As Israelis Head To Polls, Anxiety And Fatigue Rule

Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party each try to build a coalition government after general elections, in which neither obtained the 61-seat bloc necessary to gain control of the parliament and become prime minister.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; Page A10

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."

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