As the Israeli election campaign enters its final weeks, the Labor and Likud parties are still unsure how three key groups – Israeli Arabs, Russian immigrants and religious Jews – will vote in the race for prime minister.
Pollsters have provided a mixed picture.
Labor claims its polls show the 4 to 6 percent lead which Prime Minister Shimon Peres commanded over Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu since late March is still holding up.
Likud in turn contends its latest polls were showing a dramatic narrowing of the gap to a near neck-and-neck race.
Polls commissioned by two leading Israeli newspapers, meanwhile, provided comfort to both sides.
Yediot Achronot published last Friday two polls, both showing a significant lead for Pares.
But Ma’ariv published a poll showing Netanyahu pulling significantly closer, narrowing the gap to three percent.
The problem in the conflicting polls, according polls, according to independent observers, lies in the pollsters’ ability to accurately gauge political sentiments in three key segments of the population: Israeli Arabs, who comprise some ten percent of the electorate; immigrants from the former Soviet Union – another ten percent; and the fervently Orthodox, who comprise some five percent of the voters.
Labor officials say the impact on Israeli Arabs of Israel’s 16-day Operation Grapes of Wrath are still reverberating.
As a result, the officials say, Arab voters are reluctant at this time to tell pollsters that they will vote for Peres.
When Israeli voters go to the polls May 29, they will for the first time be given two ballots: one for the Peres-Netanyahu race, the other to vote for the party of their choice in separate balloting for the Knesset.
In the past – when there was only one ballot for Knesset representation and the prime minister was selected from the winning party – a majority of Israeli Arabs chose Labor over Likud.
In an effort to woo their vote, Peres has scheduled meetings with top Arab politicians in the coming days.
Some of his senior ministers, among them Uzi Baram and Yossi Beilin, spent long hours this week shoring up the support of local Arab leaders.
In the wake of the Israeli shelling of Lebanon, some Israeli Arab leaders called on their community to vote only in the Knesset balloting and to abstain from the prime minister contest.
Public opinion polls continue to show that up to 30 percent of Arab voters would not vote for either Peres or Netanyahu.
Political pundits say the size of the turnout in the Arab sector could be crucial to determining who will be Israel’s next prime minister.
In recent elections, the Arab turnout has been lower than that in the Jewish community: 65 percent compared to 80 percent.
But Labor believes that once the trauma of Grapes of Wrath fades the vast majority of Arab voters will support Peres.
The size of the Arab turnout will depend, to an important extent, on the willingness of leaders on the municipal and family levels to get out the vote.
And that, in turn, could depend on how successful Peres, Baram and Beilin are in persuading the Israeli Arab community’s deeply divided political leadership that a continued alliance with Labor is worthwhile.
Arab politicians, both religious and secular, demanded this week that the prime minister commit himself to appointing an Arab minister if he wins the election.
This would mark the first time an Israeli Arab citizen takes a seat at the Cabinet table.
Among Israel’s immigrant community, Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliya Party is doing consistently well at the polls, scoring four or even five seats out of the 120 in the Knesset.
Sharansky has made it clear he would be prepared to join a government under Peres or Netanyahu, indicating that he will angle for the Housing Ministry in the new government.
His foremost interest is to work for his immigrant constituency; his policy positions are centrist enough to enable him to cooperate with either of the major parties.
Labor and Likud, for their parts, are hardly fighting Sharansky in the ballot for Knesset members; both parties seem resigned to seeing a large proportion of the immigrant vote going to Yisrael Ba`Aliya in the balloting for Knesset representation.
Instead, their concern is focused almost totally on how the immigrants from the former Soviet Union will vote in the race for prime minister.
And here, because of the language barrier and the cultural divide, both sides fear that they are not reading immigrant opinion correctly and are not getting their messages across to them.
Labor officials say the olim are broadly satisfied with their absorption into Israel.
While many are not working in their chosen professions, almost all are working in some job, Labor officials say. Many have purchased their first homes, with massive government assistance.
The opposition, naturally, stresses the areas of dissatisfaction among the immigrants, hoping this will prompt them to cast their votes for Netanyahu.
Both parties wonder whether their pollsters are succeeding in measuring the shifting mood of the immigrant community.
They wonder, too, what percentage of the olim will actually vote on election day – and what proportion will make do with voting for “their” party in the Knesset balloting and forgo casting the ballot for prime minister.
An even more closed community is the fervently Orthodox.
What with their traditional distaste for any process that involves counting Jewish heads, and the fact that the fervently Orthodox rabbis, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, have not yet taken a public position on the Peres-Netanyahu race, the community’s replies to the pollsters are bound to be vague, if not downright misleading.
The question of how these voters will act on election day is also perturbing.
They may receive final instructions from their rabbis to vote for the fervently Orthodox parties in the Knesset balloting and, as the Israeli Arabs threaten to do, ignore the prime ministerial race
For Peres, that would be a coup: most in the fervently Orthodox community lean to the right politically.
Not surprisingly, Netanyahu and his lieutenants are doing all they can to persuade Orthodox rabbis to call on their followers to cast their votes for him.
Peres also faces an awkward dilemma in appealing to both the Arab and fervently Orthodox voters. The two groups are on opposite sides of the pole over the sensitive issue of Hebron.
Israeli Arabs want the government to honor its commitment to the Palestinians by carrying out the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron. Fervently Orthodox leaders are urging Peres to defer the withdrawal until after the election.