Israeli electorate yearns for old certainties amid current confusion

June 21, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel -- For the safety of this town, Israel has fought two wars. If ever there was a good campaign stop to wave the flag, this is it.

Yitzhak Rabin brought his campaign here last week. But he barely mentioned the heroic inch-by-inch assault on the nearby Golan Heights that rescued Kiryat Shemona from the ravages of Syrian artillery in 1967, or the lightning 1982 strike against Lebanon to quiet Palestinian artillery that used to pound the town.

All the campaign could muster was a banner boasting lamely of retreat: "Rabin got us out of Lebanon."

That dispirited claim says much about the Israeli election campaign that ends Tuesday. It is mired in a vague sense that something went wrong with this country, but no one knows what to do about it.

Two anniversaries, historical markers along the campaign trail, have served to focus that distress. This month marks 25 years since Israel's Six-Day War, which aroused euphoria; 10 years since the start of its war in Lebanon, which had the opposite effect.

The country's leaders act slightly pained by the anniversaries. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Mr. Rabin's opponent, tried to postpone the June 6 commemorations of the 1967 war until after the election. The June 5 anniversary of the Lebanon war met mostly silence.

Like unwelcome birthdays, these reminders are unflattering mirrors of what has been lost in the years. To many in the Israeli electorate, they pose questions for which Tuesday's ballot seems to have no answers.

"For the first time, I don't want to vote," said David Behar, 40, a hotel clerk in Kiryat Shemona. "It makes no difference. The people who are running are not my people."

Twenty-five years ago, this town rejoiced at what seemed a dramatic affirmation of Israel's might and right. In six days, the country's armies struck at Arab enemies gathering on all sides, pushing Egyptians back to the Suez Canal, seizing biblical Judea and Samaria to the Jordan River, and wresting the Golan Heights from Syria.

All Israel was flush with victory. The Arabs had been taught a lesson, and Israel was suddenly free to grow and prosper. The lands it had seized could be used to barter for peace, excepting the chief prize of Jerusalem. The moral good guys seemed clear; the Western world, at least, held Israel in admiration.

But the silver anniversary of that heady time now seems tarnished as the country ponders this election. The seized land is now a tar baby entrapping the country: There are too many Jews claiming the land for Israel to give it up, and too many Arabs living there for Israel to keep it.

Israel's iron-fisted occupation of those territories has troubled the nation's moral image, alienating allies abroad and dividing its own people.

The bold independence illustrated by the Six-Day War is now hobbled by economic and military dependence on the United States, which many Israelis bitterly resent.

The country's economy blossomed, bringing a cornucopia of consumer goods, but then began to wilt. It can no longer guarantee jobs for newcomers or graduates, economic protection from inflation, or even housing at an affordable price.

The ideal of Israel as a magnet for Jews has lost its force. Russian Jews are finally free and are choosing in droves not to come here.

Even the anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War is sullied: 15 years later, almost to the day, Israel invaded Lebanon. Its initial success against Palestinian guerrillas turned into a prolonged national trauma. It is a war most Israelis prefer to forget.

What went wrong with the dreams that were the trophies of the Six-Day War? The candidates in this election offer no answers, only accusations that the blame lies somewhere else. Their campaign slogans seem empty, their television ads -- filled with vibrant, smiling, beautiful people in a prosperous land -- are perceived as a mockery of the problems Israeli voters see around them.

"The mood is, we are fed up. We have no trust in government," according to Dedi Zucker, a liberal Knesset member.

It is not apathy, as the electorate will demonstrate Tuesday when more than 80 percent are expected to go to the polls. But their clear complaint is unhappiness at the choices.

"They never say anything about the issues," said an Israeli shopkeeper. "They just blame each other."

The candidates wrangle over who is tougher while ignoring the tough questions. Mr. Rabin says he will give up Gaza, but will not say who will take it. Mr. Shamir says all the occupied territories are for Jews, but does not say what should happen to the 1.7 million Arabs there.

The country is running out of water, but no candidate mentions it. They are mum about government divestiture of major industries. There is little real debate about religious controls on this secular society. No one offers a plan for slashing the 14 percent inflation or the 12 percent unemployment. There is little discussion about whether to wean Israel from U.S. foreign aid, or what Israel's nuclear weapons policy should be.

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