Many Israelis see Kadima as path to quiet, if not peace

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NETANYA, Israel -- Dany Himy, owner of a produce shop in this sunny seaside city, doesn't care much anymore if there's peace with the Palestinians. He is not even sure it's possible. What he wants is separation from them, to be accomplished by completing Israel's wall and fences in the West Bank and evacuating most Jewish settlements there.

"They are there," says Himy, pointing out the front of his shop toward the Palestinian villages 10 miles away in the West Bank. "We are here."

In many ways, Himy's wish for a formal divorce from the Palestinians reflects the prevailing feeling in Israel in the last weeks before national elections March 28. After failing to secure a lasting peace agreement and achieve a clear military victory over Palestinian militants, Israelis seem willing to try something different - a path that may not lead to a peace but may bring some quiet.

That's the path many Israelis believe is offered by Kadima, the centrist political party created last November by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he broke from the Likud Party. Building on Sharon's evacuation last summer of about 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, Kadima's platform is promising more of the same.

Sharon remains in a deep coma in a Jerusalem hospital more than eight weeks after suffering a stroke. His political career is over, but he looms large as the father of the Kadima campaign, his photo hanging above the stage at rallies and his name often mentioned by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who wants to be seen as Sharon's rightful heir.

The party promises voters that it will complete a 400-mile barrier between Israel and the West Bank, and suggests there would be more withdrawals from West Bank settlements without offering many details. Kadima's leaders also talk about peace and negotiations - although those appear less important in this election, analysts say.

"We are not talking about peace. We are talking about disengagement," says Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. "People in the center of the political map are saying: 'We don't like the Palestinians. We hate the Palestinians. We don't care about the Palestinians. What we care about is ourselves and building a fence between us and the Palestinians, which means probably giving up most of the territories.'"

Voters such as Himy - a former Likud supporter turned Kadima enthusiast - have helped lift Kadima to the top of public opinion polls, well ahead of its main rivals, Likud and the Labor Party.

"In Kadima you have a spectrum of views, and that will give you a balance," Himy says. "On the right wing there are fanatics. The left wing will give you war."

Kadima has been buffeted by the surprise victory of the militant group Hamas in Palestinian elections, a radicalization of the Palestinian government that some analysts thought might boost Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud. In a survey last week by the newspaper Haaretz and Israel's Channel 10 TV, Kadima was projected to win 37 seats in the 120-member parliament - down two seats from the previous week. Likud was shown winning 15 seats, a gain of one, while Labor remained unchanged with 19.

Political commentators suggest that some Kadima supporters may be drifting away because they realize that Olmert, who would likely become the next prime minister, lacks Sharon's charisma and military credentials. But public opinion polls have shown no significant changes, nor do most analysts expect any, making a national campaign ordinarily full of debate and insult a snooze.

Himy says he doesn't trust Olmert the way he trusts Sharon, but that doesn't matter. Kadima, he insists, is not so much about personalities.

"It's mapping out a way," he said.

A shopper in Netanya's pedestrian mall who couldn't remember Olmert's name agreed.

"I am with Sharon," said Lauren Shember, 38, a repairman from Netanya. "If what's-his-name continues with his policies, it's good."

Himy, 46, describes himself as a lifelong supporter of the political right. He backed the construction of settlements as an effort to help guarantee security. He was wary of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. In 2003 he voted for Sharon, who won a landslide victory after his promise to continue tough military policies against the Palestinians and scorned calls by the left for unilateral withdrawals.

A year later Sharon changed his mind, announcing he would withdraw from the Gaza settlements he helped create. Himy followed Sharon, deciding that the time had come for compromise with the Palestinians. Himy says his views are widely shared.

"Kadima is the crystallization of the consensus in Israel," he said. "In the back of their heads, everybody knows painful changes have to be made."

As he stood outside his store, Himy could point in almost any direction to illustrate what five years of violence have brought to his community.

Down the block is the Park Hotel, where 30 people attending a Passover seder were killed by a suicide bomber in 2002. Across the street is the London Cafe, where 40 people were wounded in a suicide bombing in 2003. A short walk away is Netanya's main mall, the site of two suicide bombings in 2005; a total of 10 people there were killed.

When Himy goes home, he looks at his 10-year-old son and worries about the day his child will need to serve in the Israeli army. If withdrawing from much of the West Bank offers Israel security, it's a price he is ready to pay.

"I don't let the Palestinians have the territories because it belongs to them. No, it belongs to us," he says, "But I want quiet. I don't want my son to go to the army."

Abraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, says society has become pragmatic after years of failed policies.

"What happened to Sharon, the leaders of Kadima and also the general public is that most people came to the same conclusion after many, many years of either believing in peace and realizing it was a very unfortunate and unrealistic dream, or believing in the other unfortunate dream of a 'Greater Israel' and holding onto the territories. People woke up," Diskin says.

Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections in January has only strengthened Israeli desire for separation. More than 75 percent of Israelis, according to the Tel Aviv University's Peace Index poll, believe Israel should determine its own fate and rapidly define its borders.

The poll also found that Israelis believe chances of reaching a peace agreement are small or nil. Only 12 percent of Israelis believe that negotiations with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority could lead to a lasting peace agreement, according to the survey.

Olmert, Kadima's leader, says he has not given up on peace.

Speaking before a group of retired generals and security officials last week Olmert rebuffed criticism from Likud that Kadima has been weak in responding to the threat of Hamas' victory, but he also held out the possibility of reaching a peaceful settlement.

"We will fight Hamas and we will fight terror, all the while continuing our path for a life together on the basis of being neighbors and on the basis of dialogue and, we are not afraid of saying, on the basis of compromise," he said.

But he added: "There is no avoiding separation from the Palestinians."

Arieh Livneh, who retired from the Shin Bet, Israel's security service, and who has voted for Labor and Likud, says that may be just what Israel needs.

"If we have a partner, good. If we don't have a partner, also good," he said.

john.murphy@baltsun.com

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