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Israeli voters apathetic

A poster of Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef peeks out from behind Amram Mitzna's campaign posters in Jerusalem. (Brian Hendler)

A poster of Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef peeks out from behind Amram Mitzna’s campaign posters in Jerusalem. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, Jan. 21 (JTA) — Campaign activity is peaking days before Israel’s Jan. 28 election, but voters still are showing a marked lack of interest. During the February 2001 prime ministerial elections, fights broke out at major intersections between party activists vying for better position to hand out flyers or posting banners. Bumper stickers were slapped on anything with a smooth surface. This year, in contrast, voters seem strangely apathetic. There are the usual advertisements on city buses for the parties and their leaders, Prime Minister Sharon Ariel Sharon of the Likud and Amram Mitzna of Labor. But more conspicuous — and more symbolic — are the Patriot anti-missile batteries set up in plain view in North Tel Aviv and Haifa, among other locations, reflecting the unsettled state of affairs in the region. The public’s slow political pulse is mirrored in the lethargy at the Labor Party’s Hatikva neighborhood headquarters. One consultant close to Labor said that there seems to be none of the usual pre-election electricity this year, with campaign activists and public relations people coming to and from work pretty much when they feel like it. Labor also is engaged in its pre-election backstabbing ritual. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s recent calls for Mitzna to step aside, to let former Prime Minister Shimon Peres run as the head of Labor, came after polls showed that Peres would attract more voters. Labor insiders now hint that the polls may have been commissioned by Peres himself. “Who else would be interested in those polls?” they ask. According to the consultant, Peres’ eternal role as the candidate who has never won an election will not help Labor. And the wilting morale shown by the pre-election putsch attempt mirrors Labor’s projected drop from 26 seats in the current Knesset to 19 in the next one, according to polls. It’s apparent that Labor infighting only repels voters. But “politics is neither rational nor very often about the betterment of the party. Feelings and personal interests seep deep into the party dynamics,” said Asher Cohen, a Bar- Ilan University expert on Israel’s political parties. “The virtual hand-to-hand combat we see in Labor this week will be nothing compared to the all-out war” between the party’s hawkish and dovish elements “when Sharon invites Labor into the government,” Cohen predicted. “Should this in-fighting continue over the next week, they could do themselves some serious damage,” he said. “I would not be too surprised if Shinui,” a centrist, secular party, “overtook Labor as the second largest party.” But Labor is not alone in its strange behavior: Even the Likud’s once-passionate activists and voters seem to be dozing. As Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert tried to rouse grass-roots Likud activists from across the country at a Jan. 16 rally, one man heckled from the audience, “The street is asleep!” A few minutes later, Sharon lumbered to the podium. “If the street is asleep, wake it up!” he thundered. “That’s your job!” Yet the worst may be over for the Likud. After several weeks of scandal, the party has stopped its slide. Recent polls show that Likud seems assured of at lest 33 Knesset seats. That’s fewer than originally expected, but a full 75 percent above its showing in the last Knesset elections in 1999, when Likud won just 19 seats. The turning point may have been Central Election Committee Chairman Mishael Cheshin’s recent decision to black out a news conference Sharon had called to respond to scandal allegations. Cheshin argued that Sharon had veered too much into election propaganda. “I tell you,” said Avigdor, a grass-roots Likud leader from Rosh Pina, that “was the best thing that could have happened to the party.” Since then, he added, holding his paunch as he chuckled, “people have been begging me for something to do” to help the party. “Before, I had to push, beg and bribe.” Either way, Likud is leaving nothing to chance. The party is so concerned about voter apathy that it’s saving “over 30 percent” of its campaign budget for a get-out-the-vote push on Election Day, planning to flood the country with advertisements and bus voters to the polls, Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin told JTA. “We don’t even care who we bus, but just that the voters show up,” he said. Even the indictment Tuesday of three Likud activists, for alleged bribery during the party’s December primaries, won’t really hurt the party, Rivlin predicted. “Like the other allegations, this too shall pass,” he said. “Eventually voters know they are not voting for specific activists but for the party.” Morale was not nearly so high at the normally bustling Shuk Hacarmel market in Tel Aviv, where hail stones clanged off the metal stalls Tuesday. Many of the vendors profess allegiance to Likud, but they’re not enthusiastic about this year’s vote. “Do we have a choice?” said Benni, 48, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. “We go, we vote — and I’m sure that we’ll have to do it again next year.” Vendors and shoppers directed much of their anger at Ben-Eliezer, the former Labor chairman who used a budget crisis to pull the party out of the unity government in early November, forcing early elections. “We need unity right now,” Benni said. “Back in Georgia we would have had his head on a plate for pulling that political stunt of leaving the government.” Nissim, 25, who staffs a vegetable stand a few yards away from Benni, was ready for the polls — although, he said, “none of the candidates is worth the vote. They are all corrupt, just trying to cover their asses while making some money.” Dori Shadmon, president of the Teleseker polling company, said voters aren’t really apathetic. They’re not interested in the campaigns, he admitted, but said he thinks they are interested in the actual voting. “Our polls show that over 80 percent of Israelis say they intend to vote, with another 10 percent sitting on the fence,” he said. The number of committed voters is about average for election periods, he said, but the number of undecided voters — more than 20 percent — is unusual. “What people want more than anything right now is a stable government representing as many parties as possible, which will give them both financial and military security,” said Shadmon, who added that he believes many undecided voters are angry that Labor forced early elections. Shadmon marveled that the corruption allegations in the Likud primaries and a loan scandal involving Sharon and his sons hadn’t caused the party too much damage. “There is also a great amount of anger directed at the media for smashing the people’s idols,” he said. “This is especially true during a time of war, when people feel they must rally round the flag of their leadership.” On top of the campaigns and the scandals, weather is a wild card in the election, Cohen said. Knesset elections haven’t been held in the winter since 1973, when rainstorms sent voter turnout plummeting from the usual 90 percent to about 60 percent, which is low for Israel. “Snow in Jerusalem and the Galilee, hail in Tel Aviv, floods — these things could change everything,” Cohen said.

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