Amid a tedious Israeli election: irony

Israel suffers from many ills. A disaffected citizenry is not one of them. Not, at least, until this election campaign.

At an intersection on the main highway to Tel Aviv two days before the March 28 election, drivers encountered just one solitary campaign worker where in past years they would have been bombarded with stickers, brochures, loudspeakers, buttons, and placards. Dressed in bright red and complete with logo on cap and shirt, the campaigner handed out the customary brochure, the customary bumper sticker - and a surprise piece of chocolate. "For a sweeter future," said the flyer, "vote COW." The logo pictured the head of a cartoon cow with a kindly expression. This was not politics; this was a large confectionary company cleverly advertising a popular brand of chocolate.

In an election year of dozing doldrums, offering a chocolate and a smile could be considered one of the more dynamic things that has happened here. In a country passionate about politics, excitement is lacking even on election eve. Many unenthusiastic citizens claim they will vote by default "for lack of anyone better."

Absent is the fervor so endemic to prior elections: the momentous mandate for peace Yitzhak Rabin received in 1992; the shocking upset of 1996 when Benjamin Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres, who had taken over the reins after Rabin's assassination; a mere three years later the unceremonious rout of Mr. Netanyahu by Ehud Barak, defeat conceded a mere 25 minutes after the polls closed. In 2001, as the intifada burned, it was Mr. Barak's turn to be toppled by strongman Ariel Sharon. Then came Mr. Sharon's gradual transformation away from militarism and toward negotiations until he founded his new political party, Kadima, this past fall, promising to hold elections Tuesday on a platform of creating peace between Palestinians and Israelis. A popular landslide mandate for Sharon's new party was predicted.

Instead, since Jan. 5 Sharon lies in a coma. His disappearance from political life has changed the country's entire script. The issues at hand are not an iota less momentous than in the past. Peace or war, life or death - people acknowledge they still hang in the balance for the State of Israel, and may well be determined by Tuesday's victor. What is lacking is popular faith that any of the candidates hold the keys to a positive answer. Vision, integrity, statesmanship, ability - these are traits rarely ascribed to the current crop of mediocre politicians.

Hence the great yawning campaign of 2006 with polls predicting an unprecedented low voter turnout. Vying for representation in the 120 seat Knesset in this multiparty parliamentary democracy are three large parties: Kadima headed by Sharon's hand-picked heir Ehud Olmert, Likud with the ever ambitious Benjamin Netanyahu at its helm, and Labor with its untried new leader Amir Peretz chosen at the expense of the old lion Shimon Peres. The list also includes a myriad of smaller parties: among them are orthodox Jewish parties, parties whose electorate is predominately Arab citizens of Israel, a party catering to Russian immigrants, a party advocating a purely secular state, extreme leftist and rightist parties, an environmental Green Party, and even a party whose main platform is the legalization of marijuana.

But out of this mass one contender has dashed like a last-minute dark horse, surging ahead from no-seats-whatsoever to a prediction of at least two representatives.

The Pensioners' Party represents the rights of the growing ranks of Israel's aged population. Its platform is predictable - pension and healthcare rights, adequate nursing care facilities, and a sensitive humanistic approach to aging. Claiming that they have been abandoned by the big parties, they maintain the founding generation has become the impoverished generation. Their population base is expected to be drawn from the over 65 age group; the support by even 10 percent of them would achieve two seats.

But the elderly are finding unexpected champions - the young. What perhaps began as a cynical lark is turning into a positive and possibly significant protest vote. Instead of staying away from the polls or dropping in a blank protest ballot (Israeli ballots contain no write-in option), young voters may pick the Pensioner underdogs.

For example, the popular and successful Israeli website Nana, with its target age group of 18- to 21-year-olds, has been running a series of articles on the Pensioners' Party under the heading: "Young Voting for Old." With quotes from the Ten Commandments about honoring father and mother that are only halfway tongue-in-cheek, Nana has been airing video clips of famous young pop stars and entertainers playing themselves with the special needs they may develop 40 years down the road. Some law students echoed the resolve: A vote for the Pensioners kills two birds with one stone - both a protest vote and a way to effect social good at the same time.

So as some young Israeli voters unwrap milk chocolates that may remind them of their childhoods, perhaps they will do more than just smile at the irony of a company's timely advertising gimmick. Perhaps some will actually make a historic electoral statement that ties the generations together, a small vote for unity in this divisive and tedious campaign.

Helen Schary Motro, author of "Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada," teaches at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.

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