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Jewish Journal

Inside the mind of the Israeli voter

by Uriel Heilman

February 10, 2009 | 4:15 pm

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Whatever happens on Election Day, this contest will be decided by the Israeli gut.

The biggest unknown as voters go to the polls Tuesday is who will have the edge between Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chief Tzipi Livni, and just how much Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu will grow.

In a campaign marked by sloganeering and attack ads rather than substantive debate about the challenges facing Israel and the differences among the candidates, the question is which way Israelis’ guts will lead them.

Disillusioned with the Palestinians’ ability and/or willingness to make peace and concerned about Iran’s growing strength through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, Israeli voters have drifted rightward.

But many remain wary of Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the flagship right-wing party, Likud, and the front-runner for most of the race. Staunch right wingers worry that Netanyahu will cave in to U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, as he did during his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. Centrists and left-wingers who have drifted rightward in recent years distrust Netanyahu, who has a reputation in Israel as a smooth operator who is capable of putting his own interests ahead of the country’s. Opponents of Livni and Netanyahu have tried to exploit this, portraying Bibi as untrustable.

It’s not just Netanyahu about whom Israelis have reservations. They’re even less excited by the prospect of returning Labor’s Ehud Barak to the prime minister’s office, despite Barak’s evolution from his relatively dovish positions of Camp David in 2000 (when he offered Yasser Arafat almost all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem) to the hawkish defense minister who last week boasted about personally killing Arabs.

This, along with Israelis’ general disenchantment with elected leaders who have proven inept, corrupt or criminal (see Ehud Olmert, Moshe Katsav, Avraham Hirschson, Haim Ramon, etc.), has provided an opening for Livni. She has developed a reputation as a Mrs. Clean, free of political corruption and the political disappointments of Barak and Bibi, both of whom were booted out of office.

But while Livni has managed to capitalize on negative public sentiment about her rivals, she has failed to generate much positive feeling toward her own candidacy. Livni’s primary appeal, it seems, is that she is not an ex-prime minister who already has proven a disappointment and been voted out of office.

She has disappointed some Israelis, however. After calling on Olmert to resign following the failures of the 2006 Lebanon war with Hezbollah, Livni stayed on in Olmert’s government—a move many Israelis viewed as hypocritical. She failed to make much of a splash as foreign minister in the past two years—it doesn’t help that her English is heavily accented and a bit halting—and was unable to assemble a coalition government last fall after winning the race to lead Kadima following Olmert’s resignation.

Faced with the choice between Livni and Bibi, the only two who seem to have a real shot at becoming prime minister, the question is whether the voters’ gut instincts will push them toward Netanyahu because he seems to best appreciate the Islamic threats facing Israel, or Livni—or someone else—because Bibi can’t be trusted.

With a record number of Israelis undecided on the eve of Tuesday’s vote—it doesn’t help that there are 33 political parties from which to choose—it seems Israelis are more certain about who they want to vote against than whom to vote for.

There’s one more gut factor in this election: Lieberman. With Israelis largely disenchanted by Israeli-Arab peace efforts and dissembling Israeli politicians who too often haven’t lived up to their word, the straight-talking, right-wing newcomer to the Big Boy’s Club—a club that includes Livni, not to mention Bibi and Barak—has an understandable appeal to Israeli voters.

Lieberman says things Israelis can easily understand, and which they feel in their gut, too. He is angry that Israeli Arab citizens voice public support for Hamas. He is angry that the Hamas regime in Gaza was able to survive last month’s military operation and still fires rockets into southern Israel. He is angry that the world appears to be standing by passively while Iran races to produce a nuclear bomb that will threaten Israel. Israelis are upset about these things, too.

When Lieberman says these things simply, without equivocation, it resonates with Israelis, which is why he is riding a wave of popular support that may catapult his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the No. 3 position in the Knesset, behind Kadima and Likud. Lieberman is especially appealing to right wingers suspicious of Netanyahu.

Unfortunately for Israel, the Israeli-Arab conflict is not simple, and Lieberman’s straight talk masks a complex reality that requires complex and sometimes difficult solutions.

During the campaign, I met few Israelis who were enthusiastic about their candidate of choice. Many were far from certain about whom to vote for; some weren’t even sure they would vote.

Israel has had some bitter pills to swallow in the past few years. The new prime minister, many Israelis fear, may constitute yet one more.

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