In Israel, frustration reigns on eve of vote

Residents expect Sharon victory, see little hope for peace with Palestinians

January 27, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The commotion is constant in the cramped confines of the restaurant called Pinati's, where customers fight for plastic seats and the owners frown on people who linger over the heaping plates of rice, beans and hummus.

It is an institution that has occupied the same address on King George Street longer than the 55 years Israel has been a state, a place where the working class share wobbly tables with businessmen and politicians who come to be seen.

There is a national election in Israel tomorrow, and the people in Pinati's and elsewhere are unhappy about their choices. One of Pinati's owners is Meir Micha, 50, a solid backer of the rightist Likud Party and its leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is expected to win easily.

"People are angry," said Micha, sitting on a stool at his cash register. He said he would cast his ballot for Likud. But his decision is born of frustration, not hope.

"If the economy was good and there was no terror, then we wouldn't need Sharon," Micha said.

It is the paradox of this lackluster election campaign that a dissatisfied electorate is expected to return the incumbent party to power, despite economic woes and a general belief that there is no end in sight for the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Likud's chief rival, the left-of-center Labor Party, has shown little life in opinion polls, is hampered by bitter infighting and seems unable to convince voters that negotiating with the Palestinians is better than fighting them.

Opinion polls show that most Israelis support Labor leader Amram Mitzna's ideas of peace talks, separation from the Palestinians and evacuation of some Jewish settlements. But they see his proposal for unilateral withdrawal as a retreat and want a negotiated agreement only after violence stops.

Sharon has managed to capture the essence of this split and recast himself as a political centrist, a grandfatherly figure best suited to lead citizens who want the army to take decisive action against Palestinian militants but who also believe that there is no military solution to the conflict.

"It's not that the left loves Mitzna and the right loves Sharon," said Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, where he analyzes electoral trends. "Details don't interest people. People react to symbols. If you say, `peace and tough,' that is good. And `peace and tough' means Sharon.

"Israeli voters are siding with moderate positions but want the right to implement them," Arian said. "They want Labor's programs in Likud dress."

Sharon vows to support a Palestinian state, but only after a series of conditions are met, including the isolation or elimination of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who according to the democracy institute's Uri Dromi, is the key figure of tomorrow's election.

"People want peace, but they don't trust Arafat," Dromi said. "They feel they do not have a partner. If they are threatened or attacked, the voters want someone who is tough on the Arabs."

A new government

More than 4.7 million Israelis are eligible to vote, and turnout is traditionally high, even when there is little interest in the campaign. Voters will cast ballots for parties, not individuals, and the party with the most votes will try to form a government with other factions, who together must constitute a majority of the 120-member parliament.

That coalition-building could take weeks or months, and will be the real determinant of how Israel confronts the next stage of the Palestinian crisis. The Bush administration says it will wait until the formation of a new Israeli government before pressing for a new peace initiative.

Both leading candidates used the final days of the campaign to demonstrate their differences.

Sharon addressed 200 enthusiastic youngsters in downtown Tel Aviv, saying that previous Labor governments "brought us terror. Instead of quiet, they brought us the intifada. Instead of peace, they brought war."

The enthusiastic crowd nearly drowned out Sharon as he criticized Mitzna's plan "as a formula for disaster."

"We will make no concession under terror," Sharon said. "Only our plan will produce victory and open the real door for peace."

Sharon jokes when asked how he remains so popular among Israelis after promising peace and security and failing to deliver either one. He told a group of foreign journalists last week that maybe his enemies "tried to bury me too early and maybe not deep enough."

Meanwhile, Mitzna addressed supporters in a Tel Aviv suburb, championing his promise to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and to withdraw from the West Bank if no agreement can be reached with the Palestinians in a year.

Sharon has "brought us failure in every sphere and a lack of basic security," Mitzna said. "We have the ability to get out of this situation. We offer an alternative of hope instead of despair and depression."

Likud leads in polls

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