Behind the Headlines: Disgusted by Politics, Israelis Ask Which Candidate is the Lesser Evil

Dror Ben-Roohi watched with disgust as Israel’s political arena sank deeper into turmoil over the past week.

Snap elections sparked by Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s resignation on Sunday, and the subsequent announcement by Benjamin Netanyahu that he, too, would run for the premiership, have done nothing to revive Ben-Roohi’s confidence in Israeli politics.

He has voted for both men before, and now is considering doing something once considered sacrilegious in Israel’s politically driven society.

“I will not vote for Bibi” — a nickname for Netanyahu — “or for Barak,” Ben- Roohi said with a sneer, sitting in his electronics store in downtown Jerusalem.

“I have no trust in either one of them,” he said. “They are completely detached from reality.”

Just one day after Barak formally submitted his resignation and Netanyahu announced his return from political exile, sentiments like Ben-Roohi’s were voiced by Israelis across the political spectrum.

On a gloomy gray day that accurately captured the prevailing mood, Jerusalemites chosen at random used the same words over and over: Disappointment. Despair. Disgust.

The confusion that has settled over many Israelis after 10 weeks of violent conflict with the Palestinians has been compounded by increasing mayhem in Israeli politics.

Israelis’ confidence in their political system has never been terribly high, but recent events appear to have sent it to a new low.

Barak’s decision to resign and call elections within two months will spare the country a prolonged election campaign that neither politicians nor the public really wanted.

Still, his move was widely seen as a political scheme to improve his sagging chances of re-election by heading off a challenge from Netanyahu, whom he defeated in May 1999. Under Israeli law, candidates for prime minister following Barak’s resignation must be current Knesset members, which excludes Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is attempting to have the law changed so he can run.

Since Barak’s resignation, pundits and politicians have endlessly analyzed possible scenarios, alienating a public desperate for anyone who can offer hope of an exit from the conflict with the Palestinians.

Nobody has illusions that new elections are the answer.

“I think children in kindergarten can do a better job running the country,” said Mazal Cohen, a 65-year-old pensioner. “I voted for Bibi. He failed. I voted for Barak. He failed. Perhaps if President Clinton has nothing better to do, he can come and help us.”

The despondency is not limited to Israelis in the political center, many of whom put their faith in Netanyahu in the 1996 elections, then in Barak last year.

Yoram Faran, a 45-year-old camera importer, has been a staunch supporter of Barak and his peace policies.

Because of the regional unrest, however, his sales have plummeted 25 percent in recent weeks.

“Elections are not going to change anything, since nobody knows what to do,” he says. “The time has come for both failures to step aside and allow new people to try to get elected.”

Polls indicate that Netanyahu would trounce Barak in a rematch, but it is still difficult to find right-wingers convinced that the former prime minister is capable of solving Israel’s predicament with the Palestinians.

“Maybe Bibi’s return gives me a little more hope,” said Haim Pony, a chef at the Jerusalem Tower Hotel and a staunch Netanyahu supporter. “But if Clinton doesn’t have a solution, do you think Bibi has one?”

Further to the right, hard-liners do not expect Netanyahu to heed their calls for tougher blows against the Palestinians.

Avni Baruch, a 55-year-old author, said he will support Netanyahu only if he publicly apologizes for negotiating with the Palestinians and ceding most of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority in January 1997.

“Even then, I won’t be voting for him, but against his opponent,” said Baruch, who also supports the far-right National Union Party.

“They are all the same. They are all liars,” he said. “Anybody who says that peace is possible with the Arabs is simply lying.”

Perhaps the only voters who are somewhat content are supporters of Shas, the fervently Orthodox party that attracts predominantly Sephardi voters.

Some Shas supporters worry that if the Knesset calls new parliamentary elections, Shas would decline after winning 17 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in 1999 to become Israel’s third biggest party.

However, Shas voters can rise above the political melee somewhat, as they leave their decisions to spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Yosef — who this week denounced Barak as a “blind fox” after formerly labeling Netanyahu a “blind goat” — is expected to instruct his constituents to vote for Netanyahu if the Knesset paves the way for him to run.

“We are waiting for the rabbi’s official instructions,” said David, a kashrut supervisor who refused to give his last name. “Maybe if Netanyahu is elected, it will be a bit better for religion.”

Aside from Shas supporters, however, few want to discuss religious-secular relations or social issues, the centerpieces of the May 1999 election that brought Barak to power.

Electoral reform is another story.

It seems increasingly unlikely that the Knesset will push through quick legislation to revert to the electoral system used until 1996. As frustrations with politics run high, however, some people feel that the only solution is to fix the system.

Under the previous electoral system, Israelis voted with one ballot for a party list, and the leader of the party with the best chance of forming a government was declared prime minister.

Now, Israelis vote separately for a prime minister and a party list. This allows voters to split their tickets, often choosing a party that in effect prevents the prime minister from wielding power effectively.

“All this does is strengthen the fragmentation of Israeli society,” said Yoram Preminger, a 42-year-old tour guide. “Maybe elections are the only choice now. But politicians are politicians, and we can’t expect them to change. So having elections without changing the system will not help at all.”

All of which leads Pazit Madar, a 23-year-old business student, to what may be the most extreme conclusion.

“I don’t think Bibi can make things better, and Barak may not be brilliant. But in this country you elect the lesser of two evils — which is Barak,” she said. “But the situation is very depressing. I just can’t understand what I’m doing in this country anymore.”

NEXT STORY