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The mind of the Israeli voter

After spending some time in Israel talking to potential voters, seeing and listening to the prime ministerial candidates firsthand, and watching the campaign play out on Israel’s streets and in its media, there are a few points that are key to understanding this election and whatever happens on Tuesday.

The most significant one is that this election will be decided by the Israeli gut.

The biggest unknowns as voters go to the polls Tuesday is who will have the edge between Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, and just how much Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu will grow.

In a campaign marked by sloganeering and attack ads rather than substantive debate about the challenges facing Israel and the differences between the candidates, the question is which way Israelis’ guts will 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 have drifted rightward.

But many remain wary of Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the flagship right-wing party, Likud, and the front-runner for most of this race. Staunch right wingers worry that Netanyahu will 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 have 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 those of the country. Livni and Netanyahu’s other opponents have tried to exploit this, portraying Bibi as untrustable.

It’s not just Netanyahu about whom Israelis have reservations; they’re even less excited by the prospect of returning Labor’s Ehud Barak to the prime minister’s office, 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.

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.), has provided an opening for Kadima’s leader, Livni. She has developed a reputation as a Mrs. Clean, free both of political corruption and the political disappointments of Barak and Bibi, both of whom were booted out of office.

But while Livni has managed to capitalize on negative public sentiment about her rivals, she has failed to generate much positive feeling toward her own candidacy. Livni’s primary appeal, it seems, is that she is not an ex-prime minister who already has disappointed and been voted out of office. She has disappointed some voters, however. After calling on Olmert to resign following the failures of the 2006 Lebanon war with Hezbollah, Livni stayed on in Olmert’s government — a move many Israelis saw as hypocritical. She failed to make much of a splash as foreign minister these last two years (it doesn’t help that her English is heavily accented and a bit halting), and she failed to put together a coalition government when she had the opportunity last fall after she won the race to lead Kadima following Olmert’s resignation.

Faced with the choice between Livni and Bibi — the only two who seem to have a real shot at becoming prime minister — the question is whether voters’ gut instincts will push them toward Netanyahu because he seems to best appreciate the Islamic threats facing Israel, or whether they’ll go for Livni because Bibi can’t be trusted.

With record numbers of Israelis undecided on the eve of Tuesday’s vote (it doesn’t help that there are 34 political parties to choose from), it seems Israelis are more certain about who they want to vote against, than whom to vote for.

There’s one more gut factor in this election: Avigdor Lieberman. With Israelis largely disenchanted from Israeli-Arab peace efforts and dissembling Israeli politicians who too often have not lived up to their word, this straight-talking, right-wing newcomer to the Big Boy’s Club (I include Livni in that characterization, along with Bibi and Barak) has an understandable appeal to Israeli voters.

Lieberman says things Israelis can easily understand, and which they feel in their gut, too. Lieberman is angry that Israeli Arab citizens voice public support for Hamas. Lieberman is angry that the Hamas regime in Gaza was able to survive last month’s IDF operation and still fires rockets onto southern Israel. Lieberman is angry that the world appears to be standing by passively while Iran races to produce a nuclear bomb that will threaten Israel. And Israelis are upset about these things, too.

When Lieberman says these things simply, without equivocation, it resonates with Israelis, which is why he is riding a wave of popular support that may catapult his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, into the No. 3 position in the Knesset, behind Kadima and Likud.

Unfortunately for Israel, the Israeli-Arab conflict is not simple, and Lieberman’s straight talk masks a complex reality that requires complex and sometimes difficult solutions.

During this campaign, I met very few Israelis who were enthusiastic about their candidate of choice. Many were far from certain about whom to vote for and some weren’t sure if they’d vote at all.

Israel has had some bitter pills to swallow these last few years. The new prime minister, many Israelis fear, may constitute yet one more of them.

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