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Israelis choose the ‘lesser evil

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JERUSALEM, Feb. 6 (JTA) – For a day, at least, Revital Ovadia represented the average Israeli. A 25-year-old civil servant in the Interior Ministry, Ovadia didn’t like either of the two candidates in Israel’s election for prime minister Tuesday – but ultimately decided that Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon was the lesser of two evils.

“It was a harder decision than usual,” said Ovadia, who has voted Likud in the past but hesitated before casting her vote for Sharon at a polling station in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon. “I don’t really like Sharon because of his record in Lebanon – but I still think he is better than Barak.”

Sharon’s past as the defense minister who led Israel’s controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon, beginning an 18-year military occupation, was hardly the issue at the polling stations.

In an election notable for its ennui despite its potentially fateful consequences for the peace process, incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared to have all but conceded the race to Sharon just hours after the polls opened.

Despite Barak’s outward confidence, his campaign paraphernalia was nowhere to be found in several Jerusalem neighborhoods, ranging from Katamon – a poorer Likud stronghold – to the left-leaning German Colony and Baka along trendy Emek Refaim Street. Sharon’s campaign machine continued to operate, albeit on a low-scale, with posters scattered loosely throughout this traditionally Likud city, and small groups of activists distributing bumper stickers.

The low-key atmosphere during this first Israeli election exclusively for the premiership contrasted sharply with the race that brought Barak to power 19 months ago, when activists slugged it out on the streets down to the very end.

One reason for the lackluster campaign was that little drama remained by election day, after weeks of polls had predicted a landslide victory for Sharon.

Yet the numbers did not mean that voters who dropped Sharon’s name into the ballot box were overly excited about the imminent change in power. Many said they were choosing the less bad of two undesirable candidates. Barak supporters were likewise ambivalent. Yehuda Yaeger considered casting a blank ballot before he ultimately decided to vote for Barak – but not because he particularly liked him. “There is no point putting in a blank ballot, and the candidate I like less than any other is Sharon,” said Yaeger, 56, a doctor voting along Emek Refaim Street. “There is no question that this is the lesser of two evils.”

Many voters were intent on driving Barak from office for failing to deliver on his promises of comprehensive peace, and offering extensive concessions to the Palestinians that were answered with protracted violence.

“I could have supported the Camp David proposals,” said maintenance manager Meir Asor, 40, referring to the U.S.-sponsored summit in July. “But I am not happy with Barak for many reasons. The whole peace process just didn’t work, and now what we need is a strong, decisive leader like Sharon.”

While Barak’s concessions did not bring peace, Asor believes Sharon is capable of delivering peace – even though he has said he will offer the Palestinians far less than they demand.

“Sharon will say to the Palestinians, ‘This is what you get – take it, or leave it and get nothing,'” Asor explained as he entered the Katamon polling station. “I believe that the Palestinians will accept it.”

On Emek Refaim Street, it was somewhat easier to find Barak supporters. But even they were not terribly happy about casting a ballot for the incumbent.

Kay Weinberger, a British-born director of a charitable foundation, was more worried by Israelis’ willingness to vote for Sharon.

“I’m surprised Israelis have such short memories,” she said after voting for Barak. “The fact that a man who was condemned so heavily for his role in the Lebanon war is now headed to be the leader of this country is a sad reflection of people’s political savvy and their collective political memory.”

Barak may have made mistakes, she added, but he has been on the right track.

“He had the courage to go where we have to go in terms of the peace process,” Weinberger said. “He has not succeeded because of the other side, not because of a lack of will, determination or political courage.” Many of those who helped catapult Barak to power 19 months ago find their faith in the possibility of peace with the Palestinians shattered by the last four months of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“I supported peace, and I still support a Palestinian state,” said Efi, 39, a high-tech worker who has never voted for a right-wing party or candidate. “But in order to make peace it requires two parties, and right now I only see one party.”

In the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, the polling station was deserted. In contrast to polling stations in Jewish neighborhoods, there were Barak leaflets and stickers here, but they were mostly scattered on the ground. A group of teenagers gathered them into a pile and set them on fire.

Only a small number of Jerusalem Arabs hold Israeli citizenship. Still, the fact that not a single voter came during one 45-minute period on election day may be a sign of the Arab community’s deep frustration with Israeli leaders from both right and left. In addition, Arab voters had been under great pressure from community leaders to boycott the election, a protest over the police’s killing of 13 Israeli Arabs during violent riots in the Galilee when the Palestinian uprising began last fall.

Meanwhile, Sharon activists were busiest in and around the fervently Orthodox neighborhood of Geula. Cars plastered with Sharon’s photo canvassed the area, loudspeakers calling on voters to heed the rabbis’ call: that they come out en masse to oust the incumbent.

Yet the rabbis offered only a lukewarm endorsement of Sharon, not actually endorsing him by name. This may be a sign that even the Orthodox are less than satisfied with their options.

Yeshiva students like Chaim Green, 21, said they would follow their rabbis’ orders. However, he would cast his ballot for Sharon with a heavy heart, Green said.

“The state of Israel deserves better,” he said. Ultimately, Green believes, Israel will need to accept a painful peace agreement with the Palestinians, along the lines of the accord Barak tried to negotiate.

Had the Labor Party presented Shimon Peres as a candidate, he said, the rabbis might have given him their support. “I’m only happy about voting for Sharon because I want to take down Barak for what he has done to Judaism,” Green said, referring to Barak’s on-again, off-again plans for a “secular revolution.”

Similar sentiments abound, and not just among the fervently Orthodox. During his 19 months in office, Barak managed to anger many different sectors of Israeli society, and on many fronts – for example, by his failure to take any serious action on social issues.

Such frustrations may have further boosted opposition to Barak’s peacemaking policies. Yet at the end of the day, Israelis said, the nail in Barak’s political coffin came from the Palestinians.

“I used to be more toward the center, and supported the Oslo process,” said taxi driver Eliyahu Kalig, 48. “But the last four months have changed me from left to right.”

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