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Inside the mind of the Israeli voter

Tzipi Livni waves after singing "Hatikvah" with other party members at an election meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

Tzipi Livni waves after singing “Hatikvah” with other party members at an election meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 3, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

Supporters of Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv celebrate the Kadima leader's apparent victory in Israeli elections on Feb. 10, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

Supporters of Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv celebrate the Kadima leader’s apparent victory in Israeli elections on Feb. 10, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

COLUMN

JERUSALEM (JTA) — This election was decided by the Israeli gut.

The biggest unknown when Israeli voters went to the polls Tuesday was who would have the edge between Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chief Tzipi Livni, and just how much Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu would grow.

In a campaign marked by sloganeering and attack ads rather than substantive debate about the challenges facing Israel and the differences among the candidates, the question was which way Israelis’ guts would lead them.

Disillusioned with the Palestinians’ ability and/or willingness to make peace and concerned about Iran’s growing strength through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, Israeli voters drifted rightward. The Knesset’s right wing bloc surged, the left-leaning Labor Party lost ground and the centrist Kadima Party held steady.

Despite the surge on the right, many Israeli voters remained wary of Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the flagship right-wing party, Likud, and the front-runner for most of the race. Staunch right wingers were concerned that a Prime Minister Netanyahu would cave in to U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, as he did during his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. Centrists and left-wingers who had drifted rightward in recent years distrust Netanyahu, who has a reputation in Israel as a smooth operator who is capable of putting his own interests ahead of the country’s. Opponents of Livni and Netanyahu tried to exploit this in the campaign, portraying Bibi as untrustable.

It’s not just Netanyahu about whom Israelis expressed reservations. They appeared even less excited by Labor’s Ehud Barak, despite Barak’s evolution from his relatively dovish positions of Camp David in 2000 (when he offered Yasser Arafat almost all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem) to the hawkish defense minister who last week boasted about personally killing Arabs. In Tuesday’s vote, Labor lost more than a quarter of its Knesset representation.

This, along with Israelis’ general disenchantment with elected leaders who have proven inept, corrupt or criminal (see Ehud Olmert, Moshe Katsav, Avraham Hirschson, Haim Ramon, etc.), provided an opening for Livni. She had developed a reputation as a Mrs. Clean, free of political corruption and the political disappointments of Barak and Bibi, both of whom were booted out of office.

But while Livni managed to capitalize on negative public sentiment about her rivals, she failed to generate much positive feeling toward her own candidacy. Her party’s perfomance stayed essentially flat in Tuesday’s race, with a possible gain of a single Knesset seat, according to exit polls. But that was enough to catapult Kadima into the No. 1 spot.

Faced with the choice between Livni and Bibi, the only two who had a real shot at becoming prime minister, the question was whether voters’ gut instincts would push them toward Netanyahu because he seems to better appreciate the Islamic threats facing Israel, or Livni — or someone else — because Bibi can’t be trusted.

In the end, it appeared that the gut vote went to the right — but not enough for Netanyahu to beat Livni. Instead, the right-wing Netanyahu alternative, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Lieberman, drew votes away from the Likud leader.

Lieberman was the other gut factor in this election. With Israelis largely disenchanted by Israeli-Arab peace efforts and dissembling Israeli politicians who too often don’t live up to their word, the straight-talking, right-wing newcomer to the Big Boy’s Club — a club that includes Livni, not to mention Bibi and Barak — has an understandable appeal to Israelis.

Lieberman said things during the campaign that Israelis could easily understand, and which they felt in their gut, too. He was angry that Israeli Arab citizens voiced public support for Hamas. He was angry that the Hamas regime in Gaza was able to survive last month’s military operation and still fire rockets into southern Israel. He was angry that the world appeared to be standing by passively while Iran races to produce a nuclear bomb that will threaten Israel.

Israelis were upset about these things, too.

When Lieberman said these things simply, without equivocation, it resonated with Israelis, which is why he was able to ride a wave of popular support that catapulted his party into the No. 3 position in the Knesset, behind Kadima and Likud. Lieberman was the address for right wingers suspicious of Netanyahu.

Now, with Livni poised to launch her coalition bargaining, the big question is whether Israeli voters delivered enough seats to the right wing bloc to prevent Livni yet again from becoming prime minister.

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