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NEWS ANALYSIS Israeli voters face unprecedented choices in the upcoming elections

JERUSALEM, May 10 (JTA) — Israel appears poised to embark on a two-week period unprecedented in its political history. As befits a political culture drawing at least part of its mode of discourse from the Talmud, hypotheses regarding what will happen during those two weeks run the gamut of speculation. When Israelis go to the polls next week, they will cast two ballots — one for the incoming Knesset and one for prime minister. One of those votes, for the candidates who will fill the 120 seats in the 15th Knesset, will result in a list of clear winners soon after the balloting. But with five candidates running for prime minister, it appears that none of them will win the requisite 50 percent of the vote to be immediately proclaimed the next premier. Instead, the results will necessitate a June 1 runoff between the two top vote-getters, whom all the polls agree will be incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. A runoff may not be needed if one or more of the other three candidates drop out of the race before the May 17 elections. But Center Party leader Yitzhak Mordechai was this week resisting pressure from Barak supporters and from members of his own party to step aside — a move, polls show, that could give Barak a first-round victory over Netanyahu. The two other candidates for the premiership — the head of the right-wing National Unity bloc, Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, and the first Israeli Arab to run for the premiership, Azmi Beshara — were conditioning their withdrawal on Mordechai’s decision. The likelihood of a runoff prompts the question that Israel has never confronted before: How will the election of the Knesset on May 17 affect the election of the prime minister on June 1? It is important to note that the Israeli prime minister is far more answerable to the Parliament than, for example, the president of the United States is to Congress. While Israel reformed its formerly British-based system to allow for the direct election of the prime minister for the first time in the 1996 elections, it has still retained much of the British doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. The prime minister needs a working majority in the Knesset in order to set up and sustain a stable government — and this could well affect voters’ decisions when they cast their June 1 ballots. There are those pundits who argue that if the leftist One Israel does well in the Knesset election, that will trigger a contrary reaction among the electorate and create better prospects for Netanyahu. The logic here is that most people crave consensus, unity and moderation. They will reason to themselves — not consciously, but instinctively — that the best way of balancing a leftist victory in the Knesset is to elect a rightist premier, and then sit back while he goes about the thankless task of cobbling together a working coalition. But the opposite thesis is articulated with just as much conviction. This holds that if, in the same example, the voters find they have elected a left-leaning Knesset, they will follow suit with the left-leaning candidate for prime minister, Barak, since they will reason to themselves that the alternative spells paralysis — and eventually the new government’s collapse and early elections. Quite possibly, both theses, though opposed to each other, will be in play among the voting public during those critical two weeks between the two rounds of voting. The two candidates will each, in their campaign propaganda, press the thesis that best suits his own circumstances in the wake of the May 17 results. Whatever logic they try to articulate in easily digestible sound bites, there is no doubt that they will spend that period immersed in ceaseless and frenetic politicking. The special-interest parties — especially the Orthodox, the Arabs and, to a lesser extent, the immigrants — will seek to offer their support to either of the two candidates, their leaders claiming that they can deliver large blocs of voters in return for specific promises of Cabinet portfolios and other positions of importance in the next government. But are these vaunted promises of delivering blocs of votes credible? This is a question on which the June 1 election could very well hinge. Can the rabbis or the sheiks or the immigrant leaders truly guarantee a high turnout among their constituencies when their respective parties are no longer on the ballots as they were for the May 17 Knesset vote? Earlier in the campaign, it was believed that the Israeli Arab turnout in a runoff would be relatively low — which would hurt Barak, who is depending on their support for a victory. Later the theory was floated that the Russian immigrants turnout, too, would be low — and that this would hurt Netanyahu. Even later, it turned out that the immigrants were not nearly as overwhelmingly for Netanyahu as perhaps the premier himself had believed. Which prompts the question of which candidate would be hurt if they do indeed register a low second-round turnout? Similarly, regarding fervently Orthodox voters, observers are wondering whether they will turn out in force on June 1 to vote for the avowedly non-religious Netanyahu, however supportive he has been toward the Orthodox parties during his tenure. The leaders of the Orthodox parties will be studying the arithmetic of the Knesset election results with the utmost care after May 17 to discern whether a coalition is likely to shape up without their participation. Shas, the National Religious Party and the United Torah Judaism bloc have all benefitted enormously from their years in government and are loath to contemplate retiring now to the opposition benches. That calculation may feature prominently in their rabbis’ decision on whom to support in the second round, and how vigorously to support him.

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