What Israeli voters really want
(Page 2 of 3)
In every Israeli election, parties appear and disappear and sometimes reappear. In March 2006, for example, the Pensioners party won a surprising seven out of 120 seats because it convinced aging Israelis that it would protect their interests.Skip to next paragraph
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Eli Yagen, who just turned 60, was one of them. Inching closer to retirement, he decided last time around to vote for the Pensioners because of promises that the party would protect the shrinking social safety net for the elderly.
But the Pensioners disappointed him, and so on Tuesday, Mr. Yagen voted for Likud.
“I feel I threw my vote away last time around, because the Pensioners squandered their chances of doing anything for us. And so I looked at the three strongest candidates for prime minister and I said to myself, Bibi is the man,” says Yagen, a Jerusalemite who runs events at the Hebrew University, using the popular nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.
“Bibi turned the economy around when he was finance minister and privatized state industries, and made Israel a place people want to invest. And while I respect Livni, I don’t think she’s capable of putting together a coalition and leading the country,” says Yagen, who arose early Tuesday, voted, and then used the rest of the day to do errands with his wife, Mira. She listens quietly, except when her husband says that the recent war in Gaza had no influence on his decision to vote as he did.
“Well, look,” says Yagen, “the war needed to happen for quite a while, and we should have gone in even stronger than we did. Another week and we could have finished the thing, but the world’s pressure made the government pull back,” he says. Yagen believes Netanyahu, who is currently the opposition leader, would not have buckled.
Mrs. Yagen, who works at Israel’s state-run television, voted for Likud as well. She thinks Netanyahu has matured as a politician and learned from previous mistakes; he was unpopular as a prime minister between 1996 and 1999, when he lost to Ehud Barak.
“The reality we see around us is that the terrorist groups are running the show, and so we need someone to face off against them, someone who’s a leader, someone who has charisma,” she says.
Charisma, that elusive quality coveted by politicians everywhere, seems to be what excites many voters here, and often to complicated effect. On the one hand, people are drawn to vote for certain individuals. On the other, in Israel, as in most parliamentary systems, people cast votes for parties and not for particular candidates. The party with the largest number of votes is invited by the president to form a coalition. With 33 parties fielding candidates – up from 31 in the last election – it’s difficult to know what kind of political patchwork will ultimately govern.
In this search for leadership, voters are often underinformed as to what the parties of their favorite candidates actually stand for, or who else is on their list for Knesset.
Indeed, it was simple magnetism and the picture of power that led Daria Kovolevsky, a 21-year-old soldier, to vote for Avigdor Lieberman.
Mr. Lieberman heads Yisrael Beitainu (Israel is Our Home), a far-right party with an agenda that views Israeli-Arabs – about 20 percent of the population – as a suspect sector that should be made to pledge their loyalty to the Jewish state or leave. Moderates and leftists call him a fascist; pollsters say he’ll run the third-largest party in the Knesset, and, like it or not, will be a force to be reckoned with.
“I looked around, and all that’s left is Lieberman. I don’t totally agree with everything he says, but in the last few weeks I was really impressed with him,” says Ms. Kovolevsky, a uniformed young woman with flowing blond hair and the slightest hint of a Russian accent. Currently serving in the West Bank as part of her military service, the picture there has led her to believe that Israel needs leaders who take a hard line on matters of war and peace.