Israeli election fails to excite

Voters seem indifferent to parliamentary campaign that will shape policy, borders


JERUSALEM -- There have been more surprises and there is more at stake in this year's campaign for a new Israeli parliament and national leader than in any other contest in recent memory here, commentators say.

Yet former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a member of the new Kadima party and, at 82, a veteran of six decades of this country's often divisive, embittering political contests, was at a loss last week to explain why the campaign that ends Tuesday has remained so calm, even dull.

"We don't have a drama," Peres said.

Voters' seeming indifference might be because most of the campaign has taken place in winter, keeping people indoors and away from party rallies. They might have stayed away for security reasons. Or maybe, he said, the problem is that this election, unlike almost any other in Israel's history, just lacks tension.

Whatever the public mood, Israelis who do go to the polls will be making historic choices.

"It is probably the election where Israelis will make the most dramatic decision about the future of the nation," says Ari Shavit, one of Israel's most respected political commentators and journalists. It is, he said, "a life-or-death decision."

Winners will have their hands full deciding how to deal with a Palestinian Authority dominated by the militant Islamic party Hamas, how to help Israel's poor, how best to respond to Iran's possible nuclear threat and, if that were not enough, how to quell an outbreak of bird flu in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Most important, however, this election is asking voters how they envision Israel's permanent borders and the country's relationship with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Yet the findings of public opinion polls have been stable for nearly three months, showing Kadima, led by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, commanding a nearly a 2-to-1 lead over its closest political rival, Peres' old Labor Party. There have been no public debates between leaders of the major parties, and few campaign bumper stickers and posters. Voters appear so complacent that some analysts predict this election will bring the lowest voter turnout in Israel's history.

The key issue of this campaign has been Olmert's proposal to make formal Israel's divorce from the Palestinians by annexing several large blocs of West Bank settlements, uprooting tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from other settlements, and completing the barrier with the West Bank to define Israel's borders. His plan calls for a Jerusalem wholly under Israeli control and for Israel to control the Old City and its holy sites. All of this would be completed by 2010, Olmert promises, and be accomplished regardless of the demands of the Palestinians if negotiations prove impossible.

Olmert's plan has become the focus of the campaign season with all political parties positioning themselves in relation to it.

On the left, the Labor Party led by Amir Peretz is also pushing for a withdrawal from the West Bank but is eager to restart formal peace negotiations. Further to the left is Yossi Beilin's Meretz party, pushing for the creation of a Palestinian state and willing to divide Jerusalem.

The sharpest criticism of Olmert's plan has come from Benjamin Netanyahu, another former prime minister who is now head of Likud, on the political right. He argues that Kadima's plans would prove dangerous for Israel, by encouraging Palestinian militants to believe that violence forced Israel's withdrawal. He has also pointed to what he says is the danger of giving up strategically important hilltops and ridges that could be used for attacks against Israel. He opposes making any concessions unless the Palestinian Authority disarms militants.

Benyamin Elon's National Union-National Religious Party, which draws its support from Jewish settlers, is also against Olmert's plan and favors the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Olmert's plan looms so large in this campaign that Netanyahu claims that this election is nothing short of a referendum on it, a view widely shared by the public and political commentators.

An editorial published Friday in Haaretz concluded: "Anyone who wants to perpetuate Israel's control over the Palestinian people should vote for one of the parties on the right. Anyone who admires the courage demonstrated by Ehud Olmert, who presented the voters with his plan for a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and a corresponding evacuation of the settlements ... should vote for Kadima, or for Labor or Meretz, both of which support an additional withdrawal."

If this is indeed a referendum, Olmert can take comfort in the fact that Kadima has maintained a wide lead over its rivals since he announced the withdrawal plan this month.

Kadima draws its political strength from the mood in the country: a sense of fatigue and pragmatism after five years of failed peace negotiations, hundreds of attacks by Palestinian militants and suicide bombers, and a costly military campaign against those militants.

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