and claims Olmert, a 60-year-old lawyer and a former mayor of Jerusalem, is too soft for the job.

The new Kadima party also faces tough competition from the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party that draws heavily on immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has said he would go further than Kadima. He wants to transfer territory that is heavily populated with Israeli Arabs to the Palestinians while annexing large areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Intransigent Hamas

All these unilateral Israeli plans are rejected by the Palestinians, who gave the Islamic militant group Hamas a majority in their parliamentary elections on January 25. A Hamas-led cabinet is expected to be sworn-in this week.

Hamas refuses to recognize the existence of Israel and claims responsibility for carrying out nearly 60 suicide bombings since 2000.

But the group, which also rejects the peace process, has said it might agree to a long-term truce with Israel as an alternative. Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyah, a top Hamas official, made that point while speaking with Reuters in Gaza on February 26.

"I have stressed that when the Israeli occupation withdraws from the occupied lands of 1967, including Jerusalem; releases the prisoners; and recognizes the right of refugees to return, Hamas then will have the possibility to give a long truce," Haniyah said. "And when I spoke [to 'The Washington Post'] about a gradual peace [process], I meant peace that will lead to the implementation of a truce through a political path."

Fading Support For Kadima

The big question in the run-up to the Israeli poll has been how many voters might defect from Kadima amid last-minute doubts over Olmert's leadership abilities.

Many Kadima supporters, who range from center-left to the moderate right, crossed over to it from other parties due to Sharon's war record and his image as a tough leader who could assure Israel's safety behind defensible borders.

To hold Kadima together, Olmert and other party leaders have repeatedly assured supporters they will faithfully implement Sharon's policies.

Still, polls taken since Sharon's sidelining have shown some voters defecting. Two months ago, polls showed Kadima winning a solid third of the seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Today, they show the party winning something between one-quarter and one-third of the seats.

That means that if Kadima dominates the poll on March 28, the party will have to find coalition partners.

Where it finds them -- on the right or the left -- will do much to determine how fast a Kadima-led government could move in implementing its "consolidation" strategy.