Just over two years ago, at the turn of a promising new century, Danny Shraga was part of Israel's burgeoning high-technology boom and was giddily anticipating the birth of his first child. Today, the 31-year-old father of two baby girls is between jobs in a nation frayed by war and the worst economic crisis since the creation of the Jewish state.
"Things are very depressing," said Shraga, a resident of Kiryat Gat in central Israel. "Right now it's like we're in a bottomless pit, at a dead end."
In a nation where polls show deepening political schisms and despair, no group in Israel is facing Tuesday's election with greater cynicism and distrust than the generation that launched careers in the heady 1990s, reveling in the tranquillity that followed the Oslo accords and the prosperity that promised to catapult Israel into the global economic mainstream.
"There is no security, the economy has toppled and the whole situation in this country is a total disaster," said Dorit Finkel, 30, a dental technology student and single mother. "People have lost faith. They don't have faith in the restoration of security, or that the economy will be rebuilt, or that voting can affect that at all."
After 28 months of clashes with Palestinians and scores of suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed nearly 700 Israelis and almost 1,800 Palestinians, young voters say they are so disillusioned that they do not believe any of the candidates can deliver peace. This disenchantment has been particularly devastating to the Labor Party's Amram Mitzna, a former general who has staked his candidacy on pledges to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians and end their uprising against continuing occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank by pulling Israelis out of most of the occupied areas.
Even so, candidates have gone out of their way to seek support among young voters despite the fact that, as elsewhere, they vote in smaller percentages than older voters. Mitzna recently did a campaign pub crawl, bouncing from bar to bar, shouting his platform over pulsing music. The Likud Party candidate, incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has concentrated his appearances at military bases, where his youth support is strongest among young soldiers performing compulsory service, who traditionally vote in large numbers at the urging of commanding officers.
Israeli polls uniformly show Sharon's Likud winning the most seats in parliament, although not a majority. But under the Israeli system, in which parties vie for parliament seats rather than direct votes for a prime minister, relatively small blocs of votes can win crucial positions. As a result, the seats held by minor parties will be critical to the coalition government that the winning party will be forced to assemble, according to many political analysts.
Those smaller parties, which appeal to the pocketbook and the social issues that many young voters say interest them, may be the greatest beneficiaries of the civilian youth vote. The main ones are: Shinui, which advocates greater secularism and cutting government benefits to religious Jews; the Green Leaf Party, which espouses legalization of marijuana and focuses on social issues; and the Meretz Party, which is pro-peace and pushes social reforms.
"My voice can affect whether or not a party will be represented in the next government," said Yoav Atad, 19, who is fulfilling his compulsory service in the military. "What's the difference if I vote for a large party? They will be elected anyway and my voice will not be heard. If I vote for Green Leaf, this time at least, I know my vote will have meaning."
But regardless of which party young voters say will win their support, a pervasive gloom has enveloped this newest generation of voters. Many of those interviewed said they see no prospects for peace or economic improvement. They said their votes for smaller parties should be viewed as a protest against the parties that traditionally have held power in Israel.
"If you were a young person coming of age in the '90s, a lot of hopes have been shattered," said Sammy Smooha, a sociology professor at the University of Haifa. "The peace process stopped, you have economic recession, then you have the intifada."
Asked which candidate would be most likely to help bring peace to Israel, Yochai Davidoff, a 22-year-old waiter in a Jerusalem hotel and a Green Leaf Party supporter, was quick to reply, "Nobody can."
"I don't believe peace can be achieved -- a real, honorable, genuine peace," Davidoff said after settling into his seat on a bus plastered with an enormous "Likud-Sharon" advertisement. "It's depressing really, but peace seems like a dream."
His personal prospects for success, he complained, seem just as ephemeral.
"My job stinks," said Davidoff, headphones draped around his neck. "I don't want to be working as a waiter. I am really a musician, a singer."
The Palestinian uprising, or intifada, he said, has made it impossible to find a job in the entertainment field. "For now, I'm biding my time, working as a waiter to pay the bills. I don't think I can realize my dreams for the future in Israel with the way things are. It's very frustrating."
"Nobody talks about peace anymore," said Izzy Rotter, 25, who lost his job as manager of a youth hostel when the uprising broke out in the fall of 2000, killing tourism. "They use the word 'quiet.' I've been wounded in a terror attack and had two kids die in my arms on December 1st, 2001, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up on Ben Yehuda Street."
Rotter, who has moved back in with his parents and returned to college since losing his job, added: "Another friend of mine was shot dead in a terrorist attack. I am more right-wing since the intifada began, but I still believe that there is a middle path."
That has led Rotter to support the Shinui Party, he said. "They don't live in a dream where you wake up and all of a sudden the Arabs love you. Nor do they live in the dream of a complete Jewish state with biblical borders."
The combination of a devastated economy and a war with no end in sight is also making it difficult for young people to plan their futures.
Siril Nakas, 21, sipping a cup of coffee with friends at a Jerusalem coffee shop, finishes his military service with the army in six weeks. He plans to vote for the Likud Party. Even so, he said, he finds it difficult to decide what to study when he leaves the military.
"I have to find a trade that will be secure, and it's very hard. People don't go out, they don't buy things, they're scared. . . . You cannot open a business now in Jerusalem -- it will only go under. I hope I find something to learn."
Marina Fouxman, 21, an architecture student who immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1999, said she will not vote.
"No party, not even a small one, represents me," Fouxman said. "When I hear the word Israel, I think about the past. The words 'Israel' and 'future' are not words that naturally go together in my head. We have to bring new ideas here, and we don't have any."
As she stood at a bus stop on her way to classes, Fouxman assessed her own future: "I'll stay here and graduate. I'll begin to live my life -- if I don't die in a terror attack."
Researcher Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.