As Israelis Head To Polls, Anxiety And Fatigue Rule

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

JERUSALEM, Feb. 9 -- Israel's military has just trounced its enemies in the Gaza Strip. It has been more than a year since an Israeli civilian was last killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. The economy, while showing signs of strain, has weathered the global downturn better than most.

Yet as Israelis go to the polls Tuesday to choose a new government, the national mood is anything but confident. Instead, there is widespread anxiety over the threat Israel sees in Iran's developing nuclear program. There is exhaustion with the Palestinian conflict, which has no end in sight. And there is grim resignation that none of the candidates on the ballot appears to have the answers to the country's complex problems.

"Fear and insecurity -- this is our psyche right now," said Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor of political psychology at Tel Aviv University.

The pessimistic outlook has produced a desultory campaign, with scant signs of public engagement. The top candidates have held relatively few rallies, and those have been sedate and sparsely attended. In their speeches, the would-be prime ministers of Israel have conscientiously avoided giving a clear picture of what they would do once in office.

With forecasts calling for rainy skies Tuesday, political analysts predict light turnout in a country where political participation has been seen as mandatory.

"Where are the rallies? Where are the arguments?" asked Etti Yihya, 50, who owns a Jerusalem clothing shop. "The public is totally indifferent. People don't care. They feel that all the candidates are the same."

If opinion polls are accurate, the election could produce a muddled result. Thirty-three parties are on the ballot, and none is expected to take more than a quarter of the seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. The winner will have to form a coalition to govern.

Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, is favored to return to his old job as prime minister. During the campaign, he has vowed to destroy the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza and has expressed deep skepticism about talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state.

The race has tightened in recent weeks, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party has nearly pulled into a tie with Likud. Livni led Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians last year and has promised to work with the Obama administration to try to achieve a deal. Still, even if Livni's party gets the most Knesset seats, she would be hard-pressed to find enough parties to join her in a government, analysts say, because the overall movement of the electorate has been to the right.

The primary beneficiary of that shift has been ultra-nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman, the only candidate in the race who has generated real excitement. He has climbed to third place in the polls with a proposal to compel all Israelis to pledge their loyalty to the Jewish state. The measure is seen as an insinuation that Israel's Arab community, which represents 20 percent of the population, isn't loyal.

Among segments of Israel's Jewish population, Israeli Arabs are suspected of being sympathetic to Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups. The issue arose during Israel's 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza, when Israeli Arabs held boisterous rallies condemning the war effort. Now Lieberman holds rallies condemning any citizen who doesn't adequately support the state. Crowds enthusiastically shout in reply, "Without loyalty, no citizenship."

"I feel out of place in my own state," said Valeri Derevenski, 44, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who waved an Israeli flag and cheered Lieberman at a rally in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on Sunday night. "The Arabs don't want us here."

A loyalty test, Derevenski said, "would make the Arabs feel like outsiders."

And yet, it is not clear how the loyalty test would help Israel with its more fundamental challenges: a vulnerable economy, Hamas's hold on Gaza, Hezbollah's presence on Israel's northern border, the menace sometimes expressed by Iran's leaders. Lieberman's intent, analysts say, is to tackle an issue that seems easy enough to fix, while distracting Israelis from more intractable problems.

Paradoxically, the Gaza war, more than anything else in recent weeks, has heightened Israelis' sense of despair. Militarily, the war was a success. Israel destroyed Hamas buildings across Gaza and killed hundreds of Palestinian fighters, while limiting its own losses to 13 people. After a shaky effort in Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006, the military won plaudits from nearly every corner of Israeli society for its performance in Gaza.

And yet, when the smoke cleared, Hamas was still standing, the rockets from Gaza kept coming, and Israel's international reputation had suffered.

"Just a few weeks ago, everyone was happily bathing in the pool of national consensus created by the operation in Gaza. How strong we are, everyone said, how united we are," wrote Nahum Barnea in a front-page piece Monday in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper. "Now it becomes apparent that underneath this joyful power hides a frightened people, wishing for someone strong and forceful, who will miraculously fend off the people's enemies, real and imaginary."

Part of the problem, according to Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, is that Israel is a victim of its own success. It has created a robust private economy, built in part on high-tech innovation, and that's where the country's best minds end up. "We find enormous talent and creativity in the business sphere. Much less in the public sphere," he said.

Yet the country faces challenges that can't be solved by anyone except the government.

The Iranian question is most ominous for Israelis. Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes. Israelis are convinced otherwise, and there is a growing sense here that the Israel Defense Forces will have to strike to halt the program's development.

On the campaign trail, Netanyahu is most adamant in vowing to act, warning that "the ayatollah regime is planning a holocaust while claiming the Holocaust did not exist."

The comment draws cheers, yet Israelis understand that any attack on Iranian facilities would almost certainly draw a severe reprisal. They also know that military action is out of favor in Washington, where President Obama has been pushing for a diplomatic solution.

Obama himself is a source of anxiety for Israelis, who worry that their biggest backer, the United States, may not be as stalwart in defending their positions as it was under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama has said that finding a solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a top foreign policy goal of his administration.

In Israel, most people welcome the idea of a solution -- nearly 60 percent support the creation of a Palestinian state, according to a survey of Israeli Jews conducted late last year called the War and Peace Index. Most also think it's completely unrealistic, a belief fueled by a deep-seated mistrust of the Palestinian side. Just over 60 percent of Israelis, according to the survey, believe the Palestinians would destroy Israel if they could.

The rift between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah movement in the West Bank has only deepened the sense in Israel that a peace deal is impossible. So too has the resolve of Jewish settlers, some of whom have vowed to take up arms against the state if Israel tries to evict any from the West Bank, as it would no doubt have to do under any agreement.

For now, Israel's penalty for failing to reach a deal with the Palestinians is not great, according to Bar-Tal, the Tel Aviv University professor. Israel has used walls and fences to cordon off Gaza and much of the West Bank, greatly reducing interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. Bus and cafe bombings are now years in the past.

Yet in the long term, Israel's demographic dilemma -- that one day there will be a clear majority of Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea -- is real. Livni and others advocate dealing with the problem before Israel confronts a choice between its democratic and its Jewish natures. Netanyahu and his backers counter that giving up the West Bank would put huge swaths of Israel, including Ben-Gurion Airport, within rocket range.

Either way, there is little room for optimism.

"The possibility that two states will be established here does not exist, because the 'independent' Palestinian state that we 'want' or can offer the Palestinians is not a state, but rather a parody of a state," wrote Kobi Niv in Monday's Maariv, a Hebrew daily. "Between a state (the large and strong Israel) and a joke (a divided and weak Palestine under Israeli auspices) there can never be peace, but only war and terrorism, for all eternity, or until one of the sides is wiped out, whichever comes first."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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