What Israeli voters really want

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    Israeli voter Ifat Mechorish was still undecided Tuesday afternoon.
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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.

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.

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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.”

***

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.

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.

Polls show that many in her age group, and not just those with roots in the former Soviet Union, have been leaning toward Lieberman.

“Lieberman won’t be prime minister, but he’ll have a huge influence,” says Kovolevsky. A good part of her political thinking comes from home, she posits, which is now near Eilat. “There’s a lack of good choices here. We have no one who excites people, who feels like a real leader. We don’t have someone like Obama.”

***

Amid the campaign billboards at the entrance of the religiously conservative Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, an Islamist banner shows an injured Gazan infant and calls for a boycott of the parliamentary election: “No to the Knesset, Yes to God, and Yes to Gaza. I will not betray and therefore I will not vote.”

At a McDonald’s just up the road from the entrance, a group of college students echoed the frustration (but not the religiosity) of advertisement.

Israel’s offensive last month in Gaza is generally seen by Israel’s Arab minority as a vote-getting tactic of the government, and they’re disappointed that the Israeli left largely supported the war. That has deepened disillusionment with mainstream politics.

“I have a lot of things to do. I have a test on Wednesday and there’s no need to waste time on this nonsense,” says Mohammed Mahmeed, an engineering student at Israel’s Technion, while nibbling on fries and a hamburger. “I’m against the elections on principle, because this isn’t our country.”

Like Mr. Mahmeed, Ahmed Jabereen says he would forfeit his first chance to vote in an Israeli parliament because he didn’t feel any of the parties represented him.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t voting because of all of the blood spilled in Gaza,” says the business and advertising student.

But both Jewish and Arab politicians bore blame for the tension, he says. “I want to solve the problem between Jews and Arabs. They should find something in common between us so we can live together.”

However, the prospect of a government dominated by the anti-Arab politics of ultranationalist Lieberman is drawing many Israeli Arabs to the polls as a show of defiance.

Joseph, a Technion engineering student from Haifa who declined to give his last name, says he planned to back Ms. Livni, even though she helped lead the war.

“It’s so Bibi doesn’t win, and so Lieberman doesn’t go with him,” he says. “Whoever wins will have to take Lieberman into the government, the main point is the person who disagrees with him the most.”

***

In the first days of the war in Gaza, a Grad missile slammed into the top floor of a high-rise apartment in this coastal city. On Tuesday, the wreckage of the apartment loomed over voters at a nearby polling station as a reminder of the war and its mixed outcome.

“We’re frustrated,” says Shimon Magid, an engineer from the former Soviet Union who said he and his wife, Larissa, voted for Livni and Kadima despite their criticism of the war. “Apparently there was a reason they didn’t go all the way” to defeat Hamas.

But not all of their friends did the same, explained Larissa Magid. “A lot of Russians think a dictator like Putin can help against the Arabs.”

The recent war prompted many immigrants from the former Soviet Union to move from Kadima to right-wing parties, they confirmed. Mr. Magid says he first heard of Lieberman, a fellow Moldovan, when they were young students studying at Israeli universities after having moved.

“We were from the same immigration wave," he says.

Now the fallout of the war has helped Lieberman ride a wave to a place among Israel’s premier political parties.

“There’s a lot of frustration with the way the Arabs are behaving, and he offers a forceful solution. But that’s not the way I feel."

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