It’s beyond doubt that Israeli politics has been transformed in the last few weeks, with the election of new Labour leader Amir Peretz, the formation of a new party, Kadima, by prime minister Ariel Sharon, and finally the desertion of Labour by its former leader Shimon Peres.

As Abraham Rabinovich says in this morning’s Australian, “Israel’s political map has been completely redrawn.”

Opinion polls have shown extraordinary levels of support for Sharon’s new party. Rabinovich quotes one saying that 65% of Likud voters would defect to Kadima, with only 16% sticking with the Likud rump. Kadima and Labour between them would have an absolute majority in the Knesset.

If these results hold up, it will indeed be a dramatic shift. On the Israeli side, the big obstacle to peace has always been the hard right: those in Likud and more extreme groups who dream of annexing the whole of the West Bank to form “Greater Israel.” Because the electoral system has usually produced finely balanced results, with broad coalitions necessary to command a majority, the extremists have been able to wield disproportionate influence.

It’s important not to get carried away here. Sharon’s new party is still very much in its honeymoon period. It’s one thing to attract a lot of initial support to an exciting new venture; it’s quite another to maintain that support through an election campaign, when people have to focus on whether they really want to abandon the parties they have voted for in the past.

Rabinovich comments that “these numbers will change before the March elections, but the shifts are not expected to be great.” It’s true that under a pure PR system such as Israel’s, dramatic shifts in electoral outcomes are less likely (that’s one of its advantages). But that fact actually casts doubt upon the last week’s poll results – it just doesn’t seem credible that the right’s support base has disintegrated quite so completely as the polls are saying.

Even if a new Israeli majority is committed to peace, the road ahead may still be difficult – the Palestinians are quite capable of screwing things up on their own, even without help from the Israeli right. But for now we’re allowed to enjoy a little optimism.

Peter Fray

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