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ISRAELIS DECIDE THE FUTURE Mini-drama plays itself out as Israeli voters hit the polls

JERUSALEM, May 17 (JTA) — Two huge banners appealing to Israelis to back Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s elections flanked both sides of Hashomer Street, reminding voters entering the economically disadvantaged Katamon neighborhood here that they were passing into Likud territory. Katamon residents have traditionally been staunch Likud supporters. Yet outside the voting booths at the Gonen school, a mini-drama was playing out, as activists from across the political spectrum were fighting for every last vote. The scene in this neighborhood on election day Monday was a microcosm of Jerusalem, as voters turned out in droves to elect the country’s next prime minister and Knesset. The area is a Likud stronghold, yet a mosaic of completely different populations: secular and fervently Orthodox, new immigrants and Arabs, all living side by side in perpetual tension. Like never before, last-minute electioneering was focused heavily on domestic issues: religious, ethnic and socioeconomic conflicts. Traditional left-right battles on peace and security were pushed aside. “I have nothing to live off, and Netanyahu, Barak or Shas won’t make a difference,” said Yedidya Avrushmi, sporting a green cap of the left-wing Meretz Party, an unpopular group in this neighborhood. “Meretz convinced me with its campaign for public housing,” he said, adding that he voted for Labor leader Ehud Barak in the one-on-one race for prime minister against the incumbent Netanyahu. While Avrushmi struggled to recruit voters to his party, David Cohen was busy distributing Shas leaflets. Cohen, a 27-year-old Sephardi yeshiva student, said his party helped the needy long before the campaign began five months ago. “The campaign lasts four years for us. The minute the elections are over, we start looking at who we can help by sending them to the right aid agencies or government officials, and providing education for kids and adults,” said Cohen. The recent conviction of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, Cohen said, “has only boosted support for us.” People feel that Sephardi Jews “have been persecuted, and more activists are coming out than ever before.” In the run-up to the election, rabbis from Shas and other fervently Orthodox parties explicitly endorsed Netanyahu as prime minister, realizing their chances of joining a coalition led by Barak would be slim. Yet even with Netanyahu trailing badly in the polls up until election day, nobody was taking any chances. “This area was always left unmanned by Labor in the past, but because Barak is ahead in the polls, there’s a feeling that we have something to lose,” said Benny Hochner, a 53-year-old neurobiologist and activist for One Israel, the coalition created by Barak. “We have to be out here, even if there aren’t too many people to convince,” he said, sitting behind a Barak poster. Eli Ben-Shushan, 37, a Likud activist manning his party’s station, followed the same strategy: “Even though most people here vote Likud, there’s plenty of work for us,” he said. “There are a lot of immigrants and elderly people who don’t quite know how to vote, so we help them out.” Grigory and Clara Rimmel, an elderly immigrant couple from Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, knew how to vote — and they did not need any help. “We voted Barak and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah,” said Clara Rimmel, referring to her votes for prime minister and the Knesset, respectively. “Barak wants peace, and he is more intelligent and trustworthy than Netanyahu. We also think he will be good for the immigrants.” About a mile away, in the Arab village of Beit Safafa, the atmosphere was completely different. Although many people in this village of 8,000 have Israeli identity cards and vote, there was virtually no electioneering in front of the local school except for a lone Barak poster. The poster’s Arabic slogan — “A State for Everyone” — was different than Barak’s Hebrew posters, which spoke about Israel wanting a change. “We think that if Barak wins, the Arabs will have more power in the Knesset, like during Rabin’s tenure,” said Naim Alayan, who voted for Barak for prime minister and the Arab Democratic Party for the Knesset. Barak “will have to address our needs on land, education, job opportunities, equality and the peace process.” Over in the fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Geula, the side streets were piled ankle deep in election pamphlets, even though support for Netanyahu was almost absolute. There was not a Barak poster in sight. Most of the haredim ignored the signs posted by extreme anti-Zionist Orthodox groups, urging devout Jews to boycott the “Zionist” elections. Upon their rabbis’ orders, they turned out in droves to vote for a fervently Orthodox party for Knesset and Netanyahu to lead the country. Just to make sure, a car ploughed through the midday traffic, its loudspeaker blaring: “Jews, vote! All of the left and the Arabs are voting massively! You must come out and vote!” Many of the comments on the street here echoed the campaign poster slogans, warning of the dangers to yeshiva life if a left-wing government comes to power. Yitzhak, an 18-year-old yeshiva student, said he voted for Netanyahu and United Torah Judaism. “All of the left is against us,” he said. “They want to disrupt our way of life, and they do not want this to be a Jewish state.” Many yeshiva students have firm views on the peace process as well. “Bibi is for keeping the Land of Israel intact and keeping Judaism intact,” Aharon, a 21-year-old yeshiva student, said, using Netanyahu’s nick name. “If Barak wins, it’s a victory for Arafat, and it is not too different than when the Nazis came to power.” Such extreme language has become commonplace in Israeli public discourse over the past few years, especially as the religious-secular conflict has emerged as a key issue. Not surprisingly, the battle for pluralism in Israel being waged by Conservative and Reform Jews played a part in the decision of some voters. In the largely liberal neighborhood of Emek Refaim, for example, where the cafes were full and the streets quiet, some voters at the Carmelli school were influenced by the pluralism issue. “On the real practical issues of security, there was not much of a difference between Labor and Likud,” said Jeremy Kraff, 36, a Conservative Jew who immigrated from Chicago three years ago and voted for Barak and Meretz. “But I felt that I could make a difference if I voted for a party that stood for democratic rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression.” Whatever the constellation of the next government, few voters have illusions that unity will prevail anytime soon. As the warring parties fought it out in front of the Gonen school in Katamon, one passerby shook his head in despair. “Nothing,” he said sadly, watching the political bickering around him, “has changed here in 40 years.”