Behind the Headlines: Security Issues Dominate Lackluster Election Campaign

What issues will Israeli voters be thinking about when they go to the polls next Wednesday?

Security, security and security.

Judging form a random survey of voters, as well as form the campaign banners, posters and televised spots that have appeared in recent weeks, the 1996 election is turning out to be a one-issue campaign.

Regardless of where one stands politically, the issue of security has overtaken such issues as the economy, education and the relationship between religion and the state.

The safety issue is influencing Israelis across the political spectrum as they Prepare to vote for the next Knesset and, for the first time, vote directly for prime minister.

Recent polls show that the race for the premiership between Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu may be too close to call.

And whether voters are thinking of the recent Hamas terrorist attacks of the Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah form Lebanon, their perception of each candidate’s ability to meet Israel’s security needs may decide the race.

“Security is the most important thing for me,” says Annie Pevoncello, who emigrated form Italy nine years ago.

“We need peace and security together. I plan to vote for Labor and Peres because we have to stop terrorism. Remember, there were terrorist attacks under the Likud, too, so Bibi [Netanyahu] isn’t offering anything new.

“What we need is a lasting solution, and that means the peace process”

Liana Kanto, an Israeli-born waitress who supports the Likud, agrees that “security will always be the NO. 1 issue, unless sometime in the future we have peace with it will do Iraq.

“I’ll probably vote for Bibi, although Peres is a man of vision, because it will do more good in the long run.”

This is not to say that Israelis have totally forgotten all other issues.

Says Kanto, who just completed her army service and who plans to enter college this fall: “I think the government should provide more support to young couples just starting our in life, and there should be more universities to ensure that everyone can get an education.”

Although Israelis do not need any encouragement when it comes to worrying about their personal safety, both Labor and Likud are stressing the issue in a big way.

Cognizant that many Israelis view Peres as a diplomat, not a soldier, the Labor Party has draped the country with “I Feel secure With Peres” posters.

Likud, meanwhile, is promising “Peace With Jerusalem” and “Peace With Security.”

Israeli households are tuning into the half-hour of televised campaign commercials that follow the 8 p.m. news broadcasts.

These spots, which are partly sponsored by a governmental campaign fund, are the high point – some say the low point – of what many consider to be a lackluster campaign.

Likud’s televised ads feature Netanyahu as serious and prime ministerial, standing against a backdrop of wood-paneled walls and the Israeli flag. They also show Peres as something of a partner in crime with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In the Labor spots, Peres is seen kissing attractive teen-age girls (read: he is youthful), shaking hands with important foreign dignitaries (he is diplomatic) and visiting the troops on the front (he is Mr. Security).

Unlike Likud’s spots, which feature graphic footage of terrorist bus bombings, Labor’s ads show photogenic Israelis driving sexy convertibles (read: Israel’s economy is benefiting from the peace process).

Are Israelis taking these televised messages seriously?

Yosef Lapid, an editorial writer at the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, thinks not.

“People are watching the commercials as a curiosity item, as if they were watching a sports event to see whose horse is winning.”

Noting that Israeli law prohibits the country’s electronic media from interviewing political candidates during the three weeks leading up to the elections, Lapid says, “The silly thing is that if an Israeli politician is on CNN, he can be seen by the two-thirds of Israelis with cable TV. Only the people without cable can’t see the politicians.”

Lapid, who once headed Israel Television, adds, “The law was established three or four decades ago to prevent the government form disseminating propaganda through news clips shown at movie theaters. The opposition was opposed to clips showing government ministers cutting ribbons right before elections.

“Nobody had even thought about television as a medium back then. TV wasn’t introduced to Israel until 1967.”

Despite these ads the presence of campaign posters in every conceivable nook and cranny of the country, Lapid calls this year’s campaign “surprisingly low key.”

“It’s not that people aren’t interested,” he says, “but the fact that there is no real difference between the parties on economic issues, religious issues. Both parties are giving into [the demands] of the religious parties.

“The one major difference was the Palestinian issue, but now that Netanyahu has agreed to uphold what has already been agreed on in the peace process, even this is just a question of emphasis.

“Everyone knows that terror will exist, regardless of who heads the government. It existed before, it will exist after.”

Gabriela Asubel, an immigrant form Argentina, Argentian, agrees that “almost all the parties have the economic strategy, but as far as I’m concerned, peace is the only issue.”

The manager of a store so close to the March 3 suicide bombing of the NO. 18 bus in Jerusalem that its windows were cracked by the explosion, Asubel says, “I’m afraid of the Arabs, and it’s hard to live in Israel for this reason.

“In my opinion, the only solution is for us and the Palestinians to have our own countries and that way we’ll be safe. I’ll be voting for Peres for prime minister, and for Meretz a Labor, I don’t know which.”

But Sari Diskin, a waitress whose restaurant was also shaken by the March 3 bombing, will not be voting on security issues alone.

Pointing to an Arab co-worker, she says, “He’s an Arab and we’re good friends. Sure, sometimes I’m worried about terrorism, but in day-to-day life I don’t think about the security situation. I work with Arabs and we have a great relationship.”

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