"Go vote," the ex-general commanded, looking straight into the cameras.
Voter apathy apparently was uppermost on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's mind when he lumbered into a Jerusalem polling booth Tuesday at 8 a.m. sharp.
Brushing aside a barrage of questions from reporters, a bleary-eyed Sharon -- waking Tuesday to what many pundits and Israelis called the most useless election in Israel's history -- called "on all Israelis to exercise their right to vote."
As it turned out, he was echoing the title of the lead editorial in the mass circulation daily Yediot Achronot: "Go to the Polls."
The lack of excitement among the public was most evident in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. The market is a perennial Likud bastion, but on a single poster bearing Sharon's grandfatherly visage was visible among its myriad stalls. Nor, for that matter, were there posters of any of the other candidates.
Just the same, Israelis were not short of opinions.
"Only Likud, Likud only," shouted fishmonger Dudu Ohanyon, who maintained that the market vendors still love Sharon but are simply a bit "tired."
Examining a gasping fish flopping in a bin, Gabriel Levy, a wizened 57-year-old, said it was not Sharon or Likud per se that he wanted, "but security."Â
That sentiment pervaded the alleys of the once-bustling market, where pedestrian traffic -- and business -- has slowed to a crawl since it became a preferred target of Palestinian bombers.
Issues such as the intifada and the dismal economy are important, but interest is tepid, Levy said, "because we all know that we'll have to vote again in two years" -- when the next government falls.
According to a poll in Yediot Achronot last Friday, 63 percent of Israelis expect another election within two years.
The prospect of little change in the security situation, the economy and on the diplomatic front will force early elections, according to the poll. Indeed, about 70 percent of Israelis believe the situation either will remain stagnant or deteriorate in the next two years, the poll said. In the meantime, voters were inclined to stick with Sharon.
Labor Party officials, accused of hurting their electoral chances with frequent backbiting, closed ranks in the final hours to try to stave off what polls said was inevitable.
On Monday night, just 12 hours before elections, Labor legislators gathered at phone banks at party headquarters in Ramat Gan's Hope Neighborhood, trying to turn out the vote.
Leaning back in plastic chairs as they tried to convince undecided voters to "come home to Labor," many appeared resigned to defeat.
Yuli Tamir, Labor's election spokeswoman, said that a bitter effort to unseat party chairman Amram Mitzna -- a move spearheaded by former chairman, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer -- had cost the party many votes.
"Our goal now is to rebuild and regain the trust of the voters," she said.
Tuesday's elections apparently had fewer "irregular" incidents -- rules infractions -- than in previous years. By Tuesday evening, according to Israel Radio, police had received 15 reports of irregularities, compared with 50 in 1999.
In the city of Bnei Brak, activists clogged intersections with banners supporting the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.
Fliers reading "Lapid Hasin'ah" -- Hebrew for "Torch of Hatred" -- used a play on words to rail against the leader of the secularist Shinui Party, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, who called for separation of religion and state.
However, in Tel Aviv's affluent suburb of Savyon -- only a few miles but a world away from Bnei Brak -- Shinui appeared to be the only game in town. Enjoying their Election Day holiday, children whizzed by in roller blades as their parents strolled past luxury cars en route to the polls. Shinui supporters were the only activists to be seen at the town's manicured traffic circles. They handed out fliers and bumper stickers depicting Lapid pointing an index finger at the camera in a "We Want You" pose.Â
One middle-aged woman in Chanel sunglasses said she had considered casting a blank ballot, but feared "that this would be a vote for Shas. So I voted Shinui."Â
The shadow of a terrorist threat hung over Election Day, as it has over every day since the Palestinian intifada began more than two years ago. On Sunday, Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an effort to ward off attacks. As voting took place Tuesday, some 30,000 police, soldiers and security guards were deployed at voting stations and public places.
Rami Masawti, an Israeli Arab from eastern Jerusalem, counted seven checkpoints between his home in Beit Hanina and his work in Mahane Yehuda.
"Everybody is terrified today of an attack," Masawti said, blowing into his hands to ward off the raw Jerusalem cold at his olive stand. "It is even quieter here than usual."Â
Masawti is one of about 250,000 Arabs from eastern Jerusalem who are not Israeli citizens and can not vote. Nevertheless, given the choice, he said he would vote for Sharon.
Sharon is the only one "who can really fight the terrorist infrastructure," Masawti said.
At Tel Aviv's Dizengoff polling station, Na'ama Yuria, 21, a graphic designer for a newspaper, had just voted for Meretz. She was unhappy that voters appeared poised to re-elect Sharon as prime minister.
"I'm sick of the swaggering generals," she said. "There are 300,000 unemployed, the economy is the worst it's been since the early 1950s, and all these guys want to do is prove that they were right, that the Palestinians started this war."
"So what?" she said. "They are not looking to solve our problems, they are not looking toward our future, but toward the past."
One voter had quite different considerations in mind. A man who gave his name as Eric of Alaska cast his ballot minutes before Sharon appeared at the Jerusalem polling booth. A Native American who had immigrated to Israel, he said he was voting for Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, an immigrant-rights party led by Housing Minister Natan Sharansky.
"Well, I'm an immigrant, and Sharansky is fighting to lower our rent," Eric said. "He also has more integrity than any other candidate." Â
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