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What Israeli voters really want

By Ilene R. Prusher and Joshua Mitnick / February 10, 2009

Israeli voter Ifat Mechorish was still undecided Tuesday afternoon.

Ilene R. Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor

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JERUSALEM, UMM EL-FAHM, AND ASHDOD, ISRAEL – Ifat Mechorish sat down in a food court for a late lunch, which she chose without hesitation: A hot slice of pizza was just the thing for a cold and blustery day.

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But at 2:30 p.m., she remained undecided about whom to select in Israel’s national polls – and was glad to have several hours to decide.

The night before, she’d made up her mind of vote to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party, which seemed to be in a dead heat Tuesday with the right-wing Likud party led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Ms. Mechorish, a Tel Aviv-area information specialist, was herself far from being sold on Kadima.

“I’m thinking of choosing Livni, but I’m still not at peace with my choice. Except for her, I don’t see even one other person in the party that I like or can say I support,” she says over the election-day din at Jerusalem’s Central Bus station.

She’d used the day off from work (election day is a national holiday here) to come to the dentist in Jerusalem and planned to use the trip back to Petach Tikva – a city near Tel Aviv whose name means “the opening of hope” – to figure out how to vote.

In the past, she usually voted for the left-wing Meretz party, longtime supporters of a two-state solution to the conflict and stalwart strugglers for social equality for all the country’s citizens, Jewish and Arab. But today, she says, voting for Meretz feels like a waste, since they’re unlikely to be a key coalition partner in the government to come.

“I’m only leaning toward Livni because among the choices we have, she seems to be the cleanest,” says Mechorish, referring to corruption scandals that have rocked Israeli politics – and the reason that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to step down as the Kadima party’s leader, bringing on early elections.

Mechorish and voters like her make up a major part of the story of Israel’s shifting political sands as the country votes in its 18th Knesset, or parliament. The electorate as a whole is tilting to the right, a trend that pollsters have noticed for several years. This means that not only are middle-of-the-road voters switching – or sometimes returning – to right-wing parties, but left-wingers who were once fervent proponents of peace have moved rightward as well, toward the center.

Almost all complain of lack of strong leadership, of failures to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by being too brutal or not brutal enough, and of ignoring the world economic downturn that is already being felt all over Israel. The jobless rate is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in 2009, the same rate as in the US.

“The huge problem of unemployment here is not just a problem of the periphery of the country, and not of Sderot on the front lines, but it’s right here in the center of the country, and no one is providing any answers on what they’re going to do about it,” Mechorish says as she finishes the last of her pizza. “But the security agenda always knocks aside all the other priorities we need to address, and it makes me sad. I just want to be a normal country. But we have so many people here, Israelis and Palestinians, who don’t want to let go of this war, who think that things can be solved by violence.”

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